What's lost, going from newspapers to websites

Cass Sunstein explains how online journalism hinders progress

Newspapers, that great arena for serendipitous discoveries, are seemingly folding by the day (the Seattle P-I and Denver's Rocky Mountain News only the latest), and with their demise comes concern that internet replacements may for the most part provide a very different experience.

Cass Sunstein, one of several Harvard professors recently installed in the Obama administration, outlined that concern and its place in the American system in an interview in Harvard Magazine shortly before departing for Washington. (

The Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard, Sunstein has been named administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.)

"Although [the internet] has the capacity to bring people together, too often the associations formed online comprise self-selecting groups with little diversity of opinion," says Sunstein, adding that these environments reinforce preexisting viewpoints, undermining the constructive dialogue that promotes progress in democracies.

Sunstein reinforces his views with three studies he has worked on in the last decade. In one, two separate groups were gathered — liberals from Boulder, Colorado, in one and conservatives from Colorado Springs in another. Interviewed individually, people on both sides expressed some diversity of views, but when they were put together within the peer group of liberals or conservatives their views became more fixed, more politically polarized. Sunstein said two other studies, involving juries and judges, had similar results.

The paradox of the new media environment is that the plethora of sources is often targeted to niche audiences, in sharp contrast to the diverse audiences of newspapers and network television, the great tribunes of the last half-century. These "shared general-interest intermediaries" not only exposed readers to diverse topics and points of view, but "created a shared experience, a social glue," Sunstein believes.

Anyone who has navigated the treacherous media waters of the last four decades can relate to Sunstein's concerns. The nation has never duplicated the "social glue" that was epitomized by Walter Cronkite's role on network television. Americans had a shared experience that benefited from a daily diet of diverse news that was seen, heard or read by Republicans and Democrats, the South and the North, young and old. Focused Internet news sites use filtering systems to push customized content to an audience that doesn't want any stories about "the other side" or even important issues outside their own narrow worldview. Sunstein notes that only 2 percent of the audience of Daily Kos, for instance, self-identifies as Republican; certainly the reverse would be true of a conservative Internet site.

Having diagnosed the problem, Sunstein suggests opportunity awaits, but only if Americans "recover our constitutional aspirations as citizens and as providers of information," and create public spaces where diverse views and content are discussed.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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