Mirror, Mirror”

Do your media habits reflect well on you?

There’s an interesting phenomenon that you have probably experienced. You get a new haircut and soon notice others with a similar style. You suddenly see a lot more “for rent” and “for sale” signs if you are looking for a new place to live. Grow a mustache or buy a new car, cell phone or computer, and you’re likely to see more just like it the next time you go out.

This is because humans are naturally self-centered. This is not the same as being selfish; rather it is a recognition that we have our own opinions, ideas and beliefs and make sense of the world through our own personal filters. We cannot possibly catalog and contemplate everything we see around us, so our mind unconsciously gives prominence to some things at the expense of others. What passes unnoticed and what we are aware of is largely based on past experience and whatever is on our mind at any given time. We notice things that our naturally self-centered minds are primed to see—things that are relevant to our immediate situation. We seek to understand and organize our own little world based on previous inputs and thus tend to give extra weight to things that validate us and ignore or deny those that don’t. Our minds don’t like to be challenged.

What is true of everyday things is also true when it comes to our perception of current events and trends in society and the world at large. We are aware of what takes place outside our direct personal experience primarily through word-of-mouth or the media, and the Internet in particular.

In a world where we have many choices to make about how we get our news, it is worth pondering how the media we consume may be affecting our personal filters and thus the things we come to believe and act on.

We become what we behold.” 

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964, 1994) 

Tuchman 2.0

In the foreword to A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Barbara Tuchman (1912–1989) offered up “Tuchman’s Law.” Her observation was that “‘the fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold’ (or any figure the reader would care to supply).” In essence, Tuchman was identifying a feedback loop. After we are exposed to something in the media, we tend to become more aware of additional reports on the same topic. We may also see firsthand evidence in the world around us. Very quickly this can create a multiplier effect that makes the development seem more prevalent than it is.

Tuchman’s emphasis was on disaster reporting (though the principle applies much more widely). In the wake of major events, there is typically an uptick in reporting similar events; following the tsunamis of 2004 in Indonesia and 2011 in Japan, numerous tsunami warnings were reported over a period of weeks. This reporting subsequently died down in both cases, even though there was no let-up in undersea earthquakes and ensuing tsunami warnings. The difference is that they were no longer seen as newsworthy. Often an event’s newsworthiness is closely connected to whether it is an anomaly: exceptions are interesting, the mundane is not.

Tuchman formulated her law before CNN introduced the world to 24-hour cable news, when people’s opportunities for catching the latest news were more limited. Today we have a plethora of cable news sources, each one a looming mountain on the media landscape: CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, to name just a few.

One of the great challenges of 24-hour news is that only rarely is any such period filled with a constant stream of breaking news followed at regular intervals by further developments to supplement and flesh out each story. Increasingly these outlets present us with talking heads and opinion shows that provide analysis of “major” stories rather than a continuous stream of fresh news. Talking heads can help provide context and meaning for important stories and offer a forum for experts to contribute to the discussion. But in some cases, pundits with particularly strong personalities and opinions simply become the central figures of so-called echo chambers, where media consumers go to hear a viewpoint—usually their own—reverberate back from all angles. The tendency to focus additional resources and provide extended analysis of selected topics is common in print journalism as well.

Tuchman’s famous observation still applies: devoting additional time to some news items and giving less time—or no time—to others can easily alter our sense of how prevalent or common something is.

But the fabric of the media has an added wrinkle these days.

Gaining Control

One thing that was true of almost all media until fairly recently was that a relatively small group—editors, program directors, etc.—decided what the general public would read about or watch on any given day. After our initial decision to pick up a certain magazine or newspaper, or tune to a certain channel, we became mostly passive consumers of whatever was presented to us. To a great extent we relied on others’ determination of what constituted “all the news that’s fit to print,” to quote the famous slogan of the New York Times.

