Wonks and War Rooms

Selective Avoidance with Jen Gerson

October 20, 2021 Season 3 Episode 3
Wonks and War Rooms
Selective Avoidance with Jen Gerson
Show Notes Transcript

This week Elizabeth chats with Jen Gerson, a freelance journalist and co-founder of The Line, about selective avoidance. Whether it be blocking someone on Twitter, unfriending someone on Facebook, or just carefully choosing from which sources we get our news, selective avoidance is an everyday occurrence. They discuss topics like the role of emotion in selective avoidance, fragmented media environments, political polarization, and hyper engagement.

Additional Resources:

Elizabeth uses this article by Parmalee and colleagues to help define selective avoidance.

Check out this article to learn more about the role of emotions can play in selective avoidance.

Elizabeth mentions this previous episode about the High-Choice Media Environment with Jane Lytvynenko. 

Elizabeth: [00:00:04] Welcome to Wonks and War Rooms, where pol[itical] comm[unication] theory meets on the ground strategy. I'm your host, Elizabeth Dubois, I'm an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and my pronouns are she/her. Today I'm recording from the unceded and traditional territory of the Algonquin people.


Today, we're talking about selective avoidance with Jen Gerson. Jen, can you introduce yourself, please?

 

Jen: [00:00:22] Hi, my name is Jen Gerson. I am a freelance journalist; I work for a whole bunch of different places, including the CBC and Maclean's, predominantly. I've also co-founded a Substack called The Line, which is a spot for irreverent commentary for those few people who are interested in such things.

 

Elizabeth: [00:00:43] Wonderful, thank you so much. So, the idea of selective avoidance is actually part of a larger theory around selective exposure, which is basically this idea that people are making choices and selecting information to be exposed to. In my work I focus a lot on political information and news, but the idea could be broader than that if we wanted it to be. Selective avoidance is the particular phenomena where people intentionally avoid information that goes against their existing opinions, beliefs, or attitudes. It's grounded in this idea of cognitive dissonance, [which] we draw from psychology to try and understand how people have this mental uneasiness with information that goes counter to what their existing beliefs are, and it forces them to confront that. And we don't like confronting information that tells us what we believe at our core is wrong, right? [Because] that discomfort shows up. And so the argument is [that] we engage in selective avoidance in order to encounter less of that information that's going to make us feel uncomfortable.

 

[00:01:53] Some examples of how we might selectively avoid online would be to block or mute different accounts so that we don't have to deal with them, [or] to unfollow particular outlets or particular individuals so we don't encounter their information currently and moving forward. 

 

So is that your general understanding of selective avoidance? Any changes you'd offer?

 

Jen: [00:02:16] That would make sense, [but] I think that there is a bit of a gap in what you're describing in terms of how you code information to avoid. So, to that I would say [that] it's not like people are going out of their way to avoid specific data that is disconfirming, [instead] they're going out of the way to avoid users or outlets that they know [are] going to make them angry. For example, if I'm muting or blocking people, I'm not muting or blocking people because I'm being exposed to their raw, awesome truth and I just can't handle it. [Instead,] I'm muting and blocking people who are harassing me, or being rude to me, or being cruel. Or, if I'm not going to CBC... people aren't consciously avoiding CBC because they're [thinking,] "There's just too much raw, awesome truth power [in the CBC's reporting] and I my tiny little dinosaur brain can't take it!" They're avoiding CBC because they know from previous history that if they're exposed to these particular stories, these stories are going to be presented to them in ways that are biased, or [in ways that] they feel are not characteristic of truth, or they're just going to get angry with the sorts of perspectives that are on offer—sort of uncritically, kind of thing. Those are the reasons people give for avoiding something like the CBC, or avoiding the National Post, take your pick. They don't like that each of these respective outlets are presenting their own version of the truth...

 

Elizabeth: [00:03:43] Yeah.

 

Jen: [00:03:43] ... And so they have been trained over time to self-select to the outlets that are going to present them the information in a way that is compatible with their ideology or with their worldview.

