Monday, April 07, 2008

Uncircling the Wagons

In a response to my post about citizen fact-checkers, Samuel Brainsample of the "Lots O' Thoughts" blog made very good point.
Cass Sunstein... wrote a book recently about how there is a tendency to surround yourself with like-minds online, and potentially use sorting tools (like StumbleUpon) to filter out news you might not like to hear.
And he's quite right. It's certainly not a new phenomenon. When people in major metropolitan areas had two or more newspapers available to them, the paper one subscribed to often served as an indication of their political preference. Even as newspapers consolidated, that remained true.

I grew up in the Washington area, and it made a difference if one read the Washington Post (Democrat) or the Evening Star (Republican). And after the Star's demise, the Washington Times took over the role as the conservative paper.

And of course the same holds true for TV news. Conservative friends of mine are quite content to watch Fox News and only Fox News because they like the world view it presents. The same is true of radio. Public radio is seen as a liberal news outlet, and Rush Limbaugh et al provide news and opinions for conservatives.

So it's always been easy to build an informational echo chamber that continually reflects back the same views on the same stories -- the Internet just makes the process more efficient. I've talked before about what I call the digital subdivision, and how one be online a good amount of time and only be minimally aware of what's going on.

So how do I use the Internet to keep my world view as wide as possible? Here's what I do:
  1. Rely on reputable news sources that provide a good deal of the basic information many others redistribute.
  2. Never ever listen to talking heads of any persuasion. I prefer the "Oh yeah? Says who?" approach. That is, examining the source materials and forming my own opinion.
  3. Maintain an element of randomness, so that I'm exposed to information I wouldn't otherwise see.
I accomplish this through a mix of websites, podcasts, and newspapers. Here's the ones that make up part of my morning routine:

The Internet
  • BBC International Edition -- A good overview of what's happening in the world. Anna Nichole Smith's death never rated a top headline here.
  • -- This keeps me up with the latest science news; accurate and not watered down for the general public.
  • -- I don't need my senators and representatives telling me what kind of job they're doing. I can see for myself what bills they're sponsoring, when they're sitting on their hands, and when they're present to vote (and how they vote).
  • -- It keeps me current with what's happening in the arts, both from the creative side, and the business/political side.
  • -- A nice compendium of random strangeness (see point 3 above).
  • -- This is another of my randomizer sites. Most of the stories are tech-oriented, but sometimes things pop up I'd never see otherwise.
  • Deutsche Welle's "Inside Europe" - A weekly "Morning Edition"-style program that covers the important stories in Europe that we often miss over here (except when the consequences come to bite us in the a**).
  • This Week in Tech (TWIT) - A weekly program of all things tech. Most of the trends discussed turn up in the mainstream media months after the fact.
  • This Week in Media - A little more techy than TWIT, tis weekly program often goes into more detail about media-related issues, production, and developments.
  • The Washington Post -- We get the Sunday edition of this liberal newspaper, primarily for the arts and entertainment features (and the best, albeit shrinking, selection of Sunday comics offline).
  • The Richmond Times-Dispatch -- We get this conservative newspaper the other six days of the week, primarily for state news (remember, I live in Virginia). Although it does have two full pages of comics.
  • The Orange Review -- I live in Orange County, Virginia. This weekly paper is a good way to keep up with what's going on. And sometimes its about the only way.

Putting it down in a list, it seems like a lot, but its not, really. It take me about twenty minutes to read the weekday paper, and another 20 minutes to check the news sites. The podcasts, of course, I listen to throughout the week (primarily in the car).

I like to think I'm getting a broad range of basic information, but I'm sure I have some blind spots. What sites do you recommend?

- Ralph


  1. Excellent post. I'll be sure to check out Open Congress.

    As far as news sources go, I've got an RSS application for my browser with everything from FOX News to the ACLU (also a ton of Congressmen, newspapers, online news magazines, non-profit organizations and blogs). NPR also has a great desktop application where you can get a news crawl and radio at the bottom of your screen. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

    If you're a glutton for punishment, you can also check out TalkingPointsMemo and Ben Smith at Politico for excruciating detail on the Presidential race. But if you avoid talking heads (which you absolutely should), then this might not seem very appealing.

    Oh, and Digg.

    As far as your central point goes, I think you pretty much nailed it. People can already insulate themselves, and, if anything, the Internet makes alternate viewpoints more accessible.

  2. Okay, I'm in love with OpenCongress now. I'll check out This Week in Media, too.

    More recommendations:
    Brian Lehrer

    Glenn Greenwald

    Bill Moyers

    On the Media (this one can be hit-or-miss)

  3. These are great suggestions -- and I've received a few more offline that I'll share in a new post. Thanks!

    The other problem is simply one of time -- there are some other technical sites that I monitor, in addition to my news sources. I have to balance how much time I spend gathering information against the rest of my day (when I'm more or less required to be productive).

    - Ralph