James Kates Opinion Piece – Violet Royal

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Here’s a confession: When I’m looking for a quick read of the news, I sometimes turn to the Drudge Report.

Maybe you know the site. It is a “news aggregator” which means that it collects articles of great interest from all over the web. Matt Drudge, the editor, built a reputation in the 1990s with original and salacious reporting on the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Drudge is kind of a shadow. He leans from conservative to libertarian in his politics. His hugely popular website carries a tone of impending doom. Its raw design, with banner titles that practically scream at you, hasn’t changed since Clinton was president.

Yet here’s why I love it: When I click on a story link, I never really know what I’m going to get.

It could be an article from the decidedly liberal Guardian, the English newspaper site which has more readers in the United States than in Britain. It could be a more or less neutral story from The Associated Press, published on a newspaper or TV channel’s website. It could be something with a decidedly conservative take, perhaps from the National Review.

In his quest for the apocalyptic or simply titillating, Matt Drudge is an equal opportunity aggregator. It often happens to surprise me, and I like it.

Which brings me to a central problem with the news media today: Too many media bow to “confirmation bias,” our tendency to seek views that reflect our own.

Confirmation bias is nothing new, but reports responding to it have proliferated in recent years.

I graduated from Michigan State with a journalism degree in 1980. June 1 of that year marked the launch of Cable News Network (CNN). The following spring, Walter Cronkite retired from his long-time job as an anchor for the “CBS Evening News”.

These two events marked the start of a journalism revolution, although I didn’t recognize it at the time. Starting with cable channels and gaining momentum with the World Wide Web in the 1990s, dozens of news providers rose up and began to serve the interests of a smaller, more specialized audience.

Cable channels have found it cheaper to provide analysis and opinion than to actually report. Washington is full of professional experts eager to join the cable gabfests. This is how they get book contracts and speaking engagements.

The Internet has not only satisfied its audience’s confirmation bias, but has intensified it. On the web, publishers have found they can gain clicks by giving audiences reliable conservative or liberal views.

For better or for worse, it was not. When the United States had three major television networks and a handful of major newspapers, most of the media was mass media. News was delivered as scheduled offers, not around the clock.

When the evening news was only 30 minutes long, there wasn’t much room for differences of opinion. I often tell my classes that the people who supported the Vietnam War and those who opposed it all watched Cronkite.

Even newspapers, much more extensive than television, were all-in-one packages that served everyone with everything: news, sports, business, movie listings, crosswords, and comics. Some people haven’t read the news at all. They bought the newspaper for baseball scores and the grocery store ads.

The downside of those “good old days” was that divergent views were not always available. If you wanted something with a harsh side, you had to go to an opinion paper – maybe The New Republic – or the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Most people didn’t care.

Today there is an overabundance of information and people construct their own worldview based on the information they choose. I’m not complaining about the good old days past, because there is a lot to love about digital journalism. Even if we wanted to go back, we couldn’t.

But information consumers now owe it to our democracy – to broaden their consumption of information to include things that make them uncomfortable.

Don’t give in to confirmation bias. Watch the news that challenges your assumptions. And remember that opinion is not always synonymous with knowledge, let alone wisdom.


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