Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Polarized Opinion

Fox News
In the beginning there were ABC, NBC, and CBS. These were the national TV news sources in Panderbear's youth. It didn't really matter which network you watched. All three delivered pretty much the same content and fit it into half an hour each evening. All three attempted to serve the largest possible audience. News consumers got a consistent just-the-facts-ma'am message without opinions or editorials. Viewers were treated as adults able to interpret for themselves the meaning of the facts presented. Network news then had a homogenizing effect on U.S. public opinion.

No more. Now each of a plethora of cable news networks targets a particular opinion demographic. Fox News has captured the far-right audience share, MSNBC the left. Viewers can now immerse themselves 24 hours a day in news with a message tailored to their biases. No troubling dissonance with stories or facts contrary to one's own philosophy. This self-selection arises from the human evolutionary trait called confirmation bias. People are simply more comfortable receiving input consistent with what they already believe.

The problem is that news selected and presented to appeal to a particular opinion demographic is no longer news. It's propaganda. It's 24/7 pandering, selection bias, and opinion presented as fact. Self-selection of bias confirming news sources leads to public opinion polarization. Each audience increasingly believes its own rhetoric, its own echo chamber, and discounts contrary opinion. Ultimately people feel free to discard or condemn science and fact-based logical reasoning inconsistent with their particular received doctrine.

Panderbear thinks fractionation of news consumers into strict, mutually exclusive and mutually intolerant groups is hurtful to a democracy with government whose proper functioning requires an informed electorate and tolerance for political compromise. Sadly the trend toward news sources with finely tuned messages is likely to continue. Panderbear stopped watching TV news decades ago.

One positive development is the proliferation of fact-check blogs and websites, though true believers often scoff and dismiss them as liberal and biased. The ultimate solution is for people to recognize their own confirmation bias and take steps to counter it. They must get actively involved in their own news aggregation. They must challenge all opinion and do their own fact-checking from multiple sources. Most basic of all, they must learn to value facts and reason above emotion, above bias, and above dogma. Panderbear doesn't expect that to happen any time soon.

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