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May 24, 2018, 10:04 a.m.

Media change deniers: Why debates around news need a better evidence base — and how we can get one

“If we let media change deniers drive the conversation, the result will be dumber journalism, less-informed public debate, and ineffective and counterproductive public policy. Even if what they say sometimes ‘feels right.'”

Do you think that most people who get news via social media are caught in filter bubbles? Do you believe that online news use is more fragmented than offline news consumption? That young people will never pay for online news? Or that bots are the main drivers of disinformation online?

If so, your views are based on arguments advanced by media change deniers — pundits who, like climate change deniers, are doubling down on arguments that are directly contradicted by a growing consensus in the best available peer-reviewed scientific research. (Don’t get me started on whether print “has a future” or the notion that linear scheduled television is doing just fine.)

Media research is different from climate change research in many ways. It is a smaller field, less well-funded, and — because it deals with human behavior — necessarily less conceptually clear. (Because we all agree on how to measure temperature, we can objectively measure global warming; because we do not have a clear and agreed upon definition of what exactly constitutes “news,” let alone “fake news,” media research is messier.) But it is science none the less, based on independent inquiry, empirical evidence, and collegial quality control through processes like peer review.

Thus if a pundit insists that filter bubbles are everywhere, and a media researcher who has had a look and published work concluding that they are not, odds are that he is wrong and she is right. On many of the most important questions concerning how our media environment is changing, we do not have the volume of peer-reviewed research that sociologists use to identify scientific consensus in quantitative terms on issues like the carcinogenicity of smoking or the (nonexistent) link between vaccines and autism. But on some issues, the evidence is accumulating, and it contradicts many assertions about our changing media environment, assertions that are central to much journalism, public debate, and policymaking.

Take the idea that the ranking algorithms that search engines and social media rely on narrow our news diets by feeding us more of what we already believe, leading us into “filter bubbles.” This is a plausible and potentially worrying scenario, and we owe Eli Pariser, who coined the term, a great debt for asking an important question. Media researchers have taken it on. And a growing number of independent, evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies have found that, in fact, search engines and social media lead most people to more diverse news — the opposite of the filter bubble hypothesis. (See for example here, here, and here.) This is a highly significant and growing scientific consensus! Pundits and others who simply disregard it and double down on the filter bubble idea are, consciously or unconsciously, media change deniers.

Research on other issues like audience fragmentation, paying for online news, or the role of bots is less developed. But again, on each of these important issues, some of the best available peer-reviewed research contradicts widely held assumptions that underpin much journalism, public debate, and some policymaking. Are media audiences more and more fragmented? Probably not. Will young people who have grown up with digital media never pay for online news? Wrong. Are bots the main drivers of the dissemination of false information online? This study says ordinary human users, not highly automated accounts, are.

No single study will conclusively answer these questions (science is cumulative and incremental), and as our media environment continues to change, so may answers to questions like these (when the facts change, our findings change). But if we want an evidence-based and informed debate about how our media are changing, what it means, and what we can do to channel these changes for the better, treating assertions and opinions as equal to work published in the Journal of Communication or Science is not much better than treating climate scientists and climate change deniers as equally credible voices.

So maybe we should worry less about filter bubbles, and more about other very real problems in our changing media environment, like growing information inequality between news lovers and those less interested, the crisis of confidence between much of the public and the news media (and increasingly technology companies), and the sharp decline in the resources invested in professional journalism, especially at the local level. And ask researchers to take seriously their responsibility to bring relevant and robust evidence to some of the most important questions in media debates today, and setting aside time to actually communicating that research by engaging with journalists, policymakers, and the public.

We have plenty of challenges to confront without worrying about often unsubstantiated issues or getting fixated by fashionable buzzwords. Researchers need to engage more, and decision makers really should take independent, evidence-based work more seriously when contemplating the future of the infrastructure of free expression. If we let media change deniers drive the conversation, the result will be dumber journalism, less-informed public debate, and ineffective and counterproductive public policy. Even if what they say sometimes “feels right.” It isn’t.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and serves as editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics.

Photo of see/speak/hear-no-evil monkeys by Anderson Mancini used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 24, 2018, 10:04 a.m.
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