Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Does News Polarization Lead to Truthiness?

Blogger Alex asks if a polarized news environment may lead to what some call truthiness? Very provocative. (Accoding to Wikipedia, truthiness is a word that U.S. television comedian Stephen Colbert popularized in 2005 as a satirical term to describe things that a person claims to know intuitively or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.[1])

I think truthiness is a very real risk. You have at least two trends playing out here. First group polarization: People converge to parts of the Internet that they agree with, fostering extremism. Related to that, you have news polarization, the market reaction to satisfy the demand for polarized takes on a narrow set of issues--Iraq, U.S. politics, etc. Meanwhile, media is losing an ethic that may have been unique to newspaper people. As Eric Alterman writes in the New Yorker article this week "Out of Print:"

Among the most significant aspects of the transition from "dead tree" newspapers to a world of digital information lies in the nature of "news" itself. The American newspaper (and the nightly newscast) is designed to appeal to a broad audience, with conflicting values and opinions, by virtue of its commitment to the goal of objectivity. Many newspapers, in their eagerness to demonstrate a sense of balance and impartiality, do not allow reporters to voice their opinions publicly, march in demonstrations, volunteer in political campaigns, wear political buttons, or attach bumper stickers to their cars.

By contrast, new media is very much about satisfying the desire for opinions on why things matter and what should we expect. Alterman writes:

Rupert Murdoch, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in April, 2005—two years before his five-billion-dollar takeover of Dow Jones & Co. and the Wall Street Journal—warned the industry’s top editors and publishers that the days when “news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deigned to tell us what we could and should know,” were over. No longer would people accept “a godlike figure from above” presenting the news as “gospel.” Today’s consumers “want news on demand, continuously updated. They want a point of view about not just what happened but why it happened. . . . And finally, they want to be able to use the information in a larger community—to talk about, to debate, to question, and even to meet people who think about the world in similar or different ways.”

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