One of the big problems with the way most people find and consume news today is that it too often ends up backing us into an echo chamber. We find and hear only news about subjects we are already interested in that express opinions with which we already agree. On TV, this is epitomized by Fox News and MSNBC, which take hard right and left (respectively) perspectives on the news, focus a lot on politics (particularly MSNBC, which at one point had the slogan, “THE Place for Politics”), and tend to the news style known as the screed when it comes to contrasting opinions on things about which it believes its viewers care.
But the problem is even more insidious on Internet news feeds, even those which have at least a patina of objectivity. If you follow news only on Salon or Slate or Daily Beast or even Huffington Post, you will find yourself being fed a steady diet of pretty carefully screened opinions on things that assume a lot about you as a consumer. Those assumptions are probably right. But switch your news to (or supplement it with) more eclectic sources like Google News or some other relatively opinion-free aggregators, one of the major national daily newspapers’ sites,or perhaps even a collection of site with different agendas, and you still find yourself ghettoized, at least potentially.
That’s because the Internet features the ability to pre-filter news by topic and source in ways that guarantee you won’t accidentally pollute your perspective on a subject by allowing a contrasting viewpoint to enter your awareness. This personalization technology is a two-edged sword: while it allows you to ignore extremes in news (like feeds from Fox and MSNBC, e.g.), it also allows you to ignore perhaps more responsible voices of the right and left to which exposure might well be valuable to you as a citizen and voter.
The Daily Beast — a news outlet with liberal founders that seems to me to trend more to the right — has just implemented a new technology it calls “nudging.” Using this process, as Nieman Labs describes it:
Red and blue nudge boxes pop up increasingly as readers more actively use the site, offering suggestions to readers. “We may say: ‘You’ve read a lot of politics stories, maybe it’s time for an entertainment story?’ Or, “You’ve read a lot of stories by this writer, do you want to follow him?’” says Dyer. It’s the data readers generate (+1 for reading more than half of a story, -1 for “skipping”) that fuel the kind of individuated nudges readers get.
This is a baby step in an interesting direction that is sure to generate some controversy. It is a manifestation of the long-debated question of whether it is the news media’s job to give you the news it thinks you need to know and understand or should it confine itself to providing information in which you are interested? Going back to Thomas Jefferson, true leaders of our democratic society have had a fundamental belief that only a well-informed electorate could effectively hang onto and manage a real democracy. As Jefferson said, “”. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” On that basis, a strong argument can be made that the news media need to provide accurate and objective information (as opposed to analysis) about what is going on in the world around us. But in the information-wants-to-be-free model of the Internet, freedom to choose what you’ll see or read and when you’ll experience it are entirely in your control. Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is as dangerous in our society as criminal conduct, perhaps moreso because it affects far more people for far longer.
The first news outlet that ventures into the field of “Here’s something you should read. You can bypass it if you like, but we’re going to remind you that you’re doing so.” is going to score some major publicity and visibility. And, undoubtedly, not a little scorn.