The current political climate has led to new levels of public scrutiny of many things. The media itself has become the news topic. Most people seem to have a news source or two that they trust, but just as many that they don’t. While the term “fake news” has been on everyone’s lips, people can’t seem to agree on what it is that’s “fake.” It’s not hard to see why the topic is so pressing. With so much going on in the world, who wouldn’t want to stay informed and up to date on everything? Bowdoin College just started a research project on the political news divide.
Bowdoin College launched the Polar Bear Purple Media Plunge on April 1, 2017. The polar bear is the mascot of the small, liberal arts college located in Brunswick, Maine, and the purple component refers to the political aspect, as they attempt to find the middle ground between political parties associated with the colors blue and red.
Volunteers testing this new system include all members of the Bowdoin community, both students and faculty. Each volunteer takes a pledge to read the primary headlines from one of three major news sources with a political stance that challenges their own. These news sources are Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. Daniel F. Stone, assistant professor, explained why the college chose the 3 news sources to subscribers of the Plunge.
We chose them because they form a natural group, they are all high-profile and highly viewed, and they have varying ideological reputations.
Everyone who volunteers will read these headlines every day until April 26.
Bowdoin is not endorsing the selected media outlets, but believes that everyone will benefit from challenging one’s perspectives and considering a different perspective, to see how the world may look to other people. “The Plunge is motivated by three basic facts,” said Stone in an email to volunteers. “First, political polarization is a significant issue in the U.S. Second, people prefer to consume news that supports and confirms their prior views, and avoid information that conflicts with their views. Third, the availability of belief-confirming information, and the ability to avoid conflicting information, has grown over time.”
Stone, who teaches microeconomics, behavioral economics and game theory at Bowdoin, was one of the driving forces behind the project. He seems quite happy with the project. While it was designed for fun and educational purposes, Stone hopes it will catch on, not just in the Bowdoin community, but throughout other colleges and universities across the nation. In his email to volunteers, Stone explained the reasoning behind the Plunge.
The connection between these facts is intuitive and supported by research. Many commentators argue that our society and political system would be better off if citizens pushed themselves to overcome this tendency toward belief-confirming information, and appeal to individuals to try to do so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach has not had much success.
It comes as little surprise then, that Stone and his team saw the need for something different. In his email, Stone also made clear that those running the project with him would be doing everything they can, including sending out daily emails with the article headlines for the volunteers to read. He added that volunteers were welcome to back out at any time, but those who completed the Plunge would be given a free t-shirt for their efforts if they complete a brief survey.
Bowdoin’s project is the first of its kind that we know of. Like Professor Stone, we are excited to see the effects of the Plunge on its first volunteers.