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date: 24 May 2018

Summary and Keywords

The news media have been disrupted. Broadcasting has given way to narrowcasting, editorial control to control by “friends” and personalization algorithms, and a few reputable producers to millions with shallower reputations. Today, not only is there a much broader variety of news, but there is also more of it. The news is also always on. And it is available almost everywhere. The search costs have come crashing down, so much so that much of the world’s information is at our fingertips. Google anything and the chances are that there will be multiple pages of relevant results.

Such a dramatic expansion of choice and access is generally considered a Pareto improvement. But the worry is that we have fashioned defeat from the bounty by choosing badly. The expansion in choice is blamed for both, increasing the “knowledge gap,” the gap between how much the politically interested and politically disinterested know about politics, and increasing partisan polarization. We reconsider the evidence for the claims. The claim about media’s role in rising knowledge gaps does not need explaining because knowledge gaps are not increasing. For polarization, the story is nuanced. Whatever evidence exists suggests that the effect is modest, but measuring long-term effects of a rapidly changing media landscape is hard and may explain the results.

As we also find, even describing trends in basic explanatory variables is hard. Current measures are beset with five broad problems. The first is conceptual errors. For instance, people frequently equate preference for information from partisan sources with a preference for congenial information. Second, survey measures of news consumption are heavily biased. Third, behavioral survey experimental measures are unreliable and inapt for learning how much information of a particular kind people consume in their real lives. Fourth, measures based on passive observation of behavior only capture a small (likely biased) set of the total information consumed by people. Fourth, content is often coded crudely—broad judgments are made about coarse units, eliding over important variation.

These measurement issues impede our ability to answer the extent to which people choose badly and the attendant consequences of such. Improving measures will do much to advance our ability to answer important questions.

Keywords: selective exposure, partisan media, echo chambers, filter bubbles, knowledge gaps, exposure

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