The fact that we’re inundated with information consistently needs no explanation, and is not something that has recently evolved. Information has been thrown at me my entire life, through print, radio, TV and now the Internet. However, before the Internet, the way that information hit me was a little different. News through TV programs and articles was less dependent upon what source I picked, and more dependent upon the general happenings of the day. There were a limited amount of sources and they all were trying to accomplish one goal: inform the viewers of the news. As a consequence, news was roughly the same. By this I mean that news programs had to compete with each other through a similar set of values. They had to have tough reporters who were looking to grab the most breaking news. They had to provide consistently balanced content that strove to be objective and honest. They were all measured by a core set of principles that were a necessity to exist within the domain.
Not all sources were equal though. For instance, CNN was able to grab a significant audience through their excellent reporting of the Gulf War. NYTimes, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and like newspapers were able to use their vast resources to keep tabs on the local, state and federal government as well as international reporting. All sources though, more or less, adhered to the journalistic integrity that was slowly established within the industry. I believe that this was because of two factors: the limited amount of sources you could get your information from and the difficultly involved in switching sources. While people could pick and choose what they read, heard, and watched, specializing in a specific slant was hard to do. And even when you switched from watching CNN to watching ABCNews, there was not much difference, because news shows didn’t have to be. There was no medium that was faster than TV.
Then the Internet came. The Internet is great for all sorts of reasons, but one of the greatest advantages of the Internet is the ability to obtain information in the easiest means possible. Today, the amount of information on the Internet, whether it is true or false, is almost limitless. If you want to find information to validate any claim that you make, chances are you can find it. And people like that! People like hearing what they want to hear. I know I do. So people started to find only those sources that made them smarter. From news sites, to blogs, to Facebook, and now to Twitter, people generally look at what interests them and abstain from what doesn’t. In fact economists Jesse Shapiro and Matthew Gentzkow of the University of Chicago conjectured in their paper “What Drives Media Slant? Evidence From U.S. Daily Newspapers” that it wasn’t the newspapers that determined the slant of the readers, but rather the readers who drove the slant of newspapers. From the NYTimes article about the paper:
As Dr. Shapiro put it in an interview, “The data suggest that newspapers are targeting their political slant to their customers’ demand and choosing the amount of slant that will maximize their sales.”
This choosiness though, has had a certain effect on news on the whole. Because the Internet allows people to quickly pick very focused sources of information, other mediums had to come up with methods to compete. Accordingly, TV and newspapers seem to be becoming more and more polarized. An obvious example is Fox News vs. NBC News. Both used to be closer towards the objectivity, but have realized that as readers become choosier — because they have more opportunities to be choosy on the Internet — the programs must also morph to fit the demand of the viewer.
I believe that more and more people are moving away from objective journalism, because objective news is no longer the substantive source of what people want to hear. Before the Internet people did not have the fuel of niche blogs or programs to justify all their convictions, but rather, they only had their own intuition of how things should be that was then tested in newspapers, on TV and in the radio. Sometimes your convictions aligned itself with the source and sometimes it didn’t, but this was the case for most sources. Thus, people didn’t value a source on how much they agreed with it, but rather they valued the source on integrity, consistency and ability to report. Now though, it is very different. For the majority of people, the less that a source disagrees with your own beliefs; the more likely you are to revisit that source. And, as evidenced by Dr. Shapiro and Dr. Gentzkow’s study, the sources realize this.
This is a bad direction for media in America. We want Americans to have a multiplicity of views, not to be narrow-minded. How is this possible though, when we only read the consenting perspectives?
Thanks goes out to Allan for edits.