More recent developments in the media landscape, however, have given us a greater degree of autonomy and control over how we come in contact with new information. We have more choices than ever about the people, places, politics and pundits we choose to follow. Instead of sitting down to watch a news broadcast or picking up a specific newspaper, we can now go to any one of thousands of websites when we want information. We are not limited by what our local newspaper publishes; we can usually read about the same events from hundreds of news sources. We no longer have to watch a five-minute segment on a particular person or place. We can just click on a different five-minute segment that we believe will be more interesting. And two minutes into that, we can change our minds again.

The technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” 

Google CEO Eric Schmidt in “Google and the Search for the Future,” Interview with Holman W. Jenkins JR, Wall Street Journal (August 14, 2010)

Much of what is available is still subject to editorial decisions; the difference is that we can now choose from a wider variety of filters. The blogosphere offers a further and ever expanding number of “editors” for us to choose from. Some bloggers focus on a narrow range of topics and try to become the premier source of breaking news in their chosen niche. Others present opinion-driven analysis with an obvious slant and become the preferred source for like-minded individuals. Some put their efforts into being the first to post breaking stories, even if they’re only slightly altered press releases. It comes as no surprise that this often results in the reporting of inaccurate, inconsistent and sometimes completely spurious information—misinformation that later needs to be corrected (though, in fact, corrections don’t always materialize). Increasingly, even top news sources are making errors in reporting in order to be at the leading edge of the news. Still, blogs are often the first to report important developments and kick-start a news cycle that can last for days. What would have been tips given to a single newspaper reporter 30 years ago have now become blog posts that set off a frenzy of reporters from dozens of outlets all competing to get to the bottom of a story first.

While many people encounter news by choosing a specific media outlet and visiting the home page, others turn to news aggregators like Google, the Drudge Report and Huffington Post. These are just three of many sites that offer links to thousands of other news providers, giving us the reins and allowing us to decide what we want to know more about while exposing us to less and less of what we don’t.

The result of these trends is that people in the Western world feel they have more control than ever over what they encounter and consume. But is this really the case?

Clicks and Filters

Recently a number of authors and bloggers examined the ways we interact with information through websites that deliver news. Some propose that broadband connections and search engines are making it possible for us to know more about the world and what’s going on—that we can see more of the media landscape, and in greater detail than ever before. Others warn that while we may feel like we are experiencing increased autonomy, the opposite may be the case. They warn of a “filter bubble” and caution against “cyber cascades” (what happens when [mis]information becomes so widespread by means of the Internet that it takes on an air of truth) and point out that Google and other search engines keep track of everything we search for and click on, and present us with results based on past behavior.

Eli Pariser, in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, writes that different people typing in an identical search at the same time will get different results from Google. Not only might the articles appear in a different order, but different articles will sometimes appear. Google’s vaunted PageRank algorithm is not the only thing that drives this. You can easily demonstrate it for yourself by typing in a general search term like “flowers” or “restaurant.” Google will return results that are tailored to your location and will factor in any preferences it has tracked based on your IP address and personal search history.

Now when you search using Google, we will be able to better provide you with the most relevant results possible. For example, since I . . . often click on results from epicurious.com, Google might rank epicurious.com higher on the results page the next time I look for recipes.” 

The Official Google Blog, “Personalized Search for Everyone” (December 4, 2009)

It is easy to see how over time, searches we conduct from our home or office will yield different results and expose us to different information than they would if we connected from elsewhere. This leads us toward sites and articles that are similar to others we have clicked on in the past. We tend to think of the Internet as a portal that gives us a clear view of an essentially unlimited amount of knowledge and information. Perhaps a more apt metaphor would be that when we look through the window provided by the Internet, it is as if we are looking out from a well-lit room at nighttime: we can see the world outside, but whether we try to ignore it or not, our own reflection is also there in the glass.

