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The new media democracy

Jason Coleman | Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The public’s desire for news and information has grown more voracious than ever. News disseminates at speeds never before imagined possible. People want news in a personal way, catered to personal tastes that no daily, weekly or monthly news sources could possibly deliver, now or in the future.

Instead, the Internet has become the great maestro of information delivery, able to inform each individual reader on whatever topics and from whichever viewpoints he so desires. It has allowed news and information to become fully democratized, with each page hit, tweet, Digg and blog a metaphorical vote for the stories that are considered most important.

While the democratization of the media undoubtedly provides new and beneficial ways of communicating and finding pertinent information, its delivery of news inherently contains many flaws and serious shortcomings that must be fully recognized on a personal level.

First, a citizen must recognize that the Internet has extensively blurred the line between fact and opinion. News on the Web more often than not takes the form of an opinion piece, which reveals information about a topic, rather than a fact-based account of a situation. Unfortunately, the former type of “journalism” is often a more riveting read, and so garners more hits and support. One only need glance at The New York Times most viewed countdown to realize that on any given day, at least one or two of the opinion pieces rank in the top 10. Or, better yet, ask any Notre Dame student which section of The Observer they flip to first; it’s probably the Viewpoint. Reading only opinion pieces will give only a foggy, fragmented and obviously biased account of a situation, and one must be able to recognize an opinion piece, and the flaws contained within.

Second, one must recognize that alternative news sources often do not employ reporters that are able to maintain the high journalistic standards set by many of the major traditional news sources. They provide an alternative perspective to the original events, but often do not give a full account.

CurrentTV is a digital cable station whose stated goal is, in fact, “the democratization of the media.” Founded by Al Gore, the station is almost entirely user generated content, stories produced by viewers for the viewers, which usually take the form of five to seven minute documentary shorts. The number of viewers has exploded to 53 million, up 10 million from 2007, and has a devoted following.

The documentary shorts are often interesting, but they often lack journalistic integrity, and trade thorough investigative work for convenient answers. With less than 10 minutes, stories often present only one particular side of a story, or sometimes lack thorough explanations.

The network is also biased insofar as it primarily shows only viewer created content. While one would hope this would lead to diversity of topics, it seems rather limited. In fact, the channel hasn’t covered the story of the two CurrentTV reporters who are now being detained in North Korea after attempting to film a story on North Korean refugees. Democratizing news and information means that only those stories that the majority find interesting and support will make the front page.

And in CurrentTV’s case, the viewers have clearly chosen what they want to see. At this moment, seven of the top 20 stories involved marijuana legalization in some form, somewhere. Given the enormity of world economic and diplomatic events, I find it hard to believe that marijuana-related stories truly represents 35 percent of the most relevant news.

This leads to the third and most important fact one must understand and counteract in keeping up on his news: the existence of a very strong psychological effect known as the confirmation bias. Some refer to it as “the echo chamber.” Those on the left use the Limbaugh inspired “Dittoheads” and those on the right use the “Main Stream Media.” More or less, it’s the psychological fact that a person genuinely enjoys reading news and commentary that supports his worldview, rather than disputes it. Although this bias seems obvious academically, its effects are highly pervasive.

The polarization of CurrentTV towards cannabis inspired segments demonstrates, for example, the character of the audience who watches it, their beliefs, and why those particular shorts are viewed so much more than others. Another example is polarization on the left towards the NYT opinion pages, which tend more liberal, and conservatives move to The Wall Street Journal, for its more conservative opinions.

More importantly, it is the reason for the vast proliferation of alternative information sources. For every personal bias, there is a source that can be used to confirm those views. The Internet has only made it more powerful. To avoid this, one must maintain daily in striving to diversify news sources across a range of reliable, trustworthy sources and views.

Democratization has produced a thousand candidates for good news. Some are expert; some are loud; some are thoughtful; some are drabble. Unlike a presidential election, where connections, money and experience matter in garnering attention, the Internet has provided a forum where any of these news candidates have a platform to project to millions with ease. Americans have always enjoyed choices, but this many candidates muddle the quality of the entire pool.

Jason Coleman is a junior accounting major. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.