 

Elizabeth: [00:03:55] Yeah, I think that's a really important point—or at least two points—that you've brought up. One is this idea [that] emotion plays a huge role in how we choose what to consume and what to avoid, and the idea of something making you angry and so you want to avoid it, or making you frustrated, or sad, or excited, or happy. The emotional tie we have to the information we're consuming is important, and sometimes we put it to the side or don't talk about it as much because it feels less certain or less objective. [But] really, at the end of the day, we're humans who have emotions, and so those emotions impact our choices.

 

Jen: [00:04:39] Yeah, and let's be blunt: the media outlets—and I mean all media outlets—are playing into this as well. And [they] are continuing to play into this, and more egregiously playing into this, as time goes by. As the media environment has splintered, media outlets themselves are very consciously now aware that they have an audience that is looking for a particular perspective on the world. And that doesn't necessarily mean that those outlets are lying [in how they present their media]—that doesn't necessarily mean that, or necessarily mean that they're consciously distorting information—but they are seeing that information in a particular way and presenting it in a way that they know their audience wants to receive it.

 

[00:05:17] Take a left or right wing leaning organization for these examples. The National Post, for example, until fairly recently brought on people who would undermine or challenge climate change issues, for example. It wasn't that those people were lying; they were presenting a particular perspective based on the information they had at that particular time, and the National Post knew that that perspective was something that was of interest to their audience. Now I think the Post, as the conversation about climate change has shifted over the last five-to-ten years (and it has), the National Post isn't doing that anymore because, bluntly, the realm of full-on climate change denial is increasingly populated by quacks and I think that the audience of the National Post has moved on from wanting to hear quack perspectives.

 

[00:06:07] So, the relationship between the outlet and the audience itself is a dynamic one, and it's a constantly shifting dynamic. The sorts of perspectives that someone at the National Post would have wanted 15 years ago is different from the types of perspectives they would want today. And that's normal. That's an evolution. And like, I'm picking on the Post here, but the CBC's the same, the Globe [and Mail]'s the same—they're all engaged in this continual back-and-forth symbiotic relationship with their audiences. And, as each of these mainstream organizations feels more and more untethered to the idea that we exist to serve all Canadians—we just provide the one unifying perspective on the world, they've increasingly become more perspective driven.

 

Elizabeth: [00:06:52] Yeah, I think that's a really important framing of what we're talking about. In a previous episode, back in season one, I talked to Jane Lytvynenko about what we call "high choice media environment". We talked a lot about how, because there are so many different choices for where to get your information now, you can choose one (or even multiple) different niche outlets—outlets that you pick because they are catering to that particular interest of yours, whether it's topical, or perspective, or... Some outlets speak in a language—or write (or whatever) in a language—that is more akin with what young people want to listen to and how they talk. And other [outlets] are after the boomers. That ability to target in on what groups you want to connect with is something that our media environment has allowed, because now you can have so many more outlets in the game—now, relative power.

 

Jen: [00:07:55] Well, and it's not just niche outlets, that's the thing. It's increasingly the mainstream outlets [who] are understanding that, in order to compete in this environment, they have to become more niche themselves.

 

Elizabeth: [00:08:06] Right.

 

Jen: [00:08:06] And they have to become more niche even as they're claiming to be more representative, which is the weird paradox of all of this, right? 

 

The other thing that I think is very different, even from when I started out in media 10-15 years ago, is the amount of time and understanding that is spent on metrics. Every single thing that we write can be tracked and monitored down to an extraordinary degree. So now if I write something for the CBC, I'm going to get feedback on where it stood on the metrics for today, both locally and nationally. I'm going to have an understanding about the overall hit counts, and I'm also going to have an understanding about how long people spent on the site reading it. So I know whether or not people are clicking on it for 30 seconds or [if] they were reading it for the full minute and a half.

 

Elizabeth: [00:08:52] Right.

 

Jen: [00:08:52] So because we have that kind of extremely detailed data, there's always this rich trove to allow us to better tailor and better customize our #content for the desires of our audience. The feedback loop now is much tighter and much more detailed, so as a result, mainstream outlets are increasingly catering more deeply to their audience—the people who they know are going to continually come back. There's a peril in that as well, because it means that if you're getting more and more niche, you're actually also risking losing an audience as well. You can fall down the rabbit hole that way.

