On Writing

Taking control of who gets to send us news

Google is adept at throwing up news we don’t need in our searches. So it’s time to fight back.

Recently, I was in hasty need of multiple sources on a breaking news story, so I went to a well-known news aggregation website.

But before I had even typed in my search terms, it was apparent that my options had been narrowed. The news list that the aggregator threw up was dominated by websites whose idea of what constitutes news is very different to my own.

These kinds of news sites tend to fall into two categories. There are those that impose a lot of political spin on their news, and those that prioritise a personalised, celebrity-oriented approach.

Staring at a screen full of both, I suspected foul play. Had my least favourite news sites outplayed their opposition? Was I doomed to a future in which the much-vaunted contemporary palace of choice had become a prison governed by nefarious gatekeepers?

A cursory search for news about corporate media manoeuvres that might explain the search results yielded nothing. The cause must be something subtle, and perhaps less devious, I concluded, something embedded in the algorithms used by the aggregator to replace editors.

News doesn’t just report on our world. It shapes it, and it shapes us. So the media choices we make matter. Instagram over Twitter, or The Conversation over The Daily Mail - all determine the horizon and characteristics of the known. Like it or not, we need to take control over who gets to send us news.

For digital natives, with their proclivity for tailoring their social media news feeds, this is a no-brainer. When I asked my students recently to find stories on a range of topics, most of their sources were stories on Yahoo7 and News Corporation mastheads delivered via Facebook. This stuck me as odd. Why would 18-year old undergrads with strong views on the need for action against climate change be reading The Australian?

The answer is that as far as they are concerned they’re not reading The Australian. They’re reading Facebook. Yet much of their “news” reflects the attitudes of an aged generation that likes coal mines. Go figure.

This got me thinking. What would I see if I were to block a range of news sites? How different would the world look? What happens if you tell, say, Google News, not to send you any stories from News Corporation websites? Here’s how you can try it for yourself.

To begin with, you can’t set your preferences unless you sign up for a Google Account. It’s easy and free, but be aware it allows them to harvest a great deal of data about your browsing habits. Once you’re in, click on Google News and you will see, in the top left corner of the screen, three parallel lines, stacked vertically.

Clicking on those brings up a menu of choices. The bottom option (real choice is always the last option for these guys) is called “Manage Sections”.

Clicking on “Manage Sections” takes you to yet another menu. Again, it’s the lowest and last option, “Sources”.

By this stage, you may feel like you are trapped in a Poirot detective hunt, but stick with it. Clicking on “Sources” gets you to the real choice action via two options – “Preferred” or “Block”.

Editing out the infotainment

I started with news.com.au and found I was still getting a lot of content from other publications in the News Corporation stable. Not only that, but I was also still getting lots of unwanted infotainment from 9News and Yahoo7.

One by one, I began blocking offending mastheads, then refreshing the browser to check the progress of my censorship. It takes a while because news websites use multiple addresses to maximise reader access. So with News Corporation, for example, I had to eliminate all their Australian regional mastheads, which provide backdoor access to stories that are often hidden behind the pay walls of their larger publications.

There’s no perfect solution. News Corporation’s Mackay Daily Mercury tried to hide inside a drop down menu called “Other sources”, and try as I might, I could not block another News Corporatiom regional, The Sunshine Coast Daily, which badly needed me to know that Elise was the new favourite to win Matty’s heart on The Bachelor.

I would love to report that ten minutes of effort produced a remarkable change in the news of my world. But it takes more than that to curate news feeds until they perfectly match your worldview.

“News cleansing” made no difference to the top three stories that day which appeared in exactly the same order as before I tweaked my feeds. A collision between a car and cyclists in Brisbane topped both lists, the William Tyrrell missing boy story came second in both, and a story about Australian attitudes to banning the burka came in third in both. The only difference was who reported them. In the case of the burka story, The Australian’s account of it was replaced by a similar story from The New Daily.

The same outcome would most likely arise if instead of eliminating News Corporation websites, you eliminated Fairfax and the ABC.

Another way of curating your news feeds would be to list news and commentary sources you prefer, say for example, The Conversation. However, Google News resists all efforts to enter any major Australian news site in its “Preferred” sources box. Memo to Mountain Parkway, California: this needs to change.

There are, of course, many reasons why we should NOT try to censor out views that challenge our own. I still need, at short notice, to access multiple different perspectives on news stories.

But to do that, I just have to sign out of my Google account and hit refresh. Then I get whatever their algorithms think I need to know.

Controlling your news feeds is not necessarily about narrowing your exposure to diverse perspectives. Practised sensibly, it should be about choosing quality news you can trust over frivolous, unreliable and heavily biased alternatives.

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