Frank Athens of the Washington Posts makes an accusation that one hears often cast against blogging:
“[The most] troubling trait of the Internet [is that] Rather than opening minds, it can close them, thanks to echo-chamber Web sites and blogs. We like to read Web sites and blogs that we agree with and that reinforce our opinions. Aside from the few of you who practice “know your enemy” browsing, how many of you liberals read http://www.nationalreview.com/? How many of you conservatives frequent http://www.thenation.com/?
His implication is that blog consumption is ideologically self-referential: liberals read Daily Kos; conservatives read powerlineblog and so on. And never the twain do meet. (See comment by Jeff Jarvis).
Is this true?
First, Athens’ unstated premise is that “neutral platforms” like, say the Washington Post, are superior content providers because they offer an internal marketplace of different, competing ideas, each given equal weight. Well, I’m not sure how many people, left or right, truly believe that the Washington Post, or any television network, delivers, impartial, fair, balanced or objective coverage of the issues of the day. And, as posted here, and commented on by others, partisanship, not objectivity was the norm in the era in which our Founders first safeguarded a free and open press.
Second, it is true that a good deal of research on human cognition supports the premise that we seek out “feedback that fits”: our perception, retention, and opinion-evaluations are selective and self-serving.
But as to the content selection behavior of bloggers, the answer is complicated, at least in my experience. For the last three years, I have used the thousands of undergraduates in my “Intro to Mass Media” classes as survey respondents and test subjects for studies of their media use patterns, especially the interplay between their readership and viewership of different media such as, for example, the Internet versus television or of types of publications presented in different media, such as reading newspapers in print versus online.
Here are two major lessons I draw from my research as it pertains to blogging, partisanship and the mainstream media.
1. BLOGS CAN BE PORTALS TO MAINSTREAM MEDIA
Several years ago, I noted an interesting phenomenon that runs contrary to much popular wisdom of the “decline in readership” of newspapers. I would assign students to read political blogs. As you know, a good deal of blog content is commentary on existing news stories; almost always it is the case that even when that commentary is extremely negative, the blogger provides a hyperlink to the original story of the online version of the paper or magazine. Yet, when I would query my students about their readership of newspapers and magazines online, they would claim that they were not consuming them at all or were doing so at the low rates with which we are all familiar. In short, I was able to confirm that, for example, Student A had in fact read, over the past week, several dozen articles from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek via the blog portal, in her or his mind did not classify that as actually reading a newspaper because, to use the language of Pew Internet studies, their encounters with online periodicals were “inadvertent”–that is, they did not start out by seeking those stories and sources as places to go for information.
2. PARTISAN BLOGS ENCOURAGE READING OF OPPOSING PARTISAN BLOGS
It is true, as I had said, that most political bloggers I know take politics more seriously than do most politicians, political reporters, and pundits and political professionals I know: they care. When I sat on the Board of the American Association of Political Consultants a few years ago, I saw that many political workers, from media consultants to congressional staff, care about issues and ideologies, but most do not adhere to them fanatically. For example, Republican and Democratic political consultants, staffers and politicians will have friends across the fence or the chamber. Many view politics as a game or a business. But no rightblogger I know is pals with a leftblogger. I’m sure there are some ideologically driven political bloggers out there who vilify each other and then grab a brew together at the local pub, but I have never talked to them. For one thing, of course, cybercommunities do not tend to have cross-community mixers. There are plenty of incentives and opportunities for a Republican Congressional staffer and a Democratic party worker to have lunch in Washington, to play tennis, or even to marry: a rightblogger in Des Moines, Iowa and a leftblogger in Manchester, New Hampshire are confined largely to sniping at each other, sometimes viciously, online. That is not to say that dialogue does not exist. The political bloglands offer a marketplace of ideas, but we should keep in mind that the vendors in the stalls don’t shake hands and go have drinks after a day of heated competition.
But, again, in reports from my students, they are, in fact, reading enemy blogs in the following ways:
a. Many students report that they do want to hear what “the other side” on an issue has to say, and go to opposing blogs to hear it.
b. Students who have their own political blogs report that they regularly seek out “what the enemy” blogs have to say on controversial issues of the moment.
c. When a leftbloggers attacks a rightblog post, my students, who had started out reading the initial post, go and read its opposing viewpoint.
d. When using google blogsearch for blog views on a topic, my students would find “hits” on many blogs, and go read them regardless of ideology–which they might not know anyway at first from the title for the blog itself.
e. As in newspaper reading, my students tended to under report viewing of opposition blogs–which they admitted in conversation rather than in surveys.
I make no claim that a high level meeting of minds is occurring, but blogging is still evolving and so is its audience. We don’t know how blogging will be used for news and opinion interaction a few years from now: a true market place of ideas, or as continual confirmation of one’s own prejudices. But as of now, it is simplistic to say that bloggers only read that which with they agree.
See also a good post related to this topic by Rebecca Blood.
Originally posted January 10, 2006 at PolicyByBlog