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Apple News criticized after study shows vast majority of curated articles come from just a handful of sources

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For all the talk about various kinds of diversity Big Tech often likes to get behind, there’s not much evidence of it when it comes to the news sources Apple likes to promote on Apple News.

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) writes that Apple is making sure its influential news aggregator with some 85 million users serves big publishers and national outlets first, by promoting their stories even when they’re derived from original, local sources, and ignoring those original sources.

Even backlinks don’t show in Apple News – unless they follow the company’s “the proprietary format.” The CJR said that the Tow Center for Digital Journalism last year carried out a 62-day study of the aggregator’s Top Stories section – that takes center stage in the app and is curated by humans. They also looked into a section that attracts the most attention after Top Stories – the one sorted by an algorithm and called Trending Stories.

What they found is that Apple gives clear preference to big names, and not even very many of those. In the human-edited Top Stories section, ten news outlets (The Washington Post and CNN foremost among them) accounted for 55.7 percent of all articles on Top Stories, while in the Trending section ten outlets (led by CNN, Fox News, and People) accounted for 74.8 percent of articles.

At the same time, the section where articles are handpicked by humans steers clear of Fox News as a source – even though the outlet does well on the algorithm-based list, the report observed.

These sources are picked by Apple’s editorial team who cherry pick stories to show in the Top Stories section.
These sources are picked by algorithm and popularity of Apple News readers.

At the same time, Top Stories tries to focus on “more substantive political issues” such as health care, immigration, and international news – whereas Trending Stories are dominated by articles about celebrities and Donald Trump.

“Both sections roughly follow the Pareto principle, where the top 20 percent of sources account for about 80 percent of articles,” discovered the study, that looked into nearly 4,500 articles in total.

Apple is known for having a preference for all kinds of walled gardens and echo chambers, and it’s not surprising that it went down this latter path when designing Apple News: it aims to surface content and sources that the user has already shown an interest in. This is referred to as “personalized suggestions.”

Another way in which Apple does its “curation” is editorial – but the CJR report notes that it’s difficult to understand which of the methods is used sections other than the two most prominent ones.

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