Quick question…what’s in your news feed? Maybe you use Google News, maybe you use Flipboard. Maybe you still have a landing page in your browser that has news feeds in it. But what news feeds are they?
I’m not asking if you’re Liberal or Conservative. And I’m not going to get into which news feeds cater to Liberals or which ones cater to Conservatives. What I want to know is, do any of those news feeds disagree with your stance on politics? I’m betting the answer to that question is, “No”.
The age of personalization
This is a wonderful time we’re living in. Think about it. You can buy fresh fruit from the other side of the globe. You can order doodads and thing-a-ma-bobs from all over the planet and have them delivered to your door in just a couple of days. You can stream music or TV or movies to your phone pretty much anywhere you go. You can subscribe to blogs, podcasts and websites for any interest you may have. And you can have a personalized newspaper available to you every minute of every day.
Every bit of it can be customized to your specific tastes. Want to listen to nothing but pre-White Album Beatles? No problem. Want to see the latest episode of your favorite sitcom? Just stream it. Want to read up on all the latest trends in hair care, craft brewing, microbiology or whatever your particular interest is? There’s a blog or website or podcast out there just for you. Want to read the news without all that annoying stuff from the other party that you just don’t want to wade through? A custom news feed is just a click away. But that custom news feed may be a problem.
You are what you read
When I was a kid, every night at 6:00 my Dad would tune the TV to the CBS Evening News. Walter Cronkite would be there to tell us what was happening in the world. Maybe other families watched David Brinkley…or maybe just their local news. There weren’t as many choices back then so you could be pretty sure that anybody watching the Evening News was watching either CBS, ABC, NBC or the local channel. And maybe you liked it, maybe you didn’t…but you trusted that it was the truth.
I’m not saying that the news was completely unbiased. One network might lean a little more toward the Democratic side of things while their competition might tend to be more Republican oriented. But regardless, the news was reported in a reasonably unbiased manner. If you watched Cronkite and you were talking about the news the next day to a co-worker who watched Brinkley, you’d have both heard pretty much the same news, reported in very similar fashion.
If Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley both looked at the same dog, both would report on the dog. One might comment more on how big the dog was while the other might focus more on the length and color of it’s coat but there’d be no doubt that they were reporting on the same dog. Your water cooler conversation may be about the relative merits of Black Labradors vs Beagles (Black Labs win that one, BTW) but regardless, you’d be talking about dogs because dogs were what every network was reporting on.
Compare that with today where, if MSNBC and Fox both looked at the same dog, MSNBC would tell you about a fish and Fox would tell you about a bird. If you’re more a fish person, you’re going to be all-in on MSNBC. But if you’re think that fish drool and birds rule, Fox is where you’re going to go for your news fix. The only problem with that is that we complete lose track of the fact that we’re actually talking about dogs.
You read what you are
Today we have news sources that is decidedly biased one way or the other. We also have technology that makes it insanely easy to tailor a news feed that caters to our individual biases and opinions. On the face of it, it sounds like a fine idea. I can read/watch/listen to news that is oriented to my interests. If my interest is business news, I can see that without having to wade through sports news or personal interest stories. Great! Fantastic!
But what happens when we check political news? Suddenly, you’re not seeing only political news without having to wade through business news or sports. You’re seeing only political news that conforms with your own biases and beliefs without having to wade through different opinions. If you’re a Liberal, the majority of the news stories you’ll see in your personalized feed will be Liberal stories from Liberal sources. By the same token, if you’re a Conservative, the majority of the news stories you’ll see in your personalized feed will be Conservative stories from Conservative sources.
OK, so what’s wrong with that?
Again, on the face of it, it sounds fine. “I don’t have to listen to those idiots over there. They’re wrong anyway so why waste my valuable time on them? I’ve got better things to do besides listening to their sheep-like bleating.”
