The result, for news consumers, is an increasing permissiveness when it comes to fact itself. Outlets offering different, and often competing, versions of truth—when those outlets have roughly the same scope and sway—suggest, implicitly, an equivalence between those truths. “Political scientists have characterized our epoch as one of heightened polarization,” notes Farhad Manjoo; now, however, “the creeping partisanship has begun to distort our very perceptions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t…. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built out of our own facts.”

Proliferation and fragmentation, for all their obvious benefits, also suggest a course toward broad cognitive confusion. How, after all, in a world teeming with multiple versions of reality, are we supposed to know what to believe? In all the white noise, how do we ensure that we’re filtering what we need to hear—as actors, as consumers, as citizens? How do we determine which information will keep us broadly synchronized with the rest of the world? “A man with a watch knows what time it is,” the saying goes. “A man with two watches is never sure.”

Diversity and Democracy

Our political system demands not only that citizens receive a steady flow of information that will, in turn, allow them to be democratic decision-makers—but also that the information in question be, in a profound sense, shared. “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,” James Madison wrote, “is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.” It’s telling, here, that popular information, shared information—rather than simply information itself—was the founder’s concern. Without “popular information,” we lose not only our baseline of knowledge about the political world, but also our bearings within it. We risk becoming subject, as it were, to subjectivity itself—and ending up with a society, as William James had it, in which “people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

Of what value is discourse, after all, when we’re unable able to talk about, and act upon, the same things? Imagine a book club in which everyone shows up having read different books—one person having read The Brothers Karamozov, another Pride and Prejudice, another Twilight. Or a town hall meeting in which one citizen comes prepared to talk about teacher tenure in the local schools, another to talk about improving a neighborhood park, another to talk about rewriting local zoning laws. There may be some discussion, sure—but that discussion will be crippled to the point of absurdity. Democratic discourse requires the core commonality of shared information; otherwise, what’s the point?

“The idea,” Cass Sunstein puts it, “is that our system at its best is a deliberative democracy. And a deliberative democracy has preconditions. If we celebrate the capacity to self-sort, we’ll lose sight of the value of deliberation.”

This isn’t to romanticize that deliberation. Nor is it to suggest that the rigor of republicanism is wholly reliant on journalism. Representative democracy thrived in the United States long before the advent of a coherent system of news. “Between 1856 and 1888, when most newspapers were crap and controlled by, or beholden to, a political party, voter turnout hovered around 80 percent for presidential elections,” Jack Shafer points out. Michael Schudson sums it up perfectly: “That journalism is crucial to modern democracy seems clear; that it is not by any means sufficient to democracy seems equally clear; that journalism does not by itself produce or provide democracy seems likewise apparent.”

Knowledge united the country—not by whitewashing differences, but rather by giving the fledgling nation a baseline of shared information and discourse.

The crucial concern isn’t so much news-and-democracy; rather, it’s a matter of news and the more foundational element of both America’s journalism and its political system: the public. “The press justifies itself in the name of the public,” the press scholar James Carey wrote. “It exists—or so it is regularly said—to inform the public, to serve as the extended eyes and ears of the public, to protect the public’s right to know, to serve the public interest.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.