Perhaps I was all wrong on this Internet thing …

For a long time, I was a firm believer in what University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein argued in his 2001 book : That the Internet is a great example of narrow-casting and that that's bad for democracy. Sunstein's book was, I thought, a good start for the case that traditional mass media's role is actually more important in the Internet age.
Why? Well, when we log on, we usually know what information we want, so we seek it out. Increasingly sophisticated software agents, in fact, will help us find more of what we want. Our bookmarks are filled with sites which echo our interests.
Mass media, on the other hand, is different. We don't know what we will find as we turn the pages of the newspaper or watch a newscast. When we open the paper or turn on the TV, all we ask is “What's going on?”
As a result, through the mass media, will be exposed to information we never even thought to seek out. We will learn new things about parts of the world we never knew about and we will be exposed to ideas and opinions which may enrage us. Most of all, because many of us in a given community are reading or viewing the same paper or newscast, the community has some things in common to talk about. This is good for a healthy democracy.
So along comes the Pew Internet and American Life Project and they say fears I had (and, I suppose, Sunstein had) about the weakening of the democracy are unfounded. Pew researchers thought they would examine the premise that this echo-chamber effect of the Internet inhibits citizens in a democracy from colliding with others they would not otherwise collide with.

“…prominent commentators have expressed concern that growing use of the internet would be harmful to democratic deliberation. They worried that citizens would use the internet to seek information that reinforces their political preferences and avoid material that challenges their views. That would hurt citizens’ chances of contributing to informed debates.
The new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Information survey belies those worries. It shows that internet users have greater overall exposure political arguments, including those that challenge their candidate preferences and their positions on some key issues.”

The Pew report goes on to say:

While all people like to see arguments that support their beliefs, internet users are limiting their information exposure to views that buttress their opinions. Instead, wired Americans are more aware than non-internet users of all kinds of arguments, those that challenge their preferred candidates and issue positions.
Some of the increase in overall exposure merely reflects a higher level of interest politics among internet users. However, even when we compare Americans who similar in interest in politics and similar in demographic characteristics such as and education, our main findings still hold. Internet users have greater overall exposure to political arguments and they also hear more challenging arguments.

Interestingly enough, the report continues on to say:

Television is the primary news source for political information, broadband users increasingly get their information online. Three-quarters of all Americans (78%) say television is a main source. Some 38% of Americans say newspapers are a primary source; 16% the internet; and 4% say magazines.

and I think here is the key passage for those, like me, who worried that those who lived and died by Internet sites were locking themselves into information silos:

Internet news is mostly used as a complement to more traditional media. Still, a large number of people have gone to non-traditional Web sites to get information. People are not abandoning traditional news media for the internet. Of those who get news online on an average day, 90% also got news from a newspaper or TV.

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