We need more discordant voices in the media

From Ezra Levant to Heather Mallick, it’s easy and important to find dissenting views in media coverage—but odds are you won’t, writes Scott Gilmore

Stuart Dryden/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

Stuart Dryden/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

Fewer voices are never a good thing.

Sun News, a right-wing television network, has closed. Many eagerly anticipated this, and are now delighted that frequently vilified commentators like Ezra Levant have been silenced. Similarly, a few days earlier many were thrilled to learn left-wing columnist Heather Mallick was threatening to quit the social media network Twitter in order to escape her critics. But the loss of Mallick and Ezra, as jarring as their opinions may be, would be a shame.

This is the age of communication. We have virtually free access to millions of websites, podcasts, radio stations, cable channels, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages, delivering even more ideas and opinions. But ironically a diversity of sources has allowed us to reduce our exposure to a diversity of views. Before, regardless whether your political opinions leaned left or right, the majority of us learned about the days events from the same small number of news anchors. Now, each of us curates our sources to reflect our views.

If you are on the left side of the political spectrum you can easily avoid the bombast of Fox News and find someone reporting on the Middle East exactly the way you see it. Likewise, there is no need for a conservative reader to endure the anti-capitalist tone of the Huffington Post when the laissez-faire Drudge Report is one click away.

This habit is due to our psychological tendency toward confirmation bias. We prefer to look for, believe and remember information that supports our own beliefs. Why we are wired this way is unclear, but study after study has shown that when presented with two conflicting views we are overwhelming more likely to prefer the one that most closely matches your own.

This instinct to isolate ourselves from opposing opinions has been well documented by researchers looking at how we interact on Twitter. In one study, they considered the Israel-Palestine conflict and found, perhaps not surprisingly, that each side tended to only connect with their ideological friends.

Heather Mallick’s disenchantment with Twitter is an example of this. After writing a highly criticized column, she reacted by blocking all her critics, ensuring that she won’t inadvertently be exposed to their views. (Full disclosure—Mallick blocked me, too, although I’ve never paid her any attention, let alone criticized her.) Doing this guaranteed she would not have to listen to any dissenting ideas, only those that reinforced her own particular world view.  Similarly, how many of us have avoided paying attention to Levant’s frequent capers because his grating voice either bored or angered us?

Unfortunately, this instinct is self-defeating. As individuals, we are worse off by ignoring our critics or those whose views aggravate us. None of us are right all of the time, and even the most ridiculous media jesters can occasionally teach us something. But equally important, we need to understand that our beliefs are not universal, others disagree, and their views also matter.

As communities, this diminishes us. Our national conversations on important issues turn into separate monologues, where the left and the right talk only to themselves, repeating the same data and the same slogans, turning in circles all the while. We see this online, in our newspapers, and even in Parliament.

This is one of those rare problems that can be easily fixed. It doesn’t require new regulations, a stronger CRTC (God forbid), or a royal commission. All you need to do is lift your head up and listen to someone you would otherwise avoid. Sun News is now gone, but Ezra can still be found online. Mallick may be hiding from her critics, but that does not stop you from reading her columns.

But, here is the tragedy: odds are that you won’t. You can’t. You are a hostage to your own cognitive biases. You consider yourself a person of will, and independent thinker, but you can’t even marshal your finger to click on those links, can you? Which is too bad. You and I and all of us need to hear more voices, not less.


We need more discordant voices in the media

  1. It’s incredibly useful, and difficult, to limit ones confirmation bias. But reading the most incoherent and ridiculous representations of an “opposing viewpoint” (Mallick, Levant, etc) does nothing to restrict confirmation bias. Indeed it is more likely to further entrench it.

    You lessen your confirmation bias by first truly opening yourself to absorb different opinion and then considering the best of opposing viewpoints.

    • How do you “truly open yourself to absorb different opinion” when you’re outright dismissing those that you consider too extreme?

      • By allowing the extreme view to exist and also pointing out that the extreme view (from our view) is incorrect.
        The point is, don’t be hypocrites :D

  2. While I agree more voices involved in the discussion that is Canadian democracy, is better…. Ezra Levant, is not the voice of reasoned intelligence. His is not the voice of inclusion… not the voice of compassion, empathy or of designing a society that looks after it’s unfortunate, nor it’s aging elders. His is the voice of emotional bellicose exclusion. Levant [and his political ilk] would prefer that his taxes not look after the crippled, the mentally unstable, the homeless. His vision would support predatory capitalism, where personal and corporate profits are not to be shared. A petty, vindictive, selfish, lonely shell of a man, and a theocratically melding of church, [certainly] business inteterests and state. It’s why, in Conservative Alberta, oil drops and we are suddenly as a society flat broke….. The money is not allowed to stick around for the good of society… It’s scooped up by the 1% before the 99% even knew it existed, or disappeared.

    • This is a bizarrely inaccurate caricature of Ezra Levant. I’m going to guess you’ve never actually read or watched him.

      • I agree with Bill.
        I did NOT always agree with Ezra.
        I don’t know how Ezra currently is since SNN went down.

  3. If I want to be informed of the right wing viewpoint, I will seek an intelligent, thoughtful viewpoint. Just because I do not want to listen to Levant’s ill informed and often slanderous (judging by his courtroom losses) opinion does not mean I am not open to listening to views from another side of the spectrum. It is hardly tragic that I avoid Levant.

    Levant can still blog and tweet to his heart’s content, so I question your suggestion he has been silenced. Furthermore he is somewhat notorious for deleting or refusing to post comments on his blog that are critical of him, so I hardly think he is on the high road here.

    Finally, I am one of those people who are rejoicing in the end of the SNN. Not because I do not want the right wing views heard, but because I am so happy that the views reflected by the SNN failed to gain sufficient traction to sustain the network as a commercial venture. Makes me proud to be a Canadian.

    • So which sources do you go to for “right wing viewpoints”?

      Levant will still blog and tweet, the guy’s not going anywhere, and he’s certainly not dead as some on the left are celebrating.

      And contrary to your rejoicing, the “views” expressed by SNN have not actually declined in the country at all. The fact of the matter is that SNN’s target demographic just doesn’t watch TV. They’re busy at work, spending time with family, etc. They still vote, they’re just not as vocal as the “progressives” who manage to spend 10 hours a day commenting on blogs and dropping 140 tweets a day.

      • Well you keep clinging to that notion, if it helps.

        The thing is that Levant and the SNN constantly whined they need to be heard to bring an “alternative” viewpoint from that of the major news networks. This is based on the false premise that the other news networks are biased. The CRTC saw through that little ploy, as did most Canadians.

        But I think the one who said it best was Levant himself, when he was interviewed on As it Happens on Friday night and said that a Marxist network would likely have had the same trouble finding viewers. Which is true. The majority of Canadians do not hold extremist views, either on the right or the left side of the spectrum.

  4. I agree.
    You and I subscribe to the view of “I’ll defend to my death, if necessary, your right to be wrong”, which was wrongly attributed to fellow man Voltaire but instead to a not (yet) famous woman philosopher.

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