 

Elizabeth: [00:09:30] Yeah, because it sounds like you're finding ways to increase selective seeking—the people who are choosing you—but the people who are selectively avoiding... Especially because if you're relying on those stats, you don't really have stats about what people chose not to look at.

 

Jen: [00:09:47] This is actually one of the great perils of having too much information about what people are actually buying into: you only know what you know, and you don't know what you don't know.

 

Elizabeth: [00:09:57] Mm hmm.

 

Jen: [00:09:57] You don't have information about... I have tons and tons of information about the 20 30000 people who really got into my article and read it. [But,] I don't have information about the remaining 35 million who didn't, [or] why they didn't.

 

Elizabeth: [00:10:10] Right.

 

Jen: [00:10:11] That is an abyss to me. So, the temptation for all of these outlets is to focus more and more heavily on providing content for a narrower and narrower base, while at the same time, the vast mass of readers just kind of get alienated and put off.

 

Elizabeth: [00:10:28] And do you think this trend is... is it driven by the fact that there are all of these metrics available? Is it driven purely by the desires of the readers? Why do you think this trend started?

 

Jen: [00:10:44] Well, firstly, a lot of it has to do with the decline of the financial situation of all of these media. Very few mainstream outlets have the resources and manpower to provide a wide selection of things anymore. Like, the bodies just aren't there, right?

 

Elizabeth: [00:11:02] Right.

 

Jen: [00:11:03] Even when I was at the Calgary Herald... I mean, how many people were there in the Herald newsroom when I started in 2010? It was, I don't know, 60-80 [or] something like that. And now I'd be shocked if there were 20 people in the room running the whole paper. And, in 10 years from now, it'll be five. The financial constraints on what you can provide are significant, and they're shrinking.

 

Elizabeth: [00:11:26] Mm hmm.

 

Jen: [00:11:27] But there is a huge financial incentive to become more niche because, if you're more niche, you can generate proportionately larger audiences for less overhead.

 

Elizabeth: [00:11:35] Mm hmm.

 

Jen: [00:11:35] Even if your audience is one tenth of what it was before—and oftentimes they're not, by the way, the audiences are actually growing—but even [then], that's fine if you have a one hundredth of the staff.

 

Elizabeth: [00:11:47] Right.

 

Jen: [00:11:48] So, that's part of the trend; the increasing specialization of metrics drives specialization of content. And I think that the other part of the trend that people don't understand about media is they think that media is a very top-down conversation, that power exists (or is invested) in institutions, and then [that leads the media to] tell people what to think. That's not really how this works. If I tried to tell people what to think, or if any of us institutionally tried to tell people what to think, we would lose our audience very quickly. The relationship between the media outlet and the audience that it is catering to is a very symbiotic one...

 

Elizabeth: [00:12:22] Yeah.

 

Jen: [00:12:23] ...And as our metrics get better and better, it grows more and more symbiotic.

 

Elizabeth: [00:12:27] Right, because you're getting closer and closer to ~this~ is what this particular audience is excited about, [so] ~this~ is what I'm going to write about.

 

Jen: [00:12:35] And even at The Line (which is a very small organization, we're producing a couple of pieces a week), we pay really deep attention to what things do well and what things don't. I mean, I am very committed socially to providing perspectives oftentimes that my audience will be angry at me for, because that's part of our brand proposal at The Line—it's part of what we do. But if you don't have that, the temptation, honestly, is to just fall down the rabbit hole and just start giving people more and more and more and more of what they want. And then this becomes a feedback cycle, so your audience becomes more specialized and more extreme, and you provide more specialized and extreme content.

 

Elizabeth: [00:13:11] Yeah, so what you were saying there, it reminds me a lot of the conversations we have about the worries of selective avoidance being related to political polarization, and this fear that citizens are going to become completely polarized and unable to understand what the other side is saying, or believe or understand what's happening beyond their own particular set of interests and views and opinions. And it makes sense that trends in media, which is one of the main ways we get political information, might then end up reflecting on what citizens have access to and what they build into their own political views. Do you see selective avoidance as problematic? Is this kind of polarization an issue?

