Slate's interactive test of how open-minded your news diet is.

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April 29 2010 6:38 AM

Escape From the Echo Chamber

An interactive test of how open-minded your news diet is.

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Maybe democracy will survive the Internet after all. Many hands have been wrung over the supposed tendency for consumers of online news to seek out sites that validate their own political opinions. Like minds, the theory goes, surf alike. But, as David Brooks noted, this may not be the case. A recent paper by two researchers from the University of Chicago suggests that, when it comes to online news, we aren't nearly as isolated as we think.

The paper's authors, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, studied the readership of 112 high-traffic news and politics Web sites. Using data collected by the Web analytics firm comScore, Gentzkow and Shapiro analyzed the surfing habits of about 12,000 people who had identified their political affiliation. (Conservatives and liberals were the only types counted in the study; self-described moderates and independents were not included.) They then gave each Web site a score based on the political leanings of its readers.

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Their conclusion: Many people go to sites whose readers don't share their politics. To use their terminology, they found a low degree of "media isolation" among Web surfers compared with the political isolation most Americans experience in their daily lives. Stacked against the networks in which we work, live, and socialize, the network we increasingly use to get our news—which is to say, the one you are using right now—is relatively integrated.

Part of the reason may be that the more partisan Web sites attract a pretty small audience. The visualization at the bottom of the page illustrates this point. Each square represents a Web site. A square's size is relative to its audience, while a square's color is relative to its audience's politics. A major news portal like Yahoo News has a relatively balanced readership—about 55 percent of its readers say they are conservative, and 45 percent say they are liberal—so it's shaded a neutral gray. An international site like BBC News, with only 22 percent of readers identifying themselves as conservative, is deep blue. (Apparently, more liberals than conservatives want their news from across the Atlantic.) Dragging the bars at the top of the map allows you to see how an audience's size and its politics play off each other.

The visualization shows that few sites have a balanced audience. While behemoths like Yahoo News and CNN have a fairly even readership, even ostensibly balanced, mainstream media brands like the New York Times, USA Today, and ABC News have an audience that tips to one side of the spectrum. (Because more Americans self-identify as conservatives than as liberals, sites are more likely to tilt to the right.) But that doesn't necessarily mean their news is slanted. The study assesses a site's readers, not its content.

Slatewants to help you discover your own isolation index. So we've created a little program that allows you to see for yourself how open-minded you are—at least according to your browsing history.

Here's how it works: When you click on the "Profile Me" button, we will check which news sites you've visited recently. Then, using the same Web site rankings Gentzkow and Shapiro used in their research, we'll tell you how "isolated" you are. Before you click, you should know that you will remain completely anonymous—we have no clue who you are—and we do not download your browsing history. We simply check whether you've visited the home page of each of the sites listed in the study. (It works much like sites that guess your gender.) A full list of the publications and Web site addresses we check for is here. We do not save the information, just your overall score, which will be used solely to compare you to other Slate readers, shown in the graph below the button.

Remember: This isn't about your own political views—it's about those of your fellow readers. So if your online diet only consists of the Drudge Report, the New York Post, and HotAir.com, you're going to come across as pretty isolated. If you make occasional forays to the New York Times and Huffington Post, you'll seem catholic. Our calculations don't include how long you spent on each page—only that you've been.

The main drawback to this methodology, of course—which, Gentzkow and Shapiro acknowledge—is that they (and we) have no idea what you think of what you read. When you read a columnist that you vehemently disagree with—Paul Krugman, say, or Karl Rove—you get credit for exposing yourself to the other side. Maybe you come away with a renewed respect for the opposing argument. Or maybe the experience only reinforces the opinions you already hold. That's a question to be answered by another study—or in the comments.

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Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.