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.

reporter holding microphone and taking notes
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  • 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.

chart showing Americans' trust in media data from 1997 to 2019

Gallup

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.
Newsroom employment chart

Pew

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.

Study data infographic

Social Media + Society

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.

Muck Rack Trends

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.

An artist's depiction of Lola.

Tom Björklund
Surprising Science
  • Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
  • Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
  • The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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