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Steady Diet of Partisan News Hampers Political Compromise

In this video, NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman talks with Sean Munson about his browser extension Balancer.

When it comes to politics and policy, engaging with people and content that mirror only one’s own ideological beliefs can hamper efforts at compromise, says Sean Munson, a University of Washington assistant professor.

As a remedy, Munson has developed Balancer, a Chrome web browser extension that aims to help people who get their news online analyze the level of balance in political ideology they encounter through their online reading habits.

Balancer does this by classifying the political leaning more than 10,000 news websites, and political blogs on a spectrum ranging from conservative to liberal perspectives.

A “stick-man” icon in the right corner of the web page informs readers on the political slant of their reading history. If the content they have been reading skews too far to the “left” or to the “right,” Balancer will recommend websites that offer a different viewpoint.

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Munson says exposure to diverse political content is important in efforts to develop consensus on controversial public policy issues.

“If you always see one view, and you keep being told you are right by everything that you read and everyone that you talk with, you can start to forget that other viewpoints might be valid,” Munson says. “Governance becomes impossible, or at least very difficult, if people are all off in ideological echo chambers.”

Munson’s interest in analyzing political ideology started early. In high school and through college he maintained a political blog, even earning media credentials to cover the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Despite the blog’s success, he deleted it after the election.

“My hope was to have a dialogue with people who might not agree with me, and that wasn’t really happening,” he said.

In graduate studies at the University of Michigan, he found an adviser with similar interests and now pursues research on how online news consumers seek out news about politics. His work includes projects that aim to increase the diversity of political content appearing on news aggregation sites, such as Reddit and Digg.

With online news websites, political blogs and news aggregation sites fast becoming the main filter for many, a steady diet of partisan news could stymie efforts to get people who live in the same community, but on opposite sides of the ideological fence, to agree on public policy.

Political experts have described the current period in the country’s history as the most partisan in recent memory. Gridlock among lawmakers on Capitol Hill and harsh criticism in campaign trail speeches and television ads characterized the long months leading up to Election Day 2012.

The partisan atmosphere even trickled down to “main” street in the final weeks of the election with instances across the country of passive-aggressive behavior against campaign yard signs.

The new legislative session on Capitol HIll and in communities across the country starts at the beginning of the year and gives lawmakers and citizens another opportunity to tackle immigration reform, tax reform among other weighty issues.

In addition to people making an active decision to seek out opposing viewpoints, Munson says news aggregation sites may need to employ algorithms that present more diverse political content to readers.

“There’s a lot of work that says that when people encounter challenging opinions, they learn more, they solve problems better,” Munson says. “If their preferred policy solution wasn’t chosen, they might understand why it’s not chosen or at least be tolerant of it, rather than creating some conspiracy theory about how something was stolen from them or how the other side stole the election or passed a bill in the dead of night.”

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