"The Daily Me," as these customized home pages are sometimes called, is touted as a way to counteract the "gatekeepers of the elite press." 1 Readers are no longer subject to the preferences of newspaper editors and television producers; they may use their own news judgment to pick the types of news they want to read. This capability adds to the power readers have to find information that does not fit in the daily newspaper or television newscast.
Again, the breadth of news the reader sees will not necessarily increase. Readers may choose to spend more time with their specific interests than was previously possible. When newspapers and television were the dominant sources of news, readers and viewers could check stock quotes and sports scores only once or twice per day. Now, they maintain a constant vigil, watching for new details on their personalized news. Since more technology doesn't necessarily give us more time, the time spent obsessing on stocks and scores is taken away from the time people spend reading and hearing a variety of news.
Also, readers focusing on their personal categories of news may miss events that are truly "new." When viewers are forced to watch a 30-minute newscast to get the news they want, they are exposed to other news that they might not have selected on the "Daily Me." Even readers who quickly scan a newspaper for specific items can find their eyes wandering toward other items. Journalists have long attempted to hold a "mirror to the world;" today, readers may instead choose to see their own reflection.
With readers choosing the news they see, vital bits of information may not get to the people who need it. Readers may not hear that the food on their shelves has been recalled because of a possible salmonella contamination. 2 Voters may believe erroneous reports about the economy; a Los Angeles Times poll in 1994 found this to be the case, with 53 percent of respondents saying they believed a recession lingered in the United States despite considerable evidence to the contrary. 3 Readers have new power to get around the gatekeepers, but journalists have less power to ensure that important messages get through the gates.
Another personalization tool that readers can use is the option of participating in the news process on sites such as Slashdot. While this option, in theory, offers a democratic alternative to mainstream news that again gets around the gatekeepers, it also opens new possibilities for misinformation. One Slashdot contributor raised this issue:
"One trait of both Slashdot and FreeRepublic is that their populations contain a percentage of zealots. This fact attracts the attention of non-members and ensures the continued participation of long-standing ones. While allegiance to a specific viewpoint is in no way an exclusionary criterion on Slashdot or FreeRepublic, most users share a common opinion on a few controversial issues. This may reflect the fact that contentious topics generate the most passionate interest. Regrettably, this bond introduces a capacity for bias." 4
Fragmentation also engenders hostility by reducing the common threads that run through society. People may fall under the mistaken impression that they are interacting with people from other cultures online, yet they are as likely to interact with each other only through stereotypes. A recent study by Norman Nie at Stanford University indeed concluded, "the more people spend using the Internet ... the more they lose contact with their social environment." 5 The methodology of the study has been questioned, but the "net isolation" theory at its core is likely to be a subject of much discussion and study in years to come.
We have seen in this section that readers and viewers are confronted by a confusing media landscape. They have more options for finding information but less reason to believe that the information they get is complete and accurate. Journalists seeking to give complete and accurate information face great challenges, and those who participated in this study were asked how they are responding. In the next section, we will look in detail at their responses.