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What We Learned About Editors vs. Algorithms from 4,000 Stories in Apple News

Over one hundred million people use Apple News every month. Our study showed key differences in the stories that editors and algorithms curate for those people.

By Jack Bandy , written on June 16, 2020

From The Apple Desk

If you check Apple News on June 4th, you'd find a “Spotlight” about the U.S. protests that features rights for protestors, educational resources, mental health resources for BIPOC, and a list of organizations where you can donate to support racial justice:

In case it is not obvious, these stories are curated by a team of human editors at Apple News, and not an algorithm. They show further evidence of the value of human curation, in a time when news is especially important. This was the topic of my recently-published research study, which I will summarize in this blog post.

Background

So what is Apple News showing to these millions of people every day?

Is it showing a diverse set of sources, as it claims, or do most stories come from just a few select places? And what are the stories about? Last year, we tried to address these questions by collecting stories from Apple News for two months. I wrote a program that saved stories from the app every five minutes — here is what it looked like running on February 27th of this year:

1. Human Editors Chose Sources More Evenly

2. Human Editors Chose More Diverse Sources

Common sources in Apple News. More than half of the algorithmic Trending Stories were from CNN, Fox, People, or BuzzFeed. Local and regional sources are uncommon in both sections.

3. Human Editors Chose Less “Soft News”

Common phrases in headlines that appeared in Apple News. Editors chose stories about public health, national politics, and international events, while the algorithm chose many stories about celebrities and other soft news.

Takeaways

Our results highlight the trade-offs between human curation and algorithmic curation. While our study only looked at one platform, it shows that human editors were “much more subtly following the news cycle and what’s important,” as Lauren Kern (editor in chief at Apple News) put it.