 

Jen: [00:14:02] Well, I mean, look: if we look at the past of media, it was nowhere near as hegemonic and unifying as it is even today. If you go back to the early days of newspapers and early pamphlets and political screeds and that sort of thing... The chaos of that early democratic world was something to behold.

 

Elizabeth: [00:14:23] Mm hmm.

 

Jen: [00:14:24] Prior to the Dreyfus Affair, they were something like 50 newspapers in Paris and everybody had their own writer, their own perspective, their own—I can't remember it was 50 or 27, you can fact check me on that one. But even in the UK today, there's a dozen newspapers; you subscribe to the newspaper that connects with your ideological point of view. So, I don't think it's either good or bad, I just think a more fragmented media environment has benefits and trade offs.

 

[00:14:55] One of the trade offs of a more fragmented environment is that you have a much more polarized media scene and you also have a potential for a much more volatile political and electorate space. If we look at, for example, the extremely fragmented media environment just prior to the Dreyfus Affair... the Dreyfus Affair was probably one of the most polarizing and insane borderline moral panics in a political culture in modern history. And we're heading back into that kind of thing...

 

Elizabeth: [00:15:24] Mm hmm.

 

Jen: [00:15:25] ... where national scandals, national issues, just become extreme—and, if we're talking about the Dreyfus affair, families were split apart by this shit, it was nuts. And you see it happening with Trump, for example: families split apart with Trump, right? Like, it was the same kind of environment where it was extremely segregated, extremely tribal; people were extremely passionate about the issues of the day, to a good and bad effect. Like, how committed do you really want your population to be into politics? Apathetic politics was something that I think potentially we took for granted for a really long time. People are like, "Oh, it's so bad that the youth don't vote." Trust me, that's better than a lot of alternatives! We can go back and look through it through history. You know, maybe they're not so big into voting, but you know what? They're also not burning shit to the ground. So that's... that's great. So I mean, there's pluses and negatives.

 

[00:16:27] I do think that a polarized or a fragmented media society is going to lead to a much more passionate and engaged society. But a passionate and engaged society has some downsides, too. And that is: you can be too passionate and to engaged, and then all of a sudden we're beheading people and burning things down again. There's a foundational structure issue here that people aren't wrong to be frightened about [though]. We're heading into a really volatile period in history, and we don't have a lot of the stabilizing forces that we have come to take for granted over the last 50-60 years.

 

Elizabeth: [00:17:02] Yeah, I think that's a good point. 


It's worth noting that just because it's fragmented doesn't necessarily mean it has to be polarized. People could find their communities that help them build this strength and connection (which often we have associated with higher voting rates, more political participation, showing up at protests, those kinds of things) which could be a sign of healthy democracy, or, could be collapse of...

 

Jen: [00:17:34] A precursor to the collapse of democracy!

 

Elizabeth: [00:17:36] Who knows?

 

Jen: [00:17:37] I mean, you know?!

 

Elizabeth: [00:17:39] But those fragmented groups, they could end up each being their own set of community, but having similar ideas. You don't necessarily have to be on two ends of a political spectrum [to be in two different groups]. You don't necessarily all have to agree on the same sets of ideas. And, one of the things that some scholars argue is: even if we're seeing more of that connecting with like-minded individuals using digital media (largely), then, even in that scenario, you might still be encountering more information from [various] perspectives than you would have before, because there's just so many out there and incidentally you might just get exposed. It doesn't even matter if you're trying to avoid it, just by being on Twitter or Facebook, you might end up getting stuck with it.

 

Jen: [00:18:26] Look, I think increasing fragmentation is fine as long as you were in something like Canada, where we have a relatively high trust society and we have a general unquestioned consensus on a few basic values. Basic values being: importance that people have a general right to express themselves within reasonable limits. There's a general liberal consensus on a lot of these things, [and] there's a general consensus on the importance of the democratic process. As long as we can all kind of agree on some of those basic framework issues, I think that it's not a bad thing that you have wildly competing voices in this space. Where this stuff starts to get a little hairy for me is when you start to see fragmented media give empowered spaces to ideologies or viewpoints that fundamentally undermine that general consensus and general general order of things.

