Political Polarization & Media Habits | Pew Research Center's Journalism Project

The Pew Research Center is responsible for some of the most fascinating and well-conducted research about America and Americans today. In this study, they looked at the relationships between political learnings (conservative vs liberal) and media. It is packed with fascinating details: a lot of the media have picked up on the rather limited range of news channels consumed by those with strong conservative leanings, the polarized trust of many news outlets, and so on. This is not surprising because anything that makes claims about you or your competitors will likely excite interest. But what most fascinates me is the way that social media (Facebook in particular, the generality and ubiquity of which tends to make it a more popular source for news than most other social media, at least in general) contribute to the polarizing effect. Notably, Conservatives tend to see fewer dissenting voices among their feeds. This is not surprising because, though self-reportedly more likely to come across dissenting views,  liberals show a greater tendency to defriend people who express conservative views. The self-organizing network effect caused by this double whammy makes for some dangerous filter bubbles, especially if the main alternative sources of news for American conservatives then appear to be Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

The trust spectrum is interesting, especially at the extremes. Buzzfeed is trusted by no one, while the Wall Street Journal is trusted by all four of its remaining subscribers. I’d say that it is mighty useful to have a news source that you absolutely do not trust: there’s nothing better to hone your critical faculties. It is most dangerous to trust any media source because it dulls sensibility to stuff and nonsense. At least when you expect limited reliability you are aware of alternative perspectives and the possibility that you are hearing lies, filtered truths and biases.

One of the benefits of old fashioned newspapers, even those with notable biases, is that serendipity always played a role when reading them. Now, with the best of intentions, we get more of the news we explicitly want. When we visit pages, we tend to get recommendations for more of the same (the Landing is ‘guilty’ of this too – we offer recommended content that may be similar whenever you view a page). This is great if you are a learner investigating a topic, not so great if you are hoping to get a well-rounded view of the world. I’m pleased that some people are taking heed of these problems and, rather than reinforcing filter bubbles, they are deliberately bursting them. The Random App (Apple only, sadly) is a good example of a concerted approach to this, mixing random stuff with things that we explicitly express an interest in. We need more of this. It is possible to restore a bit of sane diversity manually: for instance, I get a lot of my news via Pulse, which I have configured with well over 100 feeds, some of which are chosen because they match my interests and leanings, but a lot of which are chosen precisely because they don’t. Crowds are brilliant to learn from if and only if they are sufficiently diverse. 


Address of the bookmark: http://www.journalism.org/2014/10/21/political-polarization-media-habits/

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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