The dissolution of news: selective exposure, filter bubbles, and the boundaries of journalism

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States, there is much soul-searching about the state of journalism: How could journalists have been so wrong? How and why did they misread the electorate? Is political journalism fundamentally broken, given how much of it is built around horse-race polling that was shown to be erroneous anyway? Did data journalism, so recently seen as a key part of journalism’s digital future, fail us? As one exasperated observer put it: “So all the fact-checking of Trump’s lies, all the investigative journalism about his failures, even the tapes—none of it meant anything.” In short, what happened to news and its normative purpose in the political process?

Setting aside their relative merits for a moment, these critiques and others like them carry an implicit assumption: “news” still means more or less what we think it means. But is that really a safe assumption, anymore? In much of journalism studies, and in much of the metajournalistic discourse that occurs as pundits and audiences alike critique the press and its performance, the discussion often assumes that when we talk about news, we’re all more or less talking about the same thing – that there’s some kind of thingy-ness to recognizing news as news.

True, there have always been charges of media bias and manipulation, and lately no shortage of mistrust in the press much like other professions and institutions. Moreover, as we show in Boundaries of Journalism, determining what counts as journalism and who counts as a journalist is a perpetual struggle for definitional control. Nevertheless, news was assumed to be something everyone recognized, even if with a certain distaste for the product or disdain for its producers. You didn’t have to like the news, but you recognized it when you saw it.

No single trend explains the dissolution of news. For example, consider what has happened to news from the perspective of Trump supporters in rural America. As Joshua Benton points out in Nieman Journalism Lab, newspapers that served as key community institutions have been hollowed out, much like the factories and church pews, and the print-to-digital shift has only accelerated the concentration of power to coastal news elites—the same elites who mostly responded to Trump and his ilk with snark and scorn, either explicitly on Twitter or implicitly in their framing of news coverage. Cable news and talk radio provide platforms for challenging the legitimacy of so-called “mainstream news” with incessant claims of liberal media bias while encouraging selective exposure among partisan lines.

More recently, social media make possible (cheap-to-make) fake news, the easy spreadability of misinformation, and the social and algorithmic orientations toward homophily. Together, those influences won the day (for example see thisthis or this). Shared notions of “news” did not. Facebook especially, as Benton puts it, has “become a single point of failure for civic information… Some of it is driven by ideology, but a lot is driven purely by the economic incentive structure Facebook has created: The fake stuff, when it connects with a Facebook user’s preconceived notions or sense of identity, spreads like wildfire.” The central problem is that social media, rather than being a mere source of political information, is increasingly the structure for political discussion, as Phil Howard of the Oxford Internet Institute describes: “Social media platforms have provided a structure for spreading around fake news, we users tend to trust our friends and family, and we don’t hold media technology firms accountable for degrading our public conversations.”

What we ended up with was a filter bubble election. The decline of shared news, the echo chambers of partisan media, and the algorithms that serve confirmation biases coalesce in frightening ways for the future of the republic. Much of the post mortem criticism now being levelled at the news media assumes that basic terms like “news” have some shared understandings attached to them, some agreed-upon normative expectations for journalism in public life. We shouldn’t be so sure anymore, and scholars need to figure out why.

This is also an ongoing issue, not a static one. It is clear that the forces of division in politics and in the media ecology reinforce each other in ways that portend greater cleavages for future elections. One way forward is to move beyond an interest in how information circulates across channels to attend more to what these messages are from a holistic viewpoint. No single laid-off newspaper reporter, talk-radio broadcast, or item in a social media newsfeed can explain the forces that are shaping how we think about journalism. It is only by looking across these outlets and their interconnections that we can hope to understand the media world that surrounds us.