 

[00:19:26] The other thing that I think is different right now, and that potentially will just come about with time, is that our social norms of behaviour have fundamentally been upended. What are the norms and standards around online harassment? What are the norms and standards for what we are willing to say about a female politician or a female public figure on Twitter? I think that we are reestablishing what those norms and standards are, and that is going to be a slow, painful process that's going to be a consensus-driven process that's going to happen over time. In 10 years, my suspicion is that it's not that you won't be able to say nasty, horrible sexist things to a female politician, but that the general online community and consensus will have come to an agreement that that's just not really done anymore. It won't be as acceptable as it is now.

 

Elizabeth: [00:20:17] Yeah, I think that is a really useful example, and something that we can pick apart to understand this idea of selective avoidance. Because, yeah, okay so there's all of this stuff—like, we need social norms to determine whether or not we think it's OK to say really horrible harassing things (let's hope no)—but, one of the things that's happening is [that] companies like Twitter and Facebook are creating tools to help people just avoid the content that they don't like. Rather than deciding socially that we need new norms and we're going to try and convince people they just shouldn't say it, Twitter is like, "Here have a block button. Have a mute function."

 

Jen: [00:20:59] But I think that those two things are two functions of the same process.

 

Elizabeth: [00:21:02] You think so?

 

Jen: [00:21:03] Yeah, I think that if enough people just get muted or blocked for being harassing, the incentive for being harassing goes away.

 

Elizabeth: [00:21:12] That's a good point.

 

Jen: [00:21:13] Right? Like, I'm now at a point now where, bluntly, if someone's rude to me on Twitter, I just mute them. Also, bluntly, I don't care; that's fine, be as rude as you want, I just don't engage. They're not getting the payoff that they're necessarily looking for because I just don't engage with it anymore; so therefore I'm not using my profile to boost theirs through these nonstop beefs. Right? There's no payoff for me in that. Right?

 

Elizabeth: [00:21:42] Yep.

 

Jen: [00:21:42] So, does that over time shift behaviour? I imagine it probably will, because like I said, there's no psychological payoff for it anymore, essentially. And also, I think that the cynicism of the game is now more apparent than it was in the past. There are people who will engage in slanderous accusations or awful harassing whatevers...

 

Elizabeth: [00:22:05] Yeah.

 

Jen: [00:22:05] ...because they know it boosts their own profile—it's not even some kind of genuine emotional response, it's part of a validation-style game.

 

Elizabeth: [00:22:14] Yeah.

 

Jen: [00:22:15] As more people clue into that, the power of that tactic in the game, I think, [will] actually just dissipate over time.

 

Elizabeth: [00:22:26] I think that's a good point, and it actually makes me think back to that first question I asked you about [if] this definition of selective avoidance resonates. [For me,] one of the things it sounded like you were talking about [was] the difference between avoiding particular content or ideas or topics versus avoiding particular people (or maybe interactions that those people create). And [you also touched upon] that idea [that] you use your choice—of what to consume, and what to take on, and who to interact with—those choices [allow] you [to] get to make selections that hit on both of those levels, both in terms of the information and the interactions.

 

Jen: [00:23:08] I actually really like having conversations with radical communists, I think they're great. I really get a lot out of those conversations because I often get access to perspectives that I wouldn't get in my ordinary life—that's wonderful. So, I don't mute radical communists. But if you're coming at me saying, "You're a giant ho bag, terrible, stupid-head, whatever..."

 

Elizabeth: [00:23:27] Yeah. And that's a super important point, too: you can selectively avoid certain kinds of information and actors for some reasons, and then [also] be selectively seeking out wide, very different ideas [from your own]. Just because you're making choices about what you don't want to take on doesn't mean you're refusing to take on anything that doesn't challenge you.

