Friday, May 3, 2013

News Tribes

Has news become tribal?

In the spew that is Twitter, a retweet (that I can no longer find) raised the question of whether news consumption has become tribal.  Perhaps it was someone from Pew at a forum, but the idea is stuck in my head.  Let me explain, and propose a research project.

First, what is tribal?  Here's done definition off the net:
A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.
I'm sure there's a more social science definition out there, but let's go with the above. We all know media fragmentation and selective exposure has led to news consumption patterns -- especially cable TV -- along partisan lines.  Conservatives tend to watch Fox, liberals tend to watch MSNBC.  I'm arguing that news consumption may be tribal in a way that goes beyond ideology and partisanship, not unlike fans of a television program represent, in some ways, a tribe.  It's "us versus them," which dips into
"in-group" and "out-group" studies found in psychology and sociology, but I argue it gets more anthropological than that.  I argue that the cable networks, especially, often frame their "news" today as "us versus them."  This is especially true in the talking heads, from Bill O'Reilly to Rachel Maddow, but I suspect there are threads slipping into the news coverage as well.

Don't think this is anything new.  Journalists often frame stories this way, or good versus bad, or any number of ways.  I'm arguing that people who watch, say, Fox News are today more likely to look negatively on people who do not watch Fox News.

That's your operationalization, your measurement.  Ask people where they get their news, and then ask them what they think about people who watch other sources.  Get a bit deeper.  Ask them why they think people do so.  The answers will often fall back on our tried-and-true partisan and ideological lines, but I think we'll see an emergence of almost tribal feelings.  How do I define tribal and how do I separate it from more mundane partisan hackery?  I dunno, not yet.  It'd take more reading, more thinking, but I suspect Pew could tack on a few questions the next time they ask about news sources to see if anything does pop up.  Or, to flip it, ask why people watch their favorite news source, and what they think of people who do the same, and those who do otherwise.

There's something here, something worth pursuing.

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