If the polarization of 2016 election cycle taught us anything, it's that a thoughtful debate of ideas is MIA in the media.
It’s about time that mainstream outlets demonstrate a commitment to diversity of thought by welcoming more right-leaning viewpoints. It's a step away from the echo chamber that journalism has become and a tilt toward a public square that welcomes a competition of ideas.
We have echo chambers, not public squares
Echo chambers are good for ego-boosting and building a loyal following, but let's not fool ourselves. Inculcating the same people with the same ideas day after day is brainwashing, not intellectual stimulation.
By shutting out opposing viewpoints to control the narrative, the media helped create what we have now.
Americans are deeply entrenched in their views, rather than being open to something different. The impact is especially pronounced on social media. Like children who stick their fingers in their ears, 39 percent of social media users admit to muting political content they disagree with.
Echo chambers also foster laziness of thought. People have no need to answer questions, seek new information or be challenged by different perspectives that often draw on different experiences. They can simply rehash the same argument unchallenged.
Biased reporting feeds the echo chamber
And as Americans have become increasingly entrenched in their own positions, they are also ever more skeptical of the media's claims of neutrality. Trust in media has fallen and 66 percent of Americans say most news sources do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. Although almost nine out of ten Americans think the media serves a very important function in our democracy by informing the public, not even half can name an objective news source.
Large majorities of Americans point to biased reporting as a problem with news coverage today. Ninety-three percent say that there's too much bias in the selection of which stories news outlets cover or don't cover. Another 94 percent say there is too much bias in the reporting of news stories that should be objective.
Bias can be found everywhere. For decades, women's media outlets have railed against the unfair treatment of women in politics, with the particular focus on their clothes, hair, and makeup. Ms. Magazine asked in 2016 "Why Are We Still Talking About Hillary's Clothes?"And more recently, Bustle explained the "9 Sexist Ways Female Politicians are Depicted in the Media."
But today, women's magazines are notably silent in calling out the same sexism directed at conservative women in the Trump administration or in politics. They also join with other mainstream outlets to undermine President Trump and those connected to him. The media’s overwhelmingly negative coverage, a report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy says, “gives weight to Trump’s contention, one shared by his core constituency, that the media are hell bent on destroying his presidency.”
For example, following the devastating Hurricane Harvey, women's outlets like Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, and Glamour joined the ranks of the New York Times, Slate, and the Washington Post, in bashing Melania Trump for wearing stiletto shoes on the plane ride to Texas. Her shoes became the story rather than the 70 people who lost their lives to the hurricane and the hundreds of billions of dollars in damaged property. So much for objectivity and to defending women against sexism.
There is data to back this up. A 2004 Pew Research Center nationwide survey found 34 percent of national press identified as liberal, while only 7 percent identified as conservative (“moderate” was the largest category).
More recently, a 2014 study found that 28 percent of surveyed U.S. journalists claimed to be Democrats, as opposed to 7 percent for Republicans.
In additional to being ideologically skewed, the liberal bent applies to geography too. According to Politico:
“The national media really does work in a bubble, something that wasn’t true as recently as 2008. And the bubble is growing more extreme.”
Today, 73 percent of all internet publishing jobs are concentrated in on major liberal cities in the East Coast or the West Coast corridor that runs from Seattle to San Diego. The Chicago area has 5 percent of the jobs, while only 22 percent of jobs are in the rest of the country.
Recent hires like Bret Stephens at The New York Times, Megan McArdle at the Washington Post, and Kevin D. Williamson at The Atlantic are a start to bringing conservative and libertarian voices into media echo chambers but these few hires cannot be the end. What about reporting staff, opinion writers, and editors? How are media outlets deciding what to cover and how to present that?
A true public square
In a healthy public square, all viewpoints are welcomed and thinkers battle with their words and ideas. Soundbites that make for good clickbait headlines aren't enough. There must be sound arguments with evidence, whether quantitative, qualitative, or anecdotal.
There's also an honest pursuit of truth and not just rightness. William Penn wrote, "In all Debates, let Truth be thy Aim, not Victory, or an unjust Interest: And endeavor to gain, rather than to expose thy Antagonist."
When people seek the truth, they are open to being wrong. That improves their position, because they are not starting from incorrect assumptions, relying on inaccurate data, or viewing an incomplete picture of an issue.
Finally, in a debate, there is respect for participants as thinking human beings. Too many use zero-sum arguments and claim that their opponents are either without intellect or without heart, exposing their own intolerance of non-progressive views.
There's no diversity quota that gets to the right balance of thought in media, but here's a rule of thumb: If almost everyone in the room shares the same view, they still have a problem.