Compared to the grandeur of Widener Library, which is frequented by students at the College, the more modest Kennedy School Library is perhaps reflective of its school’s public service mission. The cavernous library is nonetheless practical and widely used by the student body. Outside, there are red sofas where students can take a respite from classes and catch up on current affairs. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times are all on display. Magazines such as the The Economist, The Atlantic, and Harper’s are also lined-up and available for perusal. However, given the narrow range of views and voices these publications represent, this space is literally and figuratively an “echo chamber.”
Source bias is a behavioral bias which weighs information (even if identical in nature) from one source higher than another based on preconceived notions of reputation, influence, and authority. As a crude example, the 2018 stock predictions of the Wall Street Journal are likely to be heeded with greater weight than the Belmont Investment Club’s monthly newsletter.
However, what happens when the “sources” we hold with esteem are so out of touch and divorced from reality that they are plainly inaccurate?
“Hillary Clinton has an 85 percent chance to win” predicted the New York Times on the eve of the U.S. election. Pivit, a polling application which has a partnership with CNN, declared that Trump “had a 1 percent chance to win the GOP nomination.” 2016 was a bad year for prognosticators. In the era of ‘big data’ and hyper-connectivity, how did we get so disconnected?
These trends will only get worse. Traditional media’s advertising and circulation revenues are in structural decline. This means the budgets for in-depth and investigative journalism will only shrink—accuracy, deep analysis, and predictive power will only be curtailed by dwindling finances.
We need to re-think the range of sources we rely on and consume so we can better understand our more complex and polarized society. Reading widely and beyond the traditional sources, even if we confront views which sharply conflict with our own, is imperative if we seek to find common ground and understand both sides of the political divide.
This too must start in the classrooms and libraries at Harvard. Too often the assigned syllabus readings come from the “me-too,” consensus echo-chamber of the New York Times and FT—sources which no longer have their finger on the country’s political pulse. Like it or not, what were once “fringe voices” are increasingly the mainstream.
To illustrate this issue, I took a random sample of 10 Harvard Kennedy School class syllabi. Then, using Pew Research’s “ideological placement” analysis, which ranks media outlets along a liberal-conservative spectrum, I mapped the HKS assigned readings from newspapers and magazines to these rankings. Easily over 95 percent were “liberal biased” according to Pew’s classifications. Is this what we want? Did we come to Harvard to reinforce our existing beliefs? Or do we truly want to deepen our understanding of all viewpoints?
More than 40 percent of Trump supporters get their news from Fox News, the most watched cable TV network in America, and yet not a single syllabus made reference to this critical source. Good public policy and leadership seek to bridge division. But we can only do that if we know what those divisions are in the first place.
“They don’t have a voice!” is an often-cited catch-all to describe the many disenfranchised Trump and Brexit voters. But this is ivory-tower nonsense. They do have a voice, and they are using it. We just aren’t listening. Their voices are loud and clear in Breitbart News, Fox News, and the Washington Examiner. While Harvard professors may denigrate these sources as "intellectually" inferior, given their increasingly popular appeal and reach, ignoring them misses the full picture.
If the path towards a robust and functioning public discourse involves an understanding of many diverse voices and viewpoints, then we are doing ourselves a disservice by failing to listen.
Dee C. Senaratne is a master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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