This is the 2nd installment in a series of posts outlining the divided nature of the United States of America. All posts can be found here.
One of the hallmarks of a functional society is not just the availability and constant dissemination of information, but also the diverse sources that perform the act of dissemination. As an extreme, take North Korea for instance where there are a few media outlets (radio, print and TV) but they are all controlled by the same one source – the leadership of Kim Jong-Un. Contrast that to a country like the United States where there are approximately 1300 newspapers, hundreds of radio stations, and hundreds of news channels – and they are controlled by many different groups including many that are independently owned.
So yes, the United States has way more freedom of press than North Korea (duh!). But this is not a binary measurement with North Korea as 0 and the United States as 1. There is a full spectrum of possibilities in between. We all know the consequences of the lack of freedom of press in a country like North Korea. But it would be incorrect to presume that the other extreme is perfect. Far from it. As we will see below, a free press doesn’t necessarily mean a fair press. It is not just the veracity of the reporting that counts in a free press. What counts equally is what is and what is not reported by each source of information.
(For the sake of ease of putting my point across in this post, I am going to use the phrases ‘sources of information’, ‘information outlets’, ‘media house’, ‘news outlet’ and ‘media’ interchangeably. But what they will refer to is any platform through which information is disseminated on any topic. Additionally, when I refer to news outlets covering and presenting only ‘specific topics’ or ‘different sets of facts about a topic’, it is implied to include instances of news outlets presenting selective facts on a topic, covering only developments that peddle a certain narrative or that are favorable to an organization/ideology, providing disproportionately large amounts of airtime/print space to people espousing a certain point of view, present information/opinion in an us vs them format, etc).
The Ideal World and the Real World
In an ideal world, people think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information on hand and with no inherent bias. But we do not live in such a world. We live in a world where people believe that they think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information, and they believe that they do so with no inherent bias.
Another aspect of an ‘ideal world’ would be that any information disseminated by a source is both complete and unbiased. This means that any news outlet would provide all the different pieces of information on a given topic while providing the appropriate emphasis on each of those different pieces. But we all know that is also not the reality.
The reality is that different media outlets provide and emphasize different sets of facts on the same topic, but rarely present all the facts about it. Each outlet, of course, strongly believes that the specific sets of facts that they are emphasizing are the ones that deserve the attention of the society. So what we end up having is a large number of sources of information disseminating and emphasizing different sets of facts with each believing that their ‘coverage’ is the more relevant (or even important) one to the society. However, none of these media outlets would cover all the facts of the topic at hand.
How We SHOULD be Consuming Information
There is a very important distinction to be made here. It is one thing to have different media outlets emphasizing different pieces of information on a given topic but still doing so within the context of the overall umbrella of information on that topic. It is something totally different when the various media outlets choose to present and emphasize only certain pieces of information while partially or completely ignoring the rest of the facts on that topic. The former is an instance where the diversity of the information outlets becomes an asset by being able to provide a voice for those specific (parts of) topics that would otherwise have not been emphasized elsewhere. The latter implies straight up bias where the media outlets are deliberately disseminating a specific set of information while withholding another set of information.
Now let us take our real world where we have the latter scenario – one in which there are many different outlets that are disseminating information on different topics or different parts of the same topic, and exhibiting clear bias. In such a society, what would a rational person do if they sought information on a wide ranging topic such as, say, immigration?
First and foremost, they would go to one source of information and gather all the facts from that source. But importantly, they would also identify and acknowledge that the first source does not necessarily provide all the facts of the topic. This would then compel them to seek out a different source of information that would provide the facts that were necessarily not part of the first source’s coverage. Then they would repeat this until they believe that they have reasonably covered all the different aspects of the topic at hand. With this, they would then have a perspective on the topic based on complete information about the wide ranging aspects of that topic. And if society was filled with such people, we would have a very well informed population who would call for specific and reasonable action to address the issues of the society.
How we Actually Consume Information
(OK now let me return from that awesome parallel universe to our own less impressive one.)
But unfortunately, we human beings are not a rational species. We are not even meant to be a rational species based on the way our brain works – which means we have to put in that much more effort to behave rationally. So what this means is that we all have inherent biases that are hard to get rid of. It also means that it is extremely hard for us to actively seek out information that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs or opinions. These two fundamental traits influence and manifest in the way we consume information.
Because of our inherent bias, we are already predisposed to certain sources of information. These outlets typically cover and emphasize specific people, topics or parts of topics that we are already in (at least) general agreement with. Consuming information from such a source will further reinforce our pre-existing beliefs and opinions about a topic while gathering no new or potentially contradictory facts about the same topic.
This will lead us to a deeper entrenchment into the same set of beliefs and opinions thereby helping our brain get even more cozy in its comfort zone. And then, the vicious cycle turns into more like a spiral where we get entrenched deeper and deeper into our own sets of beliefs and becoming increasingly incapable of processing any information contradictory to it.
But unfortunately, that is how information is consumed in this day and age. We gather our information from sources that typically disseminate the kind of information we already agree with, while (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding sources of information which provide information that could potentially be contradictory to what we already believe in. Essentially, we are all slaves to our confirmation bias.
In the next post, we will look at how such a mode of information consumption impacts society in general.