Leaning left or right? This browser plugin looks to bring balance to political news

It’s an election year, which means a lot of mud is being slung in various media outlets. Oftentimes, it’s hard to find the truth among all of the clutter.

But a new online tool could help identify biases in news reporting, pointing consumers of news to other viewpoints, especially when they’ve been fed too many “talking points” from the left or the right.

Dubbed Balancer and developed by University of Washington assistant professor Sean Munson, the the free plugin for the Chrome browser watches what news you consume online and then tells you whether your reading history leans right or left. It then goes a step further, offering recommendations on news outlets or stories which may provide a different viewpoint.

“I was a bit surprised when I was testing out the tool to learn just how slanted my own reading behavior was,” said Munson in a press release. “Even self-discovery is a valuable outcome, just being aware of your own behavior. If you do agree that you should be reading the other side, or at least aware of the dialogue in each camp, you can use it as a goal: Can I be more balanced this week than I was last week?”

I know some of my my friends and family who could benefit from this tool — in part because they’ve moved away from quality sources of information in favor of outlets that masquerade as news outlets. (Too bad Balancer isn’t available for print publications and cable TV).

Sean Munson of the UW’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering.

This is a fascinating experiment for news junkies, and I just installed the plugin myself after completing a 4-minute survey that asks multiple choice questions to gain a better sense of one’s political leanings and personality (However, it requires a month of analysis before offering feedback on one’s news viewing habits).

The plugin analyzes some 10,000 news Web sites, tracking where they are on the political spectrum, from “far left” to “far right.”

Here’s more on how it works from the UW public relations team:

“People who install the tool get a cartoon of a tightrope walker holding a stick with a red block on one end and a blue block on the other end. If their reading is balanced, the blocks are equal and the stick is level. If not, the stick begins to tilt to one side as the character appears increasingly distressed.”

The plugin can’t grab all of your news reading habits. For example, it doesn’t track what you read on mobile browsers (frankly where I read most of my political news) or via traditional media (print, cable TV).

Munson’s research at the UW centers on how the Internet can be used to create constructive dialogue, getting away from what he describes as the “appalling cesspool” of partisan news sites.

  • aaronbrethorst

    The CNN “let’s make sure we know what both camps think” approach is incredibly broken. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan elegantly put it, “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” The goal should not be ‘balance’, but instead a concrete grasp of the facts.

  • Guest

    I installed a similar plugin on my students’ PCs: every time they try to read an article from a source of which I disapprove, they instead are brought to an article from an approved source.

    The fact of the matter is that news should not “lean left” or “lean right.” I expect my students to read facts and to synthesize their own opinions. This will help them become smarter than their parents who outsource their political thinking to angry talking heads on cable TV.

    • Huh?

      Gee…sounds like the same approach that China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia or a dozen other countries take.

      “Every time they they try try to read an article from a source of which I disapprove, they instead are brought to an article from an approved source.”
      Nice to know censorship and intolerance is alive and well in the good old U.S.A.

    • dsfgfhj

      I find it appalling you are a teacher. Censorship is never OK, you should be teaching them to fact-check, not to be easily controlled sheep that only check “approved” sources – if for no other reason (though there are more) than the fact you won’t always be controlling what they see.

    • Joe d’Coder

      I had to read this twice to be certain you are censuring what your students read. Unbelievable. Don’t you think a better way is to let them read multiple articles with different slants and teach them to make up their own minds???

  • Mike Mathieu

    In a similar vein of political transparency, the Sunlight Foundation has a new Ad Hawk app, which is like Shazaam but for political ads. So you have the app listen to the ad and it tells you which Super PAC or candidate or party or whatever paid for it.

    http://adhawk.sunlightfoundation.com/

    • johnhcook

      Oh man, that’s cool.

      • johnhcook

        Mike, Have you tried it and does it work? Todd Bishop tried it on YouTube versions of political ads, and it didn’t work.

  • Joe d’Coder

    Memorandum has been doing this for a while. I really like knowing the political leaning of a source when reading an article. It helps me to interpret what they are saying and maybe, just maybe know what the actual truth is.