Producing A Shared Reality

A major element in the rightwing attack on “Fake News” is the assertion that platforms like Google and Facebook skew to the left, that they privilege liberal results.

Scholars and journalists, for their part, worry about the “filter bubble”–the use of sophisticated algorithms to target individuals with information that is consistent with their pre-existing biases.

A recent study focused on Google provides some reassurance on both counts.  

Google News does not deliver different news to users based on their position on the political spectrum, despite accusations from conservative commentators and even President Donald Trump. Rather than contributing to the sort of “echo chamber” problem that critics fear have plagued Facebook and other social media networks, our research has found that Google News algorithms recommended virtually identical news sources to both liberals and conservatives. That’s an important point to keep in mind when evaluating accusations that Google News is biased.

Our findings are part of an ample and growing body of research on this question. Online services – including Google’s regular search function – may provide intensely personalized information. But media scholars like us have found that when it comes to news, search engines and social media tend to lead people not to a more narrow set of sources, but rather to a broader range of information. In fact, we found, Google News is designed to avoid personalized search results, intentionally constructing a shared public conversation based on traditional criteria of journalistic values.

The construction of that public conversation is critically important. As the eminent media historian Paul Starr has observed, “journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it is about assembling a public to read and react to those stories.” In other words, there is a crucial difference between an audience and a public.

Journalism in a democratic system is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about enabling citizens to occupy the same reality.  It’s about facilitating meaningful communication. As the information environment continues to fracture into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, many of us worry that we are in danger of losing the common ground upon which public communication and discourse depend.

When cities had one or two widely-read newspapers, residents were at least exposed to the same headlines, even if they didn’t read the articles. When large numbers of Americans tuned in to Walter Cronkite or to his competitors on one of the other two networks, they heard reports of the same events. If today’s citizens do not encounter even that minimal amount of shared information, if different constituencies access different media sources and occupy incommensurate realities, the concept of a public becomes meaningless.  Informed debate becomes impossible.  In that sort of fractured and fragmented environment, how do citizens engage in self-government?

If I say this is a table, and you insist it’s a chair, how do we come to an agreement about its use?

I hope this study, and the others it cites, are right–and that Americans retain enough of a common language and share enough of a common reality to qualify as a “public.”