 

Jen: [00:23:53] That's right, that's right, yeah. And, I mean, I'd be pretty bored if that were the case. Now, my relationship to my media environment is different than an ordinary person's relationship to their media environment by virtue of the fact that I'm a quasi public figure, and I have a voice, and I have a platform, and all of these kinds of things. So, my relationship to something like a Twitter or Facebook is different.

 

Elizabeth: [00:24:14] Yeah. 

 

I actually do want to switch gears slightly and go to the perspective of those people who are avoiding. I know we talked about how you're like, "Well, I don't get data about who's avoiding the content," but I wonder if you've got thoughts about those people who are avoiding. And, particularly in the context of times of political turmoil or heightened political interest like an election, we know that people tend to practice more selective avoidance. People are more likely to avoid political content and news in the middle of tons of it being thrown at them. Some of that is [because] there's more out there so they have to make more choices, and some of it is people get a little bit like, "I'm overwhelmed. There's too much. I'm out! Pull the plug, let me leave."

 

Jen: [00:25:06] Yeah, and I'm also not convinced that that's a bad thing. What strikes me [is that] sometimes it does seem to be [that] there's a bit of a balance here between total ignorance and over-engagement leading to total ignorance. If that makes sense, right?

 

Elizabeth: [00:25:23] Right. Yeah.

 

Jen: [00:25:25] Sometimes the people who are only moderately engaged and only picking up stuff as they can get it are better informed about issues than the people who are hyper-engaged. One thing that I've just been absolutely struck by is that—of course, people are very reasonably concerned about COVID, but—I have found that the more engaged someone is on COVID, the less able they are now to make a rational risk assessment of COVID. The more hyper-aware you are of COVID news content...

 

Elizabeth: [00:26:01] Mm hmm.

 

Jen: [00:26:01] ...the more of a risk you are going to think [COVID] is. The problem with that is that that means that you are now (at a certain point) off the ledge, and you are now assessing this risk so highly (because you're over-engaged with it) that you're not balancing the risk of COVID against the risk of other types of trade offs and the risk of other types of deaths. So, you've lost the ability to conduct a rational risk assessment on COVID. And this is why I think, for example, COVID fear is particularly concentrated among high education, elite-style people who are making above a certain income; they're highly engaged in the topic, but they're so highly engaged in the topic that they've lost the plot.

 

[00:26:43] You see a similar kind of trend here in politics. Sometimes the most sensible, rational, down-to-earth people know that once the writ is dropped, they have to attenuate their consumption of political content because political content tends to get extremely emotional, it gets extremely volatile, it gets extremely distorted.

 

Elizabeth: [00:27:09] Right.

 

Jen: [00:27:10] By the end of the election—that silly season—people are just saying stuff that is objectively absurd. And if you are locked in, man, you are on that ride and you have lost the forest for the trees. You are so hyper-engaged that you've lost it. (This is also why, by the way, Twitter is an awful place. Because this is where you get the people who are hyper-engaged. They're locked in.) But it's oftentimes the people who are just a little bit removed who can be like, "OK, I don't entirely buy that." They can still maintain a degree of dispassion and skepticism.


[00:27:43] This is very different from the crowd of people who are completely apathetic: "I don't know what's going on, I couldn't name the Prime Minister." Of course it is. But I don't think that pulling back a little bit from the fire hose of news content [is necessarily bad]. Sometimes if you are eyes wide, mouth wide open, consuming your daily COVID stats and consuming all of this stuff, trying to drink all the water from the fire hose, you get overwhelmed; you lose the ability to distinguish signal from noise. And when you are so overwhelmed, it becomes really, really, really easy to craft an alternative narrative or an alternative reality for yourself using data points—to cherry pick your data points. Whereas, sometimes if you're a little bit more removed from it and you're sort of like, "OK, [what's] the big picture?" you can stay a little bit more grounded. 

