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The homogeneity of the news media can now be quantified
New research reveals the extent to which groupthink bias is increasingly being built into the content we consume.
- When ownership of news sources is concentrated into the hands of just a handful of corporations, the kind of reporting that audiences get to see is limited and all the more likely to be slanted by corporate interests.
- Newsroom employment has declined dramatically over the past decade, and this has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The findings of a new University of Illinois study suggest that Washington journalists operate in insular microbubbles that are vulnerable to consensus seeking. If the reporters on the Hill are feeding America copycat news information, we are all at risk of succumbing to groupthink.
Distrust of the media is a growing phenomenon in the U.S., with many Americans feeling that mainstream news media presents biased views and an alarming number saying they're reluctant to believe what is being reported.
It's easy to make the argument that media consolidation is to blame for this trend.
When ownership of news sources is concentrated into the hands of just a handful of corporations, the kind of reporting that audiences get to see is limited and all the more likely to be slanted by corporate interests.
Combined with the contraction of traditional local print news in the face of infotainment TV and clickbait-influenced web publishing, journalists are becoming increasingly homogeneous in their views and more susceptible to groupthink.
Deregulation and the rise of new media
Up until the 1980s, the federal government worked to prevent media consolidation in partnership with the FCC. But under Reagan, many of the existing regulations were shelved, giving corporations greater leeway in acquiring local news outlets.
The deregulatory trend persisted, arguably culminating with Clinton's 1996 Telecommunications Act. A watershed moment for news media homogeneity, the law essentially permitted corporations to amass large numbers of local newspapers and news stations, granting hegemons access to almost every household in America.Traditional news outlets have been suffering for years with the rise of cable networks and the advent of web publishing. With free content constantly available online, many outlets have given up the ghost and shut down print and broadcast. Newsroom employment has declined dramatically over the past decade, and this has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The outlets that are left standing are now under corporate ownership and are reliant on social media platforms for distribution. Trading hard-hitting news for click baiting has a direct impact on both the format of the news and the kind of information that is disseminated.
One effect of the contraction of the news industry is that journalists are networking with fewer peers and sources. In one recently published study, "Sharing Knowledge and 'Microbubbles': Epistemic Communities and Insularity in US Political Journalism," researchers from the University of Illinois explore the extent to which groupthink bias is increasingly being built into the content we consume.
The study even goes so far as to measure news media homogeneity using data from journalists' interactions on social media. Analyzing 680,021 tweets posted by 2,292 accounts belonging to credentialed journalists, the researchers concluded that "beltway insularity," as they call the phenomenon, can easily be grouped into nine distinct clusters.
The findings of the study suggest that Washington journalists operate in insular microbubbles that are vulnerable to consensus seeking. If the reporters on the Hill are feeding America copycat news information, we are all at risk of succumbing to groupthink.
Critics have two main concerns with this consensus-reinforcing phenomenon: a less diverse output of storylines and takes on those storylines, and the ease with which unsubstantiated or shoddily substantiated reporting can get picked up by mainstream news outlets.
Record distrust in the media industry
There's never been a time in American history when the sources of information were so doubted. Even after Watergate, trust in the media stood at 74 percent. At last count, Gallup found that just 20 percent of American have confidence in print and broadcast journalism, two more percentage points than TV news received in the same poll.
There is a growing concern that news media is biased, that reporters don't just report but curate and editorialize, and that the money behind the news has an impact on what is reported and how. This suspicion is fodder for conspiracy theorists who vilify the mainstream media and offer alternative facts to what is available. Playing on people's fears, alternative outlets online are picking up steam and spreading misinformation (and deliberate disinformation).
For example, although many leading news outlets – including The Washington Post, The Independent, The New York Times and even Fox News – independently debunked the "Pizzagate" conspiracy as soon as it began to spread in 2016, media coverage of the story has steadily risen throughout the past year.
Recent examples of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 achieving widespread popularity attest to this trend. Other examples include climate change denial, the QAnon "deep state" conspiracy, and others. Where public trust in news media is lacking, fake news fills the void.
Fewer journalists means fewer voices
One factor in Americans' diminishing trust in the news is that there are fewer journalists, especially local journalists, that viewers can turn to as distinct voices. Lack of local coverage and the rise of homogeneous, sensationalist journalism are perpetuating distrust and driving many Americans to look for news elsewhere – and leaving them susceptible to manipulation.
As mentioned earlier, print media has been hit hard, and broadcast journalism is also feeling the pain. With lots of newsroom layoffs and closures, having fewer journalists means exposure to fewer perspectives. This has created a situation where there is less original reporting, with more repurposing of others' stories and less fact checking, thereby contributing to the spread of misinformation.
Lack of local news has far reaching effects on democracy. One study from King's College London found that communities without local community news outlets have less public engagement and greater distrust of public institutions.
"We can all have our own social media account, but when local papers are depleted or in some cases simply don't exist, people lose a communal voice," Martin Moore, the author of the study, remarked. "They feel angry, not listened to and more likely to believe malicious rumour."
Mainstream media and fake news
Ironically, while the erosion of mainstream media is contributing to the rise of misinformation and alternative news, when outlets attempt to expose fake news, it often backfires, propelling its dissemination. Plenty of news consumers first encounter conspiracies and disinformation on the news, but rather than building trust, 72 percent of Americans believe that traditional outlets are the ones with the agenda.
And who can blame them? The parroting of identical headlines across consolidated newsrooms doesn't help instill confidence. Take for example this compilation of "local news" talking heads repeating the same script:
All of these reporters are part of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. It's hard to deny the dangers of corporate consolidation of news media when confronted with damning clips like this, and Sinclair is out for even more control. An attempted acquisition in 2017 would have put Sinclair stations in 72 percent of households with a television, but the deal was struck down by Tribune.
This is a huge amount of influence for one company, or person, to have. In an election year, this is even more pertinent.
Social media algorithms and information bubbles
Just as more Americans distrust mainstream news, the majority get their facts on social media. This wouldn't be a problem per se, but the way online news is delivered to consumers perpetuates echo chambers and information bubbles.
Social media deliberately surfaces content to individuals that confirm their views and echo previously viewed or shared content. The algorithms amplify biases and screen out dissenting opinions. Before you know it, other voices are blocked from your feed, leaving you in an echo chamber. This doesn't just apply to news, but also to targeted ads and campaigns designed for microcommunities with shared attributes.
It has never been easier to convince so many people to believe stories that aren't necessarily true – lack of trust, consolidation of news outlets, the contraction of journalism, and the pervasiveness of web news is creating isolated information bubbles that many of us now find ourselves stuck in. People naturally want to read news that confirms their beliefs.
When infotainment is commoditized and served up for quick and easy consumption, critical thinking takes a back seat.
Finding the facts on your own
With quantified evidence of journalistic groupthink and information bubbles among those who consume political information, is there hope for open dialogue and a variety of perspectives?
Ultimately, yes. However, this won't likely be coming from the news media. Choosing not to be misled and seeking out a variety of opinions and perspectives is something that each individual will likely have to do on their own, even if it means questioning one's fundamental beliefs. This entails verifying the information you read, actively engaging with people outside of your comfortable echo chamber, and even changing your mind when confronted with hard evidence.
Finding the facts on your own can be tough, but if we can't rely on the news to give us the news, there's no other choice.
- Cognitive Offloading: How the Internet Is Changing the Human Brain ›
- Yes, websites really are starting to look more similar ›
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."