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The Need for Common Frames of Reference

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I have a colleague whose positions on most things political are very far from my own. I know this because he and I are friends on Facebook and we're both inclined to post links to articles dealing with current affairs that we think are either spot-on or infuriating. Perhaps not surprisingly, we almost never post links from the same sources. When we comment on each other's posts -- which we do regularly -- we do so with a combination of good humor and a bewildered attitude of "can he really believe this and does he really trust this news source?"

He does, and so do I. Part of this is just a natural and healthy diversity of political opinions that the Internet helps nurture. But part of it, too, is the tendency for news consumers to seek out sites that reflect their own positions. This isn't always done consciously. Rather, it's an illustration of two things. The first is the natural human tendency toward what social scientists call "confirmation bias." We're inclined to trust news sources that people we agree with recommend and to mistrust news sources favored by those with whom we disagree.

In addition, people have a natural inclination to reduce variety and to choose the comforts of regularity and predictability. As a result, we frequently become reliant on just a small handful of news sources. (I have five or six news sites I routinely visit.) This might be okay if people on diverging sides of the political spectrum had some overlap in the sites they choose. Unfortunately, they often don't.

One of the great achievements of the Internet has been the explosion of websites, blogs, etc. dedicated to politics and the news, providing a platform for every political opinion imaginable. This very same achievement, however, has paradoxically resulted in the erosion of a common frame of reference for understanding the news, particularly news about politics. Thus, the failure of my colleague and I to understand the premises from which the other sometimes operates.

At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I lament the loss of that common frame of reference.

It wasn't too long ago that many mid-sized cities (and most large cities) had at least two daily newspapers, one delivered in the morning and one delivered in the afternoon. Both papers would carry the major stories of the day, with the slower news cycle allowing for an unfolding and updating of stories as the day or days went by. One newspaper may have had an editorial position that slanted conservative and the other an editorial position that slanted liberal. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of shared news and perspective and readers often read both.

The same was true of the major weekly news magazines. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s my parents subscribed to either Time or Newsweek, switching from one to the other when one of the magazines angered them so much that they swore it off -- at least for the time being. They'd switch back when the other one angered them (or when they received a favorable subscription offer).

The point is that in my nostalgic recollections of the not-too-distant past there was a relatively small set of news sources -- newspapers, magazines, television, and radio -- from which a majority of Americans gathered most of their news. It wasn't a perfect system and it didn't include all voices. Indeed, in 1961 the New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling warned that the United States was heading toward a "monovocal, monopolistic, monocular press."

Despite its flaws, that smaller set of news sources helped foster a common understanding of what the major political issues of the day were, and provided shared touchstones for discussing and formulating positions on those issues.

That's no longer the case. Except for the largest metropolitan areas, a majority of American cities are down to one newspaper, and that newspaper may be struggling to stay afloat. Newsweek ceased its print edition at the end of last year and its all-digital life may not be too long.

While sipping my coffee one morning last week I read an article in my local newspaper, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, to which I still subscribe. The article, which originated with the Associated Press and was published in newspapers around the country, suggested that "Americans still think alike much of the time even if our politicians don't." It went on to argue that the big divide in the country is not between American citizens but "between Washington and the rest of the nation."

I'm skeptical. Yes, I believe that there are broad areas in which political consensus can be achieved in this country. However, I don't think it is just that Washington, D.C. is polarized while the rest of the country is more harmonious. Instead, I think a very real problem is the difficulty in finding common frames of references from which to have discussions about how to find consensus on major political issues. Until we can find some way to resolve that problem, I'm not optimistic that we'll be able to overcome the attitude polarization that is a hallmark of American life today.