 

I think that's true of all kinds of media consumption. I think that there's an argument for, "Ok, great, read your news in the morning, scroll Twitter for a few minutes, then go for a walk." Engage with your family, have a physical in-real-life hobby, [or] focus on your productive work. Try and balance your news consumption, which is important, with other aspects of your day. And if you can't do that—and a lot of people I know can't—it breaks them. It will break you if you can't do that; it'll overload your rational circuitry, and inevitably you become a raving lunatic on Twitter (which is what happens), or an Instagram or whatever else. So, there is something for the idea that selective avoidance isn't a bad thing. It's actually, in some regards, a perfectly rational survival strategy in an era of over engagement and hyper content production.

 

Elizabeth: [00:29:37] Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. And we know from research that selective avoidance can lead to this sense of community and connection and belonging, and it can help groups mobilize, and [it] makes people feel safe in some group where they've got other people who have the same views as them. And all of those are great until they are all you have, and then all of a sudden all you know is those ideas. And once you are deeply embedded in a particular community, it can feel very, very scary to do or say anything counter to that group because that's where your sense of belonging comes from.

 

Jen: [00:30:15] And I've heard a lot of people in media who are really sure that the answer to this question is just more mainstream media—more government funding for media. So, "If we just could just fix this by having more mainstream media, no problem, we would be able to recreate the unifying narrative of the nation." Problem with that is that the mainstream media are doing exactly the same thing: they're niche-ing. There is no mainstream media anymore, and that is something which the people within the mainstream media cannot wrap their heads around.

 

Elizabeth: [00:30:45] I'd also say [that] even if we had mainstream media that weren't becoming more and more niche, people still need community and they're still going to seek out those... like, they can make choices.

 

Jen: [00:30:56] But what qualifies as mainstream now is now challenging, right?

 

Elizabeth: [00:31:00] Yeah.

 

Jen: [00:31:00] Like, what qualifies is like a standard, unifying journalistic approach to things? 10 years ago, I was a big radical because I'm like, "I don't think objectivity is possible." Now, not only is it like, "objectivity is not possible," but, "fuck fairness." And that's where you lose me. That's where I get off the train. Do we have a moral obligation to present one side as the correct side and to shove it down our readers throats? That is the new ethic in journalism, and I totally disagree with that. I will not be on that train—and I think that it's a credibility-destroying approach to journalism—but there are people who are on it, and good on them, I'm not a prescriptivist. But this idea that, "[If] only we [would] just refund the CBC and give government funding to the Globe and Mail, all of these problems go away," I think is just dramatically wrong. I think that that's not going to work, that's not going to fix some of these problems—if you see these things as problems.

 

Elizabeth: [00:31:58] Yep. All right, well, there is so much more that we could dive into, but we do not have time. So, I actually want to finish off with just one last question for you, and that's a quick little pop quiz. Can you define for me what you would say selective avoidance is?

 

Jen: [00:32:21] Oh, this would just be the habit of individuals or readers to avoid disconfirming information, or to avoid information that challenges their preexisting worldviews or stereotypes.

 

Elizabeth: [00:32:32] Yeah, I think that's great. I would add that it's connected to larger trends in selective exposure, which include both selective seeking and selective avoidance. But yeah, I think you're exactly right: it's those acts that people do to try and not be confronted with information that challenges them.

 

Jen: [00:32:54] The other thing I would say is: everyone does this. I do this. You do this.

 

Elizabeth: [00:33:01] Absolutely.

 

Jen: [00:33:02] I think there's a habit among people who are really educated and really clued into these ideas: they think that, because they know that these ideas exist, that they're somehow immune to them. And, they're not. [Laughs]

 

Elizabeth: [00:33:16] No.

 

Jen: [00:33:16] We all do this. I 100% do this.

 

Elizabeth: [00:33:19] Yeah. And there's just so much information out there, and so many people out there that you can follow or listen to or whatever, and you have to make choices. Everybody has to make choices, otherwise you would never leave your phone. 

 

This was wonderful, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time.

 

Jen: [00:33:38] I enjoyed it.

 

Elizabeth: [00:33:42] All right, that was our episode on selective avoidance. If you are curious to learn more about this theory or any of the others we talked about today, you can head over to polcommtech.ca or check out the show notes where we've got a detailed list of other resources you can check out.

 

[00:33:57] This special season on media and digital literacy is funded in part through a Connection Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Digital Citizen Initiative.