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
Sun News Network columnist and host of The Source, Ezra Levant speaks to a crowd of a few hundred at a Calgary for Israel rally at city hall in downtown Calgary, Alta. on Thursday July 31, 2014. The event was being held to show solidarity with the Israeli people while condemning pro-Palestinian supporters who attacked members of a Jewish family during what he called a pro-Hamas rally two weeks ago. 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.