By Grayson Lewis
For many years now, scholars have warned that the growing perceptions of corrosive partisanship and incivility in American political life are linked to the fracturing of the news media ecosystem in the United States. As citizens have gained greater choice over which outlets they can consume news and political commentary from, they have often selected from sources that merely confirm their current beliefs as opposed to selecting from sources that might challenge opinions and assumptions. Too many Americans now find themselves in infosphere “filter bubbles,” where every piece of news media they choose to consume reifies their leftist or right-wing worldviews, driving them into a polarized, partisan mindset. This might also have the effect of removing perceptions of legitimacy and goodwill that a person may hold towards individuals who disagree with them politically.
While the inception of cable television news from channels like Fox News and CNN has contributed to this polarization, many scholars widely view the internet to be the strongest force in driving news media fractionalization. When one can simply flip open their laptop and head straight for websites like Breitbart or Vox, there is little chance of being confronted with reporting or analysis that might make one think differently. Exacerbating the internet’s role in polarization is the role of social media platforms and the algorithms that drive them. Americans can now easily and selectively join Facebook groups, follow Twitter accounts, or subscribe to YouTube channels that feed them with a steady stream of articles, posts, or videos they would already agree with. Moreover, the recommendation algorithms on sites like YouTube have been extraordinarily effective at radicalizing viewers into extreme political views.
With all of this in mind, one might reasonably ask how we could possibly reduce our country’s polarization and mutual animosity when one can read two or more wildly different viewpoints about the same event in the news. It turns out at least one journalistic platform is trying.
Launched nearly a decade ago by IT developer John Gable, the media project AllSides aims to cut down on media bias and misinformation in political news and build a news media platform that presents stories in a framework that offers perspectives from viewpoints of the left, right, and center. To do so, AllSides publishes “headline roundup” articles that offer an overview of a current political news story that then includes a roundup of three independent articles on that story from a right, left, and centrist viewpoint, respectively. For instance, a story about a new directive from the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) commanding ICE to stop worksite deportation raids includes an article from (right-of-center) Fox News framing the DHS decision as limiting ICE’s enforcement capabilities. In another article about the story, from (left-of-center), CBS juxtaposed the DHS decision with ICE’s large-scale worksite raids carried out during the Trump administration. An article from (centrist) Axios was brief and matter-of-fact about the DHS decision. Leading every AllSides headline roundup are a few short introductory paragraphs that objectively identify the overview of the story and provide a brief description of major themes in left or right media coverage of the story. AllSides also publishes an aggregate of standalone stories from various external news outlets with topical tags on its homepage, as well as third-party fact checks and an editorial section with commentary pieces by its staff.
Media bias is not taboo in and of itself to the AllSides team. Indeed, as a video explaining the organization’s modus operandi notes, “unbiased media ‘doesn’t exist.’” What seems important to the group is that multiple viewpoints of a story are presented together, and that author biases are made clear. The organization has a novel approach to judging the ideological standpoint of news organizations, relying on multiple sources to determine bias, such as review of an ‘outlet’s work by the AllSides editorial team, a blind bias survey of the outlet featuring hundreds of participants, independent research and third-party data, and a feedback system from AllSides readers.
As Gable put it, “we human beings… don’t generally make decisions intellectually; we make them emotionally, intuitively.” When confronted with political news, it is far too easy to choose how we feel based on tribal identities or other pre-formed biases and then retroactively create rationales for why we feel that way. The Enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill might have agreed with Gable when he wrote that “reason… is slave to the passions.” By confronting an AllSides viewer every day with multiple competing viewpoints and acknowledging the partisan bias that every news source has, it makes it easier for that viewer to break out of their filter bubble and truly understand the perspectives of those who ‘don’t think like him. Perhaps that is one small way to move from fighting to solutions.
Photo Credits: New York Post and Morning Joe, MSNBC.