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Monday, June 17, 2013

Are Selective Reading, Social Media Driving Partisanship?

Sculpture of man reading newspaper, made from newspapers
On the bright side, it's good evidence that rightwing complaints of "liberal media bias" are baloney. A new Gallup poll tracks public confidence in the media and finds that confidence down across the board. Confidence in newspapers is now at 15% for conservatives, 25% for moderates, and 31% for liberals. In television news, it's 18% conservative, 24% moderate, and 26% liberal. Sure, conservatives trust media the least, but if there were any hint of liberal bias, liberals would be pleased as punch with these news outlets.

According to Gallup, the trust in newspapers peaked in 1979 at 51% and has been rocky since. Trust in television, on the other hand, has never been very high -- it topped out at 46% in 1993. The reason for this drop in confidence is fairly clear, according to Gallup:

Americans' confidence in newspapers and television news has been slowly eroding for many years, worsening further since 2007. By that point, newspapers and television news had been struggling for years to figure out how to adjust their strategy for a growing Internet audience.

It was also around that time that social networking sites truly began to proliferate, causing news outlets and journalists to work to find their place on them and serving to expand the role of citizen media and user-generated content. Twitter had launched in 2006, and by 2007-2008 was growing its audience rapidly. Facebook had reached 30 million users by mid-2007 and more than 100 million by the end of 2008.
Unfortunately, a lot of this social media information is complete BS. Your crazy uncle Howard's Facebook links about Barack Obama's secret terr'ist background and his fake birth certificate are not reliable news sources. Yet a Pew study on the state of the media finds that, while TV is still the king (likely driven by local news), online sources are now a close second when it comes to the places where people get their news. Granted, a lot of that online news is still newspaper and TV reporting, but even that old school news reporting is commented on by partisans right there on the page. Further, the links to many of these stories are supplied by people with an ax to grind -- stories that back up their point of view get shared around, those that don't get ignored. Stories about snow storms and cold snaps get passed around by global warming deniers, while stories about steadily rising temperatures, heat waves, and droughts don't.

This selective sharing would result in the appearance of partisanship by the sources shared. In other words, if crazy uncle Howard keeps linking to AP articles about poll numbers and faux scandals, then someone who's not on Howard's side of the divide may begin to wonder how reliable Howard's favorite wire service can be. You never see the stories he ignores; all you get are the "Sarah Palin says Pres. Obama kicked her dog" headlines and never the "Factcheck: Sarah Palin full of crap" ones.


And of course, in the newspaper world, this is all aggravated by the rise of the paywall. If I'm linking to a CNN page, at least you can roam around CNN and see what else they have to say. If a shared link gets you through a newspaper paywall and you've already hit your monthly limit, you can't do that. So most of the time, you're reading a newspaper's online content via partisan sources -- which would in turn make the paper itself seem partisan. Editorial content and blogs are biased, yes. That's the point; they're opinion. But only the most blatant propaganda outlet -- say, the Washington Times -- is actually biased outside of that. Most actual hard news reporting is straightforward.

So ironically, the paywalls may be aggravating the problem they're trying to relieve.

Meanwhile, the rest of the online news sources can be BS factories -- especially those cited by conspiracy-minded rightwingers and talk radio programmed teabaggers. If a big chunk of someone's info comes from Michelle Malkin, and Jim Hoft, they're not going to have a lot of trust in the more traditional media outlets -- mostly because the real news so often completely contradicts the propaganda these people put out. This is where the "liberal media bias" myth is most reinforced. People who only believe the things that prop up their ideologies aren't going to trust outlets that put out pesky fact-based journalism than undermines those ideologies. Contradicting your bias is mistaken for bias.

You probably should distrust media -- the careers of people like Judith Miller prove that -- but the distrust of newspapers (not counting tabloids, distrust those as much as you want) is probably overblown. Still, it is what it is and our lack of trust in the media is a sort of feedback loop driving the partisan divide. We can pick and choose our news, so we do. And our choices create false impression about the sources we choose from, while that same selectivity makes us more starkly partisan.


[photo by ollesvensson]

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