Polarization and isolation… or choice and freedom?

Seeped in theory for the past two weeks, I’ve been looking for anything substantial to base my research off of. Luckily, after being buried in multiple meta-analyses and communication textbooks, I believe I have found the concept I am most interested in pursuing — selective exposure.  The concept stems from a late 1950s theory known as Cognitive Dissonance, which basically asserts that we as individuals actively avoid information that contradicts or challenges our attitudes and/or opinions. Selective exposure is the ability to pick and choose what news we want to hear, read, or see. It allows for complete individualization of news.

For some, this seems like the perfect way to consume news. Previously, when wishing to receive news from television, we had three choices (for national news) — CBS Evening News, ABC World News, and NBC Nightly News. But, in a country where we have an overwhelming number of choices for almost anything (you can personalize anything from M ‘n’ Ms to picture frames to sneakers), three just isn’t enough. Enter the cable news networks. You can choose anything from conservative-slanted programs to liberal entertainment programs. You can watch news in the morning or in the middle of the night. You can avoid the class point-counterpoint approach of the “Big Three” and listen to partisan talking heads who reinforce your beliefs about the war, poverty, social issues, or even travel.

You may have more news choices than M&M flavors, but are your choices isolating you or freeing you from the traditional news media? (Photo courtesy of Google Images)

But, if you’re not a TV person, you have unlimited more options for news consumption online. You can read only the Drudge Report or only the HuffPost. If you’re not a devoted blog reader, you can turn to the “legacies” who also have a presence online (i.e. New York Times). If you don’t trust American news outlets, you’re free to get your world news from BBC or Al Jaazera. Ahhh, instant personalization.

The bottom line is you can consume what you want, when you want, how you want. However, the appeal of this individualization has the ability to undermine an entire democracy, if you want to incredibly cynical about it. By choosing what you want to see or hear, you are systematically excluding other viewpoints or news stories. This threatens to create a very warped view of reality if individuals pigeonhole themselves into extremely partisan or biased news. Isolating oneself into a certain type of news can foster political or social intolerance, which can translate into problematic issues in the real world.

The dynamics of new media technologies are not easily untangled. They offer a world of choice and threaten a world of polarization. Balanced news seeking is key to a informational-balanced electorate.


About Abby Ecker

PR pro and healthy living blogger in the First State
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