This week, The Salt Lake Tribune cut the number of its employees by about a third, including an editorial writer, my friend and fellow Republican, Michelle Quist. Last week, the Ogden Standard-Examiner laid off more than one-fourth of its newsroom, including two editors. In March, the Denver Post’s owners also cut almost a third of their newsroom staff, followed by additional resignations. Those are deep, deep cuts and they are painful.
Being laid off is almost always tough. It’s tough on the emotions, even when the brain knows “This is not my fault.” It’s tough on family and friends who aren’t sure how to help. It’s especially tough when the biz you’re in is suffering, as the newspaper business is.
It is also disappointing-but-not-surprising to see people gloating about the layoffs. Losing reporters, editors and photographers who cover the news should be sobering for us all, not cause for celebration. The role of a free press in our society cannot be overstated.
Part of the problem, of course, is that we have changed how we consume information. If you are reading this column, you are doing it digitally. You are probably on your cellphone, and chances are decent you landed here via a social media link. The days of going out to the driveway to retrieve a print newspaper are going the way of the phone book and the record player. They are coming to an end. There is no longer a “news cycle” dependent on sending physical papers to be printed. Now, the cycle is 24/7, and breaking stories make it online much more quickly than they can be printed. Social media is even faster than that.
Our desire to be informed has not ended, but we have changed where we go and whom we trust for information. Too often, we look for others whose opinions agree with our own. We seek out information that confirms our views, leading us down a confirmation-bias rabbit hole.
An article in Psychology Today about confirmation bias says, “We pick out those pieces of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.”
The Salt Lake Tribune has long called itself an independent voice. Its writers and editors aren’t afraid to question the status quo. Michelle Quist, in what is now her last column, talked about Leonard Arrington and his penchant for honestly detailing the Mormon experience. There is a role for questions and even for dissent.
I read a book this week by Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology, called “In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business.” It’s a fascinating read, chock-full of studies, about group decision-making. A majority position, especially presented as unanimous, can not only sway our views, but it shapes the way we think and how we make decisions — and not for the better. We narrow our search for information and as a whole, we seek out only consensus-confirming information, even if we personally believe differently. Isn’t that interesting? Looking for consensus can lead to groupthink and confirmation bias that can result in poor public policy and lack of healthy dialogue.
In contrast, dissension leads to better decision-making, as it sends us searching for more information, from a wider variety of sources. It enhances creativity and stimulates divergent thinking, leading to better solutions, and it happens even when we don’t agree with the dissenting opinion, even when we don’t like the dissenter and even when the dissenting opinion is wrong.
There is value in diversity of opinion. There is value in authentic debate. Genuine dissent and debate not only make us think, says Nemeth, but make us think well. Philosopher Eric Hoffer said it well: “The beginning of thought is in disagreement — not only with others but also with ourselves.” We do not need to be afraid of voices and opinions that are different from our own. Rather, we should be afraid when they are silenced.
Holly Richardson enjoys being a Salt Lake Tribune columnist and also has no problem being a lone voice of dissent.