Many people talk today about how the media is more divided by political beliefs than ever, that media “bubbles” have polarized our populace more than ever. I disagree. I believe that as a result of the Internet and the free-flow of information globally, it is not that we are more divided by politics, but that we are simply more exposed to those divisions that already existed. Therefore, we instead see an illusion of increasingly partisan media.
I must first state that there has never been truly objective journalism, and there likely never will. Every 9th grader working on a high school newspaper knows that every story needs an angle. That core project of reporting empirical information requires some form of bias or narrative in a story. I am not criticizing this method at all, but simply following a fundamental principle to journalism to its logical conclusion. So the worry that journalism has lost its objectivity is false on its mere premise.
Second, America has a rich tradition of politically-charged media. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, there were newspapers for all political movements, major or minor, English or not. Italian fascist newspapers. Black nationalist newspapers. German-language labor/nationalist newspapers competed with German-language immigrant-friendly newspapers. Political parties ran and controlled entire newspaper outlets in cities like Chicago and New York. In the mid 20th century, during the three-network television monopoly, even then, most Americans got their print news from one national source of their choice and a local newspaper, which often had a partisan spin. With the decline of local newspaper’s prominence in our daily lives, and with the rise of internet-only media sources accessible anywhere, the only change in this tradition is people’s awareness that alternative opinions exist.
That being said, humans have (and for the most part, always will) read media sources they already agree with first. “Hate reading” has its limits. But before the Internet age, people likely didn’t even know about neo-Nazi media sources in America, or at least didn’t think about them on a regular basis. Now, Daily Stormer is just as easy to access as the New York Times (or because of the NYT pay wall, even easier), and that access in and of itself has made for an overall reduction in “bubbles.”
Increased media focus does not automatically mean increased empirical change. When protests around race and police brutality began in 2012 and 2013, many people on the right argued that race issues were getting worse. But those who have lived with police brutality their entire lives were quick to point out that this is how it has always been, but that it is only now that these issues are getting more media attention. Since more white people were learning about issues in black communities, they argued, race relations were actually getting better when media highlighted problems more. The same can be said in this situation: increasing popular awareness of politically-charged news outlets does not mean there is an empirical rise in them, just more awareness of their mere existence.
I agree that fake news is a problem, and I also agree that learning positions that you don’t agree with is good, but it is a fallacy to argue that we live in times of more polarized media than ever.
Perhaps this campaign of convincing ourselves that we live in increasingly isolated political bubbles was in part a manifestation of a desire for more empathy and understanding across ideological lines, a desire I share. But the manifestation is not real. The other silver lining of this fallacy is that perhaps journalists will strive for more objectivity, a core goal of courageous journalism (despite its ultimate hollowness). The fact is it is that we live in some of the strongest eras of an open and diverse press, and that is good. But that fact doesn’t make for a good headline.