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Nick Kristof gets a B- social psych, and an incomplete in media studies

March 19, 2009

In today’s NYT, Nicholas Kristof writes about the implications of people choosing their own media sources. His argument: traditional newspapers present people with a wide spectrum of objective reporting. But when people choose their own news sources, they’ll gravitate toward voices that agree with their own ideology.

Along the way, Kristof sort of references research on confirmation bias and group polarization, though he doesn’t call them that, and weirdly he credits Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein for discovering group polarization.

But my main thought is this… Neither confirmation bias nor group polarization are new phenomena. Is it really true that people used to read and think about a broad spectrum of news and opinion? Or are we mis-remembering a supposedly golden era of objective reporting? Back when most big towns had multiple newspapers, you could pick the one that fit your ideology. You could subscribe to The Nation or National Review. You could buy books by Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley.

Plus, confirmation bias isn’t just about what information you choose to consume — it’s also about what you pay attention to, how you interpret it, and what you remember. Did everybody watch Murrow and Cronkite in the same way? Or did a liberal and a conservative watching the same newscast have a qualitatively different experience of it, by virtue of what they brought to the table?

No doubt things have changed a whole heck of a lot in the media, and they’re going to change a lot more. But I’m skeptical whenever I hear somebody argue that society is in decline because of some technological or cultural change. It’s a common narrative, but one that might be more poorly supported than we think.

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