OPINION: Media polarization is OK…sort of…

Photo courtesy of NewsBusters

In November 2017, Collins Dictionary announced that its Word of the Year for 2017 was not a single word but the phrase “fake news.” This phrase, of course, has become more satirical than the phenomenon it was meant to describe. I do not really want to broach the question of whether or not news sources intentionally report fake stories for ratings, although it is possible that this occurs. In any case, what the popularity of the idea of fake news suggests is an eroding trust in more traditional media outlets. Whether one believes the problem of fake news is widespread or not, we have come to a paradigm shift in terms of how we as Americans get our news and process it.

One of the most significant elements of this paradigm shift is the ongoing trend that we see in what is loosely termed the “mainstream media” of increasing polarization. Trust in news media is falling rapidly while both sides of the political spectrum isolate themselves with news organizations that share their ideological narrative. Conservatives increasingly flock to Fox News, the National Review and, at the extreme, Breitbart News. Progressives increasingly turn to the New York Times, The Huffington Post, CNN, MSNBC and The Young Turks. Consumers of these news sources generally understand the ideological tilt of the outlet and in fact increasingly go to that outlet to interpret ongoing events through their own political filters.

Indeed, it is not hard to see why many Americans would do this. Seeking out sources that present information filtered through a specific set of ideological lenses removes much of the burden on the individual citizen to seriously think through and engage with issues and events happening in our society. Thus, we now have increasingly divergent spheres of information processing that touch less and less, leading to the creation of echo chambers whereby certain assumptions of the way the world works and ought to work will never be questioned as one examines the news.

These echo chambers through media polarization have contributed a great deal to our contemporary political polarization, and they have many critics from the left, right and center. Indeed, insofar as media polarization contributes to a state where citizens can have filtered information spoon-fed to them in such a way that their ideology is never challenged, media polarization constitutes a serious obstacle to our civic life, or what’s left of it anyway.

Nonetheless, I contend that media polarization is not an inherent problem. In fact, the standard that the press should be objective is a fairly new one that has really only been around since the end of World War II. For much of American history, the press was openly partisan. One could read a newspaper and immediately understand its biases and these papers would often print stories of questionable truthfulness.

Yet, American society thrived even with this openly partisan press. What is the difference between then and now? How is a polarized press now creating echo chambers when before a vibrant atmosphere of civic discourse was present? The answer is almost certainly complicated, but I think a large part of it has to do with the differences in the health of the United States’ civic culture.

A partisan press is simply not much of a problem when, in their personal relations, members of the society will have their viewpoints and interpretations of current events challenged or at least disrupted. A partisan press is not much of a problem when members of a society recognize their duty to engage with issues that affect them and their comrades and to have the intellectual maturity to understand that the world is a fiendishly complicated place where there is rarely, if ever, one correct way to approach an issue or event. Failure to recognize this complexity can lead to groupthink and that can be catastrophic.

Thus, we as a society need not necessarily fret the increasing polarization of our news media. A society with a vibrant civic culture can address the problems that arise from such partisanship. However, in the absence of such a culture, we must work to rebuild it, lest our echo chambers become too strong.

Benjamin Giles is a senior Philosophy Politics and the Public and Philosophy double major and staff writer for the Newswire from Denver.