Sociologist talks about the downside of choosing your own news
It’s in no sense odd to find American academe wrangling over journalism. Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review and Clay Shirky of New York University have recently been hammering away at each other, seeking to determine whether investigative journalism can only be conducted by highly resourced news machines (like the Guardian’s) or by a more individual, digital-first approach (like… um… the Guardian’s). But what’s sociology got to contribute here?
Plenty, Klinenberg says, outlining the fundamental bargain that underpins newspaper life. You, the reader, want crosswords and cartoons, recipes and TV programme guides. You want all the stuff that journalists serve up with a sigh (because, well, it’s not exactly journalism, is it?). And, in return, as part of the deal, journalism is allowed to have a civic purpose – to report and analyse the workings and frailties of democracy – beyond quick ways to whip up a cottage pie.
That bargain, sealed in print, means you can’t have one without the other. Put your cash on the newsagent’s counter and you get some things you desire and other things, from Cardiff or Chad, that you didn’t know had happened until you turned to page five.
Of course, like any other neat thesis, there are readers and editors who don’t quite fit. But the nature of print – flipping from column to column, noticing stories that intrigue you, naturally expanding your spheres of interest – isn’t “versioning” at all – it’s more eclectic. An iPad or Kindle version works within narrower bounds. A Facebook version is even more selective, tailored to your most immediate demands. And the logical version at the end of this line is utterly simple: no deals, no bargains – just what you want, electronically provided on the basis of past predilection.
This is part of a larger question about the consequences of people only being exposed to certain points of view. Only selecting news that we want to read can be self-reinforcing as then we only seek out certain kinds of stories, limiting our view of the world.
I wonder, though, about blaming this issue on the medium. How much does having a newspaper in hand really increase the odds that someone will read something that didn’t plan to? Can’t people simply pick out parts of the newspaper that they want to read as well? Further, was there ever really a “golden age” where average citizens always tried to engage with alternative points of view? I would guess not though that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile ideal. We need citizens (and journalists) who can understand our complex world which transcends simply “left” or “right” understandings. Perhaps the Internet makes this easier in some ways but I would guess the Internet could be changed to meet these challenges or people’s behaviors could be altered.
This reminds of an argument I was reading last night. People could argue, rightly, that all media viewpoints are biased in some way. However, this doesn’t mean that we can just throw out all news sources and say they don’t have something of value. What should be consistent across different sources are facts and then there can be disagreement about the interpretation of these facts. Of course, what is considered “fact” may be up for grabs as well – see the recent debate over Politifact’s “Lie of the Year.”