That New Apple News app is “Smart” – But it May Not Make Us Any Smarter

apple-news…the app will also learn users’ preferences and show them other stories based on what they read. “News is smart,” Prescott said. “The more I read the better it gets at showing me stories I’m interested in.”
from Apple’s News App Takes Aim at Facebook by Julia Greenberg


Once upon a time, I read the news from my local newspapers. Here’s my life-long newspaper reading list:

Jacksonville Times-Union
The Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, TX)
The Abilene Reporter News
One year in Beaumont, TX (I forget the name of the paper)
The Los Angeles Times
The Dallas Morning News (with a few years also reading the Dallas Times Herald)

(I also subscribe to the New York Times – the digital edition).

Confession time: I don’t read the newspaper as much as I used to. For all the little details: the box score, movie times, I now go to apps or web sites on my iPhone or iPad (or, my iMac, sometimes). And for the “news,” I go to countless news sites, day after day.

But when I do leisurely work though the Dallas Morning News (yes, we still take the physical paper, and have done so our entire adult life), I notice something – I read stories and items that I would not have clicked on on my iPad. The editors of the Dallas Morning News do in fact provide a more diverse selection than I choose on my own.

And now, the new Apple News app will curate the news for me. It will “learn my preferences,” and show me what most interests me.

Cool, I say… except, maybe…

This book has gone through an array of covers, with a few changes in "subtitle" over the years.
This book has gone through an array of covers, with a few changes in “subtitle” over the years.

I remember a book I read well more than a decade ago: The Argument Culture (Moving From Debate to Dialogue) by Deborah Tannen. In the book, Ms. Tannen warns against this idea:

The conviction that there are two sides to every story prompts writers or producers to dig an “other side.”

The warning is that if you have “one side,” you have to find one other side – and only one other side. And, this could miss the point in two different ways:

#1 — there may really only be one side. e.g., there was in fact the Holocaust, and “Holocaust Deniers” do not deserve one iota of space or attention.
#2 – there may genuinely be more than two sides, and thus providing only two sides leaves out important information.

In other words, a complex world may need complex news coverage, but not coverage of the truly “wrong” points of view (e.g., those Holocaust Deniers).

But… here’s the real reason for this post. I already read articles by people that I disagree with less often than I used to, back in my newspaper-reading days.

In those days, I would read an article, get mad at it, get mad at the author, get mad at the newspaper for printing it, but… occasionally I would think differently about a subject. Reading newspapers, I was exposed naturally to more sides of issues.

(Yes, of course, I know that newspapers have points of view also. But, still…)

I have read, in too many places to count, the danger of reading only the articles that reinforce what you already think/believe. I think this warning is one to heed. And, if the new Apple News app discerns my preferences, there’s a pretty good chance it will only show me articles that sort of reinforce my thinking. The app may be smart (“News is smart,”) but it may not make me smarter.

And that could be a problem. I read too narrowly as it is. I can be pretty dumb on my own. Maybe I need an app that intentionally makes me read the other side(s) more often. That might be an app worth celebrating.


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