Joyce Terhaar

Avoiding the ideological media echo chamber

Those among us who are the most red or blue – politically speaking – are the ones who vote, donate money to political campaigns and engage in politics.

Called “consistent conservatives” and “consistent liberals” by the Pew Research Center, they are the folks who have the most impact on the political process. Pew found they make up about 20 percent of the public overall.

You might have noticed a sibling at the Thanksgiving table who kept the conversation circling around to President Barack Obama’s immigration policy. Or perhaps it was a grandparent who brought up Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail project. Or a niece and nephew talking about climate change.

Or maybe it’s you. I hear regularly from those of you who believe, as one writer said in an email to me this fall, “I don’t ever need to read the paper’s socialist point of view.” But I also get emails like the one in late September that expressed disappointment with what the reader called “a strong shift to the political ‘right’ over recent years.”

Such different views of The Bee make all the more interesting Pew’s recent study on political polarization and media habits. It found that nationally, consistent liberals and conservatives turn to disparate media sources for their government and political news. Almost half of consistent conservatives named Fox News as their main source for such news. Consistent liberals had a wider variety of sources, including 13 percent National Public Radio, 12 percent MSNBC and 10 percent The New York Times.

It’s not just about news consumption, either; it’s about trust. Pew reported that the only national media trusted by both extremes and the middle was the Wall Street Journal. The online site Buzzfeed had the ignoble distinction of being the only news organization that no one trusted. Across all surveyed, regardless of political affiliation, CNN had the highest level of trust in its government/political reporting at 54 percent, followed by ABC and NBC news (50 percent), CBS news (46 percent), Fox News (44 percent), PBS and MSNBC (38), BBC (36) and The New York Times (34). Of those, all except Fox had half or less than half that percentage distrust them; Fox news had 37 percent distrust.

This kind of research feeds national concerns that we won’t ever learn to work together as a nation, that the sometimes bitter tone of political discourse won’t change if citizens don’t even watch or read the same news.

But, hey, wait just one minute: Pew didn’t address government and political reporting by regional or community newspapers. Nor did it spend much time with local television reporting. Given all the ink and digital space devoted to The Bee’s coverage of government and politics – along with that from many other newspapers across the country – this seems, to understate it, a big miss for a conversation about political polarization and media consumption.

In addition, Brendan Nyhan of The New York Times’ data column The Upshot pointed out that Pew’s findings are self-reported by those surveyed, which can be troublesome. Sometimes memories of what we do are different from actuality.

Nyhan reported that research by political scientist Michael LaCour of the University of California, Los Angeles, and University of Chicago economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, found that even the partisans among us consume more centrist media coverage. Pew itself cautions in its report that “in America today, it is virtually impossible to live in an ideological bubble. Most Americans rely on an array of outlets – with varying audience profiles – for political news.”

It matters where you get your news and information. It especially matters in this country today, where too few people vote. If those with the strongest political views are going to have an outsized influence on our elections, then a good starting point would be to consume accurate information and have enough different sources to be able to discern spin and point of view – whether from some media or from politicians themselves.

In its research, Pew included news sources that are more entertainment than news and have a strong point of view. “The Rush Limbaugh Show” certainly is in that category on the right, along with “The Sean Hannity Show.” On the left it’s “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show.”

The shows can be entertaining and even informative. They might help you stay on top of national or international news you missed. They won’t do it in a way that lets you form your own opinion.

Such shows might be more akin to the Opinion pages of a newspaper or online site. The difference, though, is important: We are clear that such editorials or cartoons are opinion, and we arrive at our positions after researching facts, not before. We don’t purposefully skew facts to influence you. And you might disagree and still read The Bee.

That’s why I heard for years from some of you after The Sacramento Union closed its doors in 1994. Its readers switched to The Bee because they wanted local news, but they weren’t happy about it. Toward the end, The Union encouraged a conservative voice to enter its news coverage – and that was what its readers wanted. Our coverage, without that slant, was deemed by some to be too “liberal.”

I respond to emails accusing The Bee of publishing a liberal point of view in this way: Yes, many of our editorial positions could be described as liberal. But I doubt that labor unions describe our positions that way, given our positions on public pensions and other labor issues. And up until very recently we supported the death penalty, a conservative view that changed over the years in the same way Californians’ views changed. When you look at our institutional point of view over time, it does not represent simply one part of the political spectrum.

In our news coverage, we work to present a balanced view of issues and news. Are we liberal because we cover social justice issues such as homelessness or mental health care? Some of you say yes. Are we conservative because we watch over government spending and decisions? Some of you believe we are.

Such disparate views reflect our politically polarized region. That’s a good thing. As long as partisans from opposite ends read The Bee, we’ll avoid the ideological media echo chamber that Pew reports is happening at the national level.

Call Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar, (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.