What if an article knew your assumptions and adjusted based on them?

One critical role for journalism is to challenge readers’ assumptions about how the world works, as well as to expose them to new values different than their own. At least sometimes.

Other times, readers legitimately simply want to get information, but what information counts as relevant will depend on one’s assumptions. That’s the point I tried to experiment with a few weeks back when I wrote a “Choose Your Own Adventure” about when Mitt Romney left Bain Capital.

The idea was that some people seemed to care quite a bit about the timing of his departure, others not at all. And which camp you ought to fall into depended on how you answer several separate questions. How do you feel about outsourcing? About private equity’s value? About management, ownership, and responsibility.

These are tough questions, and good journalism can help readers to make up their minds. But by structuring my piece in that way I hoped to make readers at least think through the logic behind the question at hand. Lots of anti-Romney folks will simply want to find in the Bain departure date a damning controversy. They should be made aware that taking that view commits them to certain other views.

I’m grateful to Brendan Nyhan for mentioning my piece in a post at Columbia Journalism Review, and hope the idea of assumptions and values will be raised more frequently when thinking about media design.

Consider, for instance, how the information needs of a utilitiarian and a libertarian (principled not pragmatic) differ. Say we’re discussing taxes. The utilitarian cares only about outcomes; how does this change human welfare through the distribution of wealth, its impact on growth, etc. The libertarian, depending on his or her strain, has to consider arguments about property rights and possibly about the impact on personal liberty from whatever the taxes get spent on.

Yes, utilitarians should be exposed to libertarian value arguments now and again, and vice versa. But realistically not every article is a chance to rethink core moral principles, nor should it be.

So an article about taxation that contains arguments about welfare and liberty could be altered to display the most relevant information first (or only) if the medium knew the readers’ assumptions. This happens informally as writers write for their audiences, but that’s a blunt measure.

Imagine if a site simply surveyed me on my values and then altered its content to provide me the information that was most relevant for me to reach policy conclusions based on them. It might sound kind of out there, but it wouldn’t be that hard to do in a day and age where we know so much about readers through social authentication.

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