Except that listening to nothing but what you already think closes your mind to everything else. If you never see or hear a different opinion you’ll never have a new idea. You’ll be doomed to live the same political day over and over and over again without any hope of it ending. It’s Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day but without the learning and growing and, most importantly, without the redemption in the end. Nobody gets the girl. Nobody lives happily ever after. Everybody just wakes up tomorrow and it’s exactly like today. Forever.
When I was a kid, politicians were Democrats or Republicans but they thought more for themselves. They at least made a pretense of supporting their constituency. They would ‘cross the aisle’ and vote for a bill from the other party because the bill was good or necessary. They didn’t do it all the time but it happened often enough that it wasn’t worth more than a casual mention on the news, if that.
These days, Democrats and Republicans are scared to do anything not officially blessed by their Party. Crossing the aisle is a major thing and could cost you re-election. With everyone only seeing their own opinions and never seeing anything else, we’ve become an Us vs. Them country. If you agree with me, you’re on the side of the angels. If you don’t agree with me, you’re more evil that Satan.
And it’s getting worse every day. The news sources for all those personalized feeds have to keep one-upping every story. And the networks with their polarizing spins do the same thing. If they don’t, they lose readers or viewers. A story that was a 5 alarm fire last month wouldn’t be worth mentioning this month because “HAVE YOU SEEN THE LATEST THING THAT THOSE EVIL BASTARDS OVER THERE HAVE DONE TODAY?!?!?!?”
So what’s the solution?
Frankly, I doubt that there is one single solution. But, in the interest of proposing solutions to problems and not just complaining about them, I’ll lay out three options: what I want to see happen, what I hope happens and what I do myself.
What I want to see happen is for News reporting to go back to a time when reporters only reported the news. They didn’t try to make it. They didn’t spin every sentence to try to make it sound like their side was nothing but Good Guys and the other side was nothing but Bad Guys. I’d like them to report the news without actively, blatantly, aggressively having a side. I’d like to see more factual reporting and less opinion. I don’t see this happening anytime soon. Maybe one day that pendulum will swing back the other way but I’m not going to hold my breathe.
What I hope happens has nothing to do with the news sources and has everything to do with computer programmers. Let me explain. You have a personalized news feed because of computer programmers. They wrote programs that looked at what news sources you read most often, how long you spend reading their content, how quickly you click away from other content, etc. Then they took that information and gave you a news feed based on where you clicked the most and what news you spent the most time on. It’s pretty much the same thing that Spotify does with your music feed and Netflix does with your movies.
But when it comes to politics, I’d like the programmers to program in some equal time. For every three Conservative stories in your feed, they throw in a Liberal one. And vice-versa, or course. This won’t do anything for the Luddites who don’t get on the Internet and only watch whichever TV news channel feeds their biases. It would however, make sure that just about anyone under the age of 40 would be exposed to ideas different from their own. Maybe if that happened, the next generation would be more open and accepting … assuming we survive that long.
What I do myself – or try to do at any rate – is look at a bunch of different news sources of all stripes from HuffPost to Fox. I listen to Liberal and Conservative pundits ( sorry, I’m having a hard time calling them “Reporters” ). I read foreign press including the BBC and Al Jazeera. Then I think about what I’ve read and heard. I talk to other people about it – specifically including people who vote differently than me. I do some research and try to double-check the alleged facts that have been “reported”. And finally, I try to make up my own mind.
I don’t do all that so I can say that I’m better than anyone else. I do it so that I know what I think is as close to the truth as I can find. I do it so that I am forced to consider opinions and idea that are sometimes wildly different from what I might normally consider. I do it so that my ideas and opinions are truly my own and not just what some talking head told me to believe. Because if I don’t question my ideas…if I don’t hold my opinions up for comparison to differing opinions, how can I know whether any of them are worth a damn?
I’ll ask again…what’s in your news feed? Are you reading and listening to news that challenges your opinions and that forces you to consider other ideas besides your own? Or are you only reading and listening to news that feeds your own biases? Are you trying to save America? Or are you trying to kill it?