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Marketplace Scratch Pad

I’d like to agree with me

Scott Jagow Mar 19, 2009

With the death of another newspaper this week, we’ve talked more about the future of journalism. In furthering that discussion, I’d like to point out The Daily Me, an article by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. His conclusion about online news consumption — we only see what we want to see.

Kristof cites Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T., who has called this emerging news product “The Daily Me.” The theory goes — people seek out news and opinion that reaffirms their own beliefs. Kristof says, “We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.” Several studies have backed this up:

One classic study sent mailings to Republicans and Democrats, offering them various kinds of political research, ostensibly from a neutral source. Both groups were most eager to receive intelligent arguments that strongly corroborated their pre-existing views.

There was also modest interest in receiving manifestly silly arguments for the other party’s views (we feel good when we can caricature the other guys as dunces). But there was little interest in encountering solid arguments that might undermine one’s own position.

I strongly believe this to be true, based on my own experience of almost two decades in journalism. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read emails that go something like: How can you allow that windbag time on your airwaves? How about airing a (conservative, liberal) point of view once in a while?

Conservatives claim we’re only being liberal. Liberals claim we’re only being conservative. Year in, year out, I see the same thing, when in fact, at every news organization I’ve worked for, we’ve sought to balance commentary from both sides. When I hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, we had a weekly rotation, and that’s still in place.

Generally, people claim the “other” viewpoint is poorly argued, has no merit, shouldn’t even be discussed. The reason they don’t think their viewpoint is being aired is that only the opposite opinion stands out to them. As long as they hear things they agree with, the media’s doing a great job. But if they hear or read something that makes them uncomfortable, the media’s biased, disappointing or incompetent.

A lot of this is probably just human nature. I don’t know if we can learn to be more open-minded, but I think many people can. I do hear from people who are able to say — I heard the opinion, I’ve thought about it, I respect it as a viewpoint that’s out there, but I don’t agree, and here’s why. There just isn’t enough of that kind of discussion going on.

Personally, I’ve learned to resist looking at the world in black and white because, as Kristof points out, most of it is gray. He ends the article this way:

Perhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore. Think of it as a daily mental workout analogous to a trip to the gym; if you don’t work up a sweat, it doesn’t count.

Now excuse me while I go and read The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

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