EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY: It’s time for a healthier media diet

Virginia Buckingham
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A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

Marblehead Current columnist Virginia Buckingham.

Biased media consumption – or filtering – is one of the more challenging byproducts, some would say a cause, of our country’s cultural and political divide.

If you consume your news online, as 50 percent of American adults do at least sometimes according to Pew Research Center, then it’s even more probable you are reading, watching or listening to only one side of the story, living in a news “filter bubble”.  Algorithms that follow your clicks and tastes are designed to serve you up more of the same.

It takes an effort to diversify your media diet. Yet, if we truly want to understand diverse perspectives, and therefore both broaden and deepen our own, it’s critical.

When I used to interview people for jobs, one of my first questions was “where do you get your news?” I was looking for intellectual curiosity and an open mind, which, to me, underpins creativity. If someone said, for instance, they listen to The Daily podcast from the New York Times and read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, I’d immediately offer them a job.  Kidding.  Mostly.  But that kind of deliberate exposure to different points of view says something important about one’s approach to the world.

Bias is a dirty word these days but a wise newspaper editor of mine once noted that journalism is, by its nature, biased – how could it not be, when the reporting is coming from a human mind?  That doesn’t mean reporters don’t strive to be objective, most do. With this in mind, I came across a fascinating platform recently called AllSides (www.allsides.com). Its premise is to use a proprietary “multi-partisan” research method, as well as public feedback, to rate media outlets which publish online on a scale of “left,” “lean left,” “center,” “lean right” and “right.”  Their goal is to burst “filter bubbles” which “occur when people are only exposed to news, ideas and people that confirm their existing beliefs.” They rate only legitimate news outlets, not those blogging from their basements, and there’s no hierarchy in the ratings.  It’s no better to “lean left” or “lean right” in their presentation, it just is.  

For example, AllSides pegs ABC News, Bloomberg and Politico as “lean left” and the Wall Street Journal opinion section, Fox Business and the New York Post as “lean right.”  They place Axios, the BBC, Wall Street Journal news coverage and Real Clear Politics down the center.  Regularly, the site features headlines of the same major news story from across that spectrum of coverage.  For example, last week when the Georgia United States Senate run-off was settled, they featured this headline from their “left” scale– Warnock defeats Walker, giving Democrats 51-49 majority in Senate (Atlanta Journal-Constitution); this from the center “Warnock wins Georgia Senate runoff, expanding Democratic majority (The Hill); and from the right “Warnock fends off Republican Herschel Walker in Georgia, handing Democrats outright majority in Senate (Washington Examiner). The tonal difference is subtle but marked.

When I used to write editorials for a daily newspaper, I marveled that I was paid to read five newspapers a day – what a dream!  Most people, though, don’t have the time to do the same.

Which brings me to the platform Twitter. The trending #RIPTwitter hashtag which rose in the aftermath of Elon Musk’s takeover is fading. Musk doesn’t need defending in this space – or in space, he might add!  I don’t care who owns Twitter, any more than I care who owns Facebook, the Washington Post or the Boston Globe. Each are owned by a multi-billionaire and if you’re going to succeed in the for-profit media business, it helps to have deep pockets. I’m not talking about important and local non-profit efforts like the one you are reading here. I’m talking about regional, national and international news. And on those grounds, I believe Twitter can be a foundation, as Musk does, for vibrant public debate.

I share the concern about hate speech that has caused some to flee Twitter.  I’m not a free speech absolutist like Musk when it comes to content moderation.  However, with appropriate oversight, Twitter is an excellent source of diverse news.  Sign up and try it if you aren’t yet a user. For instance, try looking at the AllSides media menu and select one outlet from each category. I follow MSNBC, the BBC, the New York Times, the New York Post, Wall Street Journal opinion and writers and politicians across the political spectrum. (I recently added the UK Daily Mail and Cher – don’t ask.) A quick check of my feed throughout the day ensures I am on top of breaking news. A diversity of perspectives ensures I get more than one point of view.

AllSides notes, “We believe diversity in thought and relationships heals divides. Less polarization allows us to appreciate others and engage in productive problem solving — and ultimately, heal our democracy.”  Like making sure your dinner plate has foods of many colors, a diverse media consumption habit is a healthier diet we all should adopt.

Virginia Buckingham is a regular columnist for the Marblehead Current and a member of its board of directors

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