The Dangers of Niche Media

Yesterday, I attended Tufts’ annual Edward R. Murrow Form on Issues in Journalism. This year’s forum featured George Stephanopoulos, ABC News’ chief anchor and previous communications director for Bill Clinton’s 1991 presidential campaign.

Stephanopoulos touched on a range of issues, but primarily spoke about polarization – “not just in politics, but in life.”

He spoke about how news used to be “by appointment.” In Murrow’s day, everyone tuned into the evening news at night.

But now, like so many thing, our media habits have become polarized as well.

“Everything is mass and everything is niche,” he said. “When you have niche media, no one needs to go anywhere else for news.”

He pointed to the debate over President Obama’s birth certificate as proof of the challenges inherent in a high choice media system. After Obama’s birth certificate had been produced, some 50% of people who had voted in the republican primary still thought the President had not been born in America.

“It’s harder to get people to agree on basic facts when no one has their beliefs challenged,” Stephanopoulos observed.

Of course, these observations on the effects of media choice are nothing new.

Markus Prior, among others, has looked in great detail at the increasing proliferation of news sources. In Post-Broadcast Democracy, Prior discusses the idea of “byproduct learning” – learning that occurs by being exposed to messages through the daily process of living.

For example, in Murrow’s day, not only did everyone watch the same newscast, when they went to the movies they were exposed to “newsreels,” short news films shown before the main feature.

As media becomes more efficient, offering greater choice and more niche markets, we decrease the existence of byproduct learning. This runs the risk of people only seeking out the news sources which reinforce their view.

There’s a great deal of debate on this topic, of course – since having more media choice has also led to more information and perspectives available than ever before.

But in the meantime, as Stephanopoulos says, “the Republican Primary will take place on FOX News.”


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