Anyone who cares about the media has heard the debate: What do we do about the Internet? Media organizations once thought they could simply add a Web site to their existing operations and continue as they always had. Then they found more and more of their audience traveling to their Web sites first, leaving the traditional outlets struggling to find viewers/readers and advertisers.
To date, the debate has focused on the money part. Internet users typically assume information online will be provided without fee. Long after that became the custom, the traditional organizations discovered they could not sell enough ads to support that model, especially in a recession.
But the discussion seems to have missed another thing the traditional media once (and sometimes still) did well: providing a smorgasbord of information that might lead a reader into something she would not have sought out. As we work out the details of the online media world, we need to consider how users can stumble across of points of view other than their own.
In the old "gatekeeper model," Someone Out There chose what stories would run where in a newspaper or on a newscast. Someone (or, more precisely, Someones) would work to balance things their audience would find entertaining with things the gatekeeper felt were important to know. Gatekeepers (let's call them editors) for most organizations would push their staff to find the other side of controversial stories.
Now? It is increasingly possible, especially for those who get their information online, to dodge all points of view that don't agree with them. Set your bookmarks or your RSS feed to the right addresses and only your politically-approved choices will appear.
The danger of that approach struck me this summer, during a visit to Northern Ireland with a group of university colleagues. We were speaking to many people who are involved in the process of reconciliation which began officially with the Good Friday accord of 1998. That agreement put into place the official structure to end 30 years of sectarian violence. But all of the Irish people we spoke with stressed that the reconciliation process requires long-term efforts.
And over and over, we heard them say this: To come together as a society, you have to understand the perspective of the "other."
"If you know the detail of somebody's story," said playwright Damian Gorman, "it's difficult to hate them." We talked with Gorman on the grounds of the Corrymeela Community, an organization created to bring people together and allow them to hear the details of those stories. Someone seeking out a program at Corrymeela already knows he will hear points of view he may not share. But many of their visitors have seen the alternative-the violence and societal shredding that takes place when you see the people on the other side as "them," something less than intelligent and maybe less than human.
During a tour in Derry, Jon McCourt told us the government had created separate facilities for the Catholic and Protestant communities, facilities that continue to exist to this day. By allowing communities not to mix, the structure allows assumptions of bad faith to continue. If you don't hear the details of someone's story, it's easy to assume she is acting in bad faith or that he is someone with whom you could never find common ground.
And haven't we seen something of the same thing in the U.S. this summer during the health care debate? What should have been an exchange of views on an issue of major importance degenerated into assumptions of bad faith and swapping of half-vetted stories. Some organizations made major efforts to offer fact-checking. But again, if I'm online and setting my feeds just right, will I ever see that fact-checking?
If you think I'm pushing the parallels, consider this item from our trip. Our driver from Belfast airport to Corrymeela told us he had noticed, soon after moving to Northern Ireland, that people had subtle ways of finding out the allegiance of a person to whom they were speaking. For example, he said, they would ask "what school did you attend?" and deduce from that which side the person was on. Is it that far from "what school" to "whose bumper sticker was on your car during the '08 election campaign?"
The media can bridge those gaps; they have done so before. Coverage of the 1960s civil rights marches, especially on television, underlined a simple fact: These are people, just like the viewers. The demonstrators told the reporters, who told the country, that they simply wanted their children to attend good schools. To quote Gorman again, people heard the stories of the other and realized they shared much.
"As a professional writer," Gorman told our group, "you cannot just speak to your own people."
But too many organizations moving onto the Web are doing just that-preaching to the converted and ignoring those who disagree. Even those organizations trying to bring diversity to their staffs and their coverage can be sabotaged by their own technology. If I set an RSS feed that allows you to see just my paper's sports pages, will you ever see the serious discussion of health care in my news feed? If you are only taking my station's entertainment feed, will you ever spot the in-depth interview on Afghanistan that takes advantage of the extra space and time on the Web?
Even a simple thing like a general RSS feed, blending news/sports/life/opinion, might help. A front page highlighting a variety of subjects could mimic a traditional front page, especially if it's not so busy that it chases browsers away. (Check the News Front Page on BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/ for one good example.)
Writing about recent violence in Northern Ireland, Duncan Morrow of the Community Relations Council said, "the rhetoric of a shared and better future depends on establishing that we have become partners-no longer seeking each other's destruction but embarked on a radically different chapter where the other's fears matter."
Our own recent troubles are political; our own recent violence is verbal. The media can help bridge that gap or allow it to open wider; their planning and execution of online presence now will help determine which way we go.