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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 27, 2012 at 12:30 PM

Want balanced news? UW prof’s Chrome tool tries to help

If you’d like help balancing your news diet, there’s a new tool available from a University of Washington professor.

The “Balancer” is a free plug-in for the Chrome browser that monitors the news sites you visit and shows whether your consumption is tilting right or left — with blue or red indicators, of course. Then it suggests news sites that could balance your intake.

On the browser, the plug-in shows up as an icon of a stick figure on a tightrope, with red and blue blocks on each end of a stick. Clicking on the little icon calls up your balance rating during the current week and since it began monitoring things.

Sean Munson, assistant professor of human centered design and engineering, developed the tool at the University of Michigan where he received his doctorate. It’s now available broadly, in time for the election season.

Balancer classifies more than 10,000 news sites on a spectrum ranging from far left to far right based on “results of previous studies and existing media-bias indices,” a UW release said.

“I was a bit surprised when I was testing out the tool to learn just how slanted my own reading behavior was,” Munson said in the 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’d treat the tool as skeptically as the online news sites you’re visiting. But it’s kind of fun to see what it displays.

It might nudge people who stick to one side of the aisle — although I wonder if they’d trust the tool and follow its suggestions for alternative sites.

I wish the Balancer would also show in real-time how it classifies a particular site, in addition to showing the balance of one’s overall news diet.

The plug-in is free but the site asks you to fill out two pages of surveys before the installation begins. I declined to provide my political views and skipped the questions about my character.

My installation hasn’t had time to analyze much of my reading, but here’s how it showed up after I went to obvious targets such as Fox News, CNN, Drudge Report and Huffington Post. The Balancer appears in the upper right corner of these screenshots; click for a closer look.

It’s apparently not analyzing the balance of news being consumed at that particular moment:

balance7.jpg

I started the test at Fox News, which led to this reading:

balance3.jpg

balance4.jpg

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