Apple News algorithm is way more celebrity-obsessed than Apple’s human editors

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Apple News
Apple News is used by 85 million users every month.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Stories picked by Apple News’ human editors are far more likely to represent a diverse range of outlets — and be more serious and less focused on celebrities and entertainment — than its algorithmically curated alternative, researchers claim.

Jack Bandy and Nicholas Diakopoulos from Northwestern University analyzed thousands of Apple’s “Top Stories” and “Trending” articles over a 10-month period. They discovered that the latter, which are determined algorithmically, show stories from significantly fewer outlets, predominantly CNN or Fox News. Articles from BuzzFeed and People also figured heavily in the mix — with an emphasis on light news.

The researchers used machine learning tools to extract the main key phrases from people mentioned in stories on both lists. Topics in algorithmically curated Trending stories featured far more celebrities such as Kate Middleton, Justin Bieber, Stephen Colbert and Kim Kardashian, along with a smattering of big-name politicians like Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The algorithm also “tended to feature more news that might be considered surprising, shocking, or sensational, with frequent terms such as ‘found dead’ and ‘Florida man’.”

While there was some overlap (Trump unsurprisingly appeared in both the algorithmic and human-curated lists), the Top Stories tab tended to feature serious news stories based on issues like health care, immigration and international politics. Many of these terms — like “sanctuary city” and “Brexit deal” — never appeared in the Trending articles.

Apple News algorithm: The difference between bots and human editors

The study is available to read online. It showcases just how different the trending stories picked by algorithms are from ones selected by human editors.

Apple currently employs both means of selecting stories. This makes Apple somewhat unique among news aggregators. As with Apple Music, Cupertino is one of the few tech giants that highlights the importance of human curation over algorithms for deciding what people see.

“With more than 85 million monthly active users, Apple News now has a significant (and growing) influence on news consumption,” the authors write. It will be interesting to see if, in the wake of this research, Apple leans more heavily into one approach than the other.

Do you find Apple News a good discovery service when it comes to things you want to read? Do you find Top Stories more useful than Trending, or vice versa? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.