We Like Thoughtful Conservatives (and How Technology Can Improve News)

We hate to get into an argument with colleagues at another think tank.  But Mike Gonzalez, the vice president of communications at the Heritage Foundation and a former journalist at the Boston Herald and Wall Street Journal, has posted a column at The Federalist on “Understanding The Left’s Grip on Media” that should outrage conservatives.

Recently, we published a Brookings Institution policy report entitled “Nudging News Consumers and Producers Toward More Thoughtful, Less Polarized Reactions” which made the argument that we need to find ways to encourage more thoughtful reporting. Since the report came out, we have gotten positive reactions from a number of different folks.

But Mr. Gonzalez is not happy with our recommendations. He alleges that in arguing for more thoughtful reporting, we are ultra-liberals seeking to suppress conservative points of view and assert elite control over newsgathering. Just for the record, we are not ultra-liberals and we actually have voted for Republicans and Democrats (plus the occasional Independent) at various points in time.

The reason conservatives should be upset with Mr. Gonzalez is he expresses a very low opinion of conservative news reporting. In attacking our call for a greater range of viewpoints in news coverage and more thoughtful reporting on the part of journalists, he misconstrues our argument as seeking to hurt conservative voices. That is not what we argue in our paper and any serious reading of it would see that our calling for thoughtful reporting, serves as an invocation to people across the political spectrum: conservative, liberal, populist, libertarian, or other.

Mr. Gonzalez also takes umbrage at our suggestion that Internet search engines and social media sites should nudge people towards more thoughtful information sources by employing criteria other than mere popularity in news readership.  Right now, many sites push readers towards Britney Spears stories or Lady Gaga memes because they assume that if something is popular and widely-read, that makes it good and therefore of interest to other people. There certainly are many widely-read stories that have important content, but we also believe that there are conservative, liberal, populist, and libertarian stories that deserve attention because of their thoughtfulness.

We are pleased that Facebook already has announced that it is embracing this approach. In a recent Facebook posting, “News Feed FYI,” the company’s engineering manager Varun Kacholia and its software engineer Minwen Ji noted its News Feeds has begun to emphasize thoughtful posts over popular content.  According to their statement:

“We’ve noticed that people enjoy seeing articles on Facebook, and so we’re now paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content…. Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme. Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile. This means that high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.”

Similarly, at a Brookings event in June 2013, Jonathan Rauch sat down with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to discuss Twitter as the “global town square.” During their conversation, Costolo explained how the company has also experimented with balancing the “roar of the crowd” with “high authority accounts” in order to separate the signal from the noise. Twitter is working on allowing users to differentiate between substance and trends in a conversation thread, which is particularly useful during planned and unplanned events.

We believe these are terrific ideas and applaud Facebook and Twitter for making these changes. These steps will help conservative, liberal, populist, and libertarian writers find an audience for their work. Mr. Gonzalez should encourage these moves, not denigrate them.