American Culture

Freedom of the press means little if audiences are trapped in bubbles

A free press won’t amount to squat as long as it has audiences who hear only what they want to hear, read only what their Facebook-sculpted algorithms tell them to read, and worship blissfully at the Church of Confirmation Bias.

It’s nice, I suppose, in this era of Trumpian Twitter bashing of the press, that journalists trumpet right back about bolstering freedom of the press, citing its absolutely necessity to the survival, let alone the maintenance, of democracy in the Republic.

google-bubbleIt’s nice, I suppose, that a satirical comedian hosts a “Not the White House Correspondents Association Dinner” (in prime time, no less) to, as she said, “celebrate the freedom of the press.” (She did this, of course, while occasionally mocking pack journalism and chiding CNN for not “setting free” its high-priced on-air talent to be journalists instead of entertainers).

It’s nice, I suppose, that the failing New York Times headlined the actual Donald-less White House correspondents’ dinner with us vs. them gusto: “For Journalists, Annual Dinner Serves Up Catharsis and Resolve.”

And it’s nice, I suppose, that the famed, once-young lions of an earlier Golden Age, Woodward and Bernstein, were trotted out at the latter dinner to extol the virtues of a free and vigilant press.

Bernstein: “Richard Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press more the issue in Watergate instead of the conduct of the President and his men. We tried to avoid the noise and let the reporting speak.” [emphasis added]

Woodward: “Our reporting needs to get both fact and tones right. (T)he effort today to get the best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith. … Mr. President, the media is not fake news. Let’s take that off the table as we proceed. … Whatever the climate, whether the media is revered or reviled, we should and must persist, and I believe we will. Any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to democracy.”

Yes, yes, a free press, by all means. Yes, yes, follow the path to Truth no matter where it leads. Yes, yes, Speak Truth to Power.

But a free press won’t amount to squat as long as it has audiences who hear only what they want to hear, read only what their Facebook-sculpted algorithms tell them to read, and worship blissfully at the Church of Confirmation Bias.

Questions abound about the entwined roles of journalists and audiences.

Have journalists forgotten they serve as the nation’s teachers as well as its story-tellers? To what extent has modern journalism, meaning online publication, effectively taught audiences about the meaning and context of the information its published material carries? Has commentary (it’s cheaper to produce than reporting, isn’t it?) shortchanged  deep, insightful analysis of events and issues? Does journalism have to explain how it does its job in ways it hasn’t before?

For example, if journalists continue to use anonymous sources, shouldn’t it do a better job of telling audiences why? Audiences need more instruction about the functions, necessities, intellectual worth, and values of journalism than they used to. That’s because audiences aren’t what they used to be.

The audiences for news have largely devolved into competing armies of culture warriors refusing to acknowledge the validity of even an iota of an idea from the other side(s).

When will such audiences learn how to take off their goddamned blinders?

A new study suggests audiences, whether they’re Blue or Red, will actually pass up money “to distance themselves from hearing or reading opposing ideals and information.”

Approximately two-thirds of respondents declined a chance to win extra money in order to avoid reading statements that didn’t support their position …

The aversion to hearing or learning about the views of their ideological opponents is not a product of people already being or feeling knowledgeable, or attributable to election fatigue in the case of political issues, according to the researchers.

“Rather, people on both sides indicated that they anticipated that hearing from the other side would induce cognitive dissonance,” such that would require effort or cause frustration, and “undermine a sense of shared reality with the person expressing disparate views” that would harm relationships, [the study’s authors] reported.

Too many members of audiences of media messages (such as news stories) refuse to break out of personalized filter bubbles constructed by algorithm-driven search engines and social media. Perhaps that would require conscious effort (you know, work) to think for oneself. That behavior has consequences for democracy.

All those Facebook clicks have constructed personalizations too many audience members are unwilling to reject. So what, you say? Ask Eli Pariser:

The effect of the algorithm is as strong as an individual’s own choices about which links in the [Facebook] News Feed to click. If you think that you’re doing something important by looking at your News Feed and deciding which items to click, the algorithm exercises an equally strong bent. And the bent is toward politically aligned information.

Hence filter-bubbling search engines (yo, Google) and keep-you-happy Facebook algorithms contribute mightily to the ideological, social, cultural, and political blinders too many audience members willingly or unwittingly wear.

Does this mean a significant percentage of journalism’s audiences is just dumb? Lazy? Unaware? Too busy? Too poor? Too rich? Do these audiences, thanks to the dumbing-down influences of cable news, just want shouting matches? To be merely entertained? Is bread and circus what they seek? Is that what too many news entities  deliver too often instead of actual news?

Whatever the answer(s) is, the mediated fragmentation of audiences has commingled with social polarization over the past few decades, leaving journalism with audiences who just may not give a damn. Add to this the demonizing drumbeat of President Donald about the fake, failing press.

The press needs to spend a little less time worrying about its freedom and more time about understanding the audiences that freedom was designed to serve. Too many of the press’s audiences (and, to some extent, many supposedly journalistic organizations) have lost their sense of civic duty.

So, audiences, for heaven’s sake, get off Facebook, get smarter, and learn to tolerate a broader outlook on life. Remember: Think — it ain’t illegal yet.

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