Another trend that is influencing media consumption is the burgeoning world of social media. The ability to share links through social media sites is further changing the way we all encounter news and information. The articles that appear in a Twitter, Google+ or Facebook feed come from multiple sources, including our “friends” and the websites we “like.” Those who like CNN will find its articles in their newsfeed. Those who like BBC World News or Fox News will have articles from those outlets instead.

The goal of Facebook is to keep people logged in and actively connected as much as possible. In order to do this, it uses algorithms that personalize the content of an individual’s newsfeed. Thus the more we click on certain types of articles, the more those kinds of articles will appear in the future. The more we click on links from or interact with certain friends, the more often those friends and their actions will appear in our newsfeed. The objective is to make Facebook so interesting that we have neither the time nor the desire to seek information elsewhere. We all contribute to this effort by “sharing” and “liking” links. This makes them appear on our friends’ newsfeeds and is known as media curation: much like the curator of an art exhibit decides what pieces should be included, we are able to share with all our friends, instantly and almost effortlessly, what we think is interesting in the vast realm of media content.

Using the articles and interests that you’ve made public on your Facebook profile—both from within Facebook and across the web—we’ve developed a recommendation engine to help point you towards HuffPost stories tailored to your personal tastes.” 

The implications of getting information through so many intermediaries—many of which we don’t even consider as exerting any influence on what we see—are something we all need to be alert to so we can make decisions about how we behave. Just like search engines, our likes and friend selections on Facebook have the effect of filtering the information we get. In life, we tend to be friends with people who share similar viewpoints and interests. And we develop the same familiarity with the websites we visit most often.

The result is that we can find ourselves in a sort of hall of mirrors, where the ideas of a small group of people and media outlets constitute the majority of the content we encounter.

Seeing Clearly

All of this calls into question whether we can see anything with clarity. It seems that we all tend to view the world through a unique prescription lens that blurs some things and obscures or distorts others. Where can we find the wisdom that will enable us to go forward with confidence, knowing that we are seeing things clearly, accurately and in context?

Solomon, reputed to be one of the wisest men ever to live, warned that “every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2). The media echo chamber can powerfully reinforce our belief in the “rightness” of our own opinions, beliefs and personal conduct. In relationships, this can be manifested as a judgmental attitude toward others. Jesus Christ, whose own words of wisdom are recorded throughout the Gospels, articulated this by asking: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). This is about judging others, but we might apply the example to the many ways in which we unconsciously filter our perceptions. Might our beliefs, molded and shaped by media consumption, constitute a log that blinds us to truths in the world around us if they do not fit with our personal worldview?

We are living in a world that is shrinking based on the availability of rapid and easy transportation and communication. Perhaps it is also shrinking because we are increasingly looking at it from a narrow-minded point of view. Thanks to technology it is possible to see more of the world than ever before; we can interact with people halfway around the world in a matter of seconds. But are we using the technology wisely?

The prophet Daniel described a time when “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase” (Daniel 12:4). One side effect of the increase in available knowledge is that the effort to become knowledgeable about a wide range of topics is ever more daunting and time consuming. The gap between what is possible for us to encounter and what is easy for us to make sense of grows wider every day. Faced with the prospect of being bombarded with information from all directions, it is more comfortable to put on blinders and pay attention to things that do not challenge our preconceptions.

The prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul both remarked on this process. Isaiah wrote about a people “who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions’” (Isaiah 30:10). Paul described a time when people would have “itching ears” and would “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3). The choices we make about media exposure can have similar effects. We may choose to read only things that bolster our beliefs, denying and avoiding opposing (and perhaps balancing) ideas.

Media outlets and personalities are well aware that loyalty is valuable; it keeps readers coming back and provides an audience for the advertising they need to fund their operations. They carve out niches for themselves and welcome followers to a special corner of the Internet.

Under such circumstances we can easily construct for ourselves exquisitely manicured walled gardens that pass for the world at large. Only with conscious effort and an open mind can we knock down the walls and endeavor to see the world around us with clarity.