7 August, 2018 / By, Slate
Voice assistants may be revolutionizing access to news, but they’re not exactly revolutionizing variety.
If the 2016 election made one thing clear, it’s that people in this country are getting their news from very different sources. But with the growing popularity of smart speaker-delivered morning briefings, this may be about to change. As digital assistants becomes the go-to news source for more and more people, so too does NPR. And while there’s nothing wrong with millennials rediscovering public radio, some are raising the alarm about media diet conformity.
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based NGO that promotes freedom of information, has voiced concerns about voice assistants, suggesting they present a “threat to pluralist news and information.” With the tech companies behind smart speakers determining default news sources (or even just default sources for general queries), diversity is at risk. “The development of voice assistants raises the question of guarantees for pluralism in news and information,” said Elodie Vialle, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ journalism and technology desk. “By personalizing the distribution of news without leaving room for serendipity and diversity in what is made available, voice assistants are liable to reinforce the opaque and often pay-based methods of media content distribution that exist already.”
Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri all respond to some variety of the question “what’s the latest news?” by playing or reading a lineup of tailor-made bulletins, usually about 90 seconds long, from various media outlets. (From May 2016 to June 2018, Slate offered its own: “90 Seconds with Slate,” later known as “Today from Slate.” Steve Lickteig, executive producer of Slate Podcasts, said it was performing well on Amazon Echo but proved to be too much of a lift for the small podcasting team with their many other projects.) The number of these on offer continues to rise, although it’s not clear if they are rising in quality, or variety—a recent article from GeekWire determined that 1 in 5 Alexa Flash Briefing options are localized dispatches from Patch, while some of the newest Alexa Skills include “Zoo Animal of the Day” from Visit the Zoo and “Back Row Devotions” by Back Row Baptist. Both Google and Amazon allow users to go into their settings and nominate the outlets they wish to hear from in their news briefings, as well as the order in which they wish to hear from them, while HomePod owners who ask for the news are offered a choice of audio briefs, at first. But if users don’t tailor their selections, Amazon, Apple, or Google will make that choice for them. And it will probably be NPR.
NPR News Now is the self-described “default news experience” for Google Home and Apple HomePod, and was the default provider for Amazon Echo when it launched in 2014—the first news users would hear if they didn’t bother to select their preferred provider in settings. (It could be worse: One redditor reported being served some unwanted Fox News when they asked Siri to play the news.) It doesn’t appear any formal deal took place between NPR and any of these tech companies. Forbes quoted the CEO of NPR’s commercial arm as saying that it was “conversations with Amazon that led us to millions of homes around the country.” In a recent email, an Amazon spokesperson said, “When we first launched Echo we had a partnership with NPR, which made it the default news provider. Since then, we’ve added the capability to customize your default news service by voice during set up.” Google, meanwhile, said that “we work closely with NPR but have no formal partnership,” adding that “NPR has appeared at the top because it is an authoritative audio news source which provides regular audio updates that work well on Assistant devices.” Apple makes an editorial choice in setting the default, and it is currently NPR.
It’s hard to fault the idea of people depending on reliable, mainstream news sources like NPR, especially in this moment of fake news and QAnon. But a well-functioning democracy, not to mention a healthy media landscape, relies on a plurality of news providers with an appropriate variety of viewpoints on offer. While there are plenty of viewpoints on offer through Amazon, Apple, and Google’s smart speakers, the fact that they have a favored news source—and that those who don’t tailor their selection will probably hear it—should concern us in the same way that having a government with a favored news source should (and does!). If users do log in to their Alexa settings to personalize their briefing, they will see suggestions for major outlets such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal, or the Associated Press—Apple’s HomePod will offer the choice of NPR (default), Fox News, CNN, or the Washington Post a few times, until it establishes a preference. But even with tailored morning briefings, users may be limiting their media diets: They will hear from the same news sources every morning, with headlines aurally delivered to them, leaving no chance that they might stumble across an interesting article from elsewhere—no room for the “serendipity” Vialle describes.
Meanwhile, having Siri or Alexa or Google Assistant read the news in their default white voices may also exacerbate another diversity problem: the lack of diversity in newsreaders. For some of these news bulletins, a digital assistant will simply read out an outlet’s morning briefing in its familiar tone, potentially causing people to become even more accustomed to hearing their news from a white-sounding voice. In “Vocal Color in Public Radio,” African-American professor Chenjerai Kumanyika wrote that he kept imagining someone else’s voice—a white voice—reading a piece he was producing, so deeply ingrained were these “culturally dominant “white” styles of speech.” Efforts are underway to counteract this #pubradiovoice default, but hearing the headlines in the same voice day after day would seem to reinforce the status quo—Siri is a white woman, after all (though Siri can also be a white British man). Google recently introduced six new voices that may help, with John Legend’s black American voice among them.
For now, news updates are still far from the most common usage for America’s 43+ million smart speaker owners, trailing far behind playing music and checking the weather. But news seems to be on the rise. According to a spring 2018 Smart Audio Report from Edison Research and—who else?—NPR, 72 percent of people who have had a smart speaker for one year or less have used it to access news. That’s displacing other platforms in their users’ media diets, with 45 percent saying their speaker is replacing time they used to spend with traditional radio, 36 percent with computers, and 32 percent with printed publications. So not only are people being served the same default news: They are getting even less news from elsewhere.
When asked what they are doing to promote media diversity, a Google spokesperson pointed to their new Speakable feature—”for eligible publishers to mark up sections of a news article that are most relevant to be read aloud by the Google Assistant”—which she said would help publishers get their print stories on the platform. But it’s still not clear how Google will decide which outlets a listener ought to hear from. The spokesperson said every locale has five news briefings enabled by default, but did not elaborate on how they were chosen. Apple calls its NPR default an editorial choice, subject to change—and users are of course free to set or update their own NPR/Fox/CNN/Washington Post preferences at any time.
An Amazon spokesperson said they no longer choose a default news provider for Echo customers:
When a customer unboxes a device for the first time, we ask them to set their favorite provider via voice the first time they ask for news and set that provider as their default. For example, a customer can say “Alexa, play news” and she will respond with “What’s your favorite news provider? You can say something like CNN, FOX, NPR or Reuters.”
It seems Reporters Without Borders’ legitimate concerns are being addressed, though for now getting the news through digital assistants still involves a lot of default NPR. That said, in a country in which a news network founded by a Republican propagandist has been the most-watched cable news channel for 16 years straight, maybe a bit of default NPR isn’t such a bad thing.