Do you ever really listen to the other side of the story?
“As the number of available outlets for political news grows, so does the tendency of citizens to self-select which news to consume and which to ignore.” So says Georgetown University’s Rebecca Chalif, in her 2011 study Political Media Fragmentation: Echo Chambers in Cable News.
This statement seems obvious and fairly innocuous on the surface. Thirty years ago, people were vastly more confined in how they consumed their news - it was perhaps three TV channels and one or two newspapers.
According to the Australian Market and Social Research Society, the media has become far more fragmented over the last 15 years. Free-to-air TV has gone from five to 17 channels with over 120 subscription channels available, and we have over 600 newspapers and 1,500 magazines available to us.
Couple this with the 110 million websites (and rising) we can view anytime of the day or night, and one can see that we now have unprecedented choice when it comes to news consumption.
But is that necessarily a good thing?
In his keynote speech at RMIT’s Media, Communication and Democracy: Global and National Environments conference a couple of Wednesdays ago, University of Perugi’s Professor Paulo Mancini argued that this fragmentation of news means that niche audience has replaced mass audience. Again, it’s a rather innocuous statement.
But let’s analyse that for a minute.
The niche audience, replacing mass audience, implies more partisan-oriented journalism. The days of the one-stop-news-shop are gone, and fragmentation had led to news organisations catering directly to their viewership/readership. This in turn leads to more partisan identity of news organisations.
One only has to look across the seas to the political hotbed of the United States to see the polarising effects that partisan-oriented journalism has on its citizens.
In her study, Chalif analyses the maniacally right-leaning Fox News and throws out some interesting statistics. 45 per cent of Republicans regularly watch Fox, compared with only 15 percent of Democrats. 46 percent of Democrats never watch Fox.
Conversely, 49 percent of Republicans never watch the left-leaning MSNBC. One could argue that the partisan identity of news organisations has directly led to the political segmentation of society.
In fact, political programming which has been specifically tailored to the demographic has created a situation in the US where, in the words of Rolling Stone political reporter Matt Taibbi, “people literally hate each other, over nonsense.”
The polarising effect of partisan news organisation leads to people being more set in their ways, which in turn can only emphasise and deepen the political divide. It’s a sad state of affairs when a multitude of news options exist and people opt for the same one every time.
Human beings are creatures of habit, but in the words of Obama, “the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship”.
It would be nice, albeit a touch idealistic, to think of a Tea Party member flicking over to MSNBC to get another view of the political debate. But what about on our own shores?
With the countless options for news that we now have, again it is a lovely notion that we are sifting through information, absorbing different approaches and then arriving at our own considered opinions.
But in these days of ‘cult of the personality’ politics favoured by a rabid Opposition, where soundbites and slogans rule the day, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is perhaps not the case.
Opposing views tend to set our teeth on edge, but they also give us a glimpse into the mind of the Other.
If these sorts of practices are practised regularly they will eventually lead to deeper understanding of ourselves and society, which can only lead to a stronger and more robust democracy. However, the cynic in us must say that ‘positions’ are much easier to hold on to than entering the complexity of debate.
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