Bridging the Bias: The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine Launches News Bubble Swap to Foster Empathy, Widen PerspectivesOctober 6, 2017
By: Melissa Anders
Staff at The Center for Michigan and Bridge magazine noticed a troubling trend following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As they met with Michiganders across the state, they realized the political divide was much wider than they originally thought. The meetings showed that people did not just disagree with the other side, they distrusted, disliked and, in some cases, even despised it.
“From our point of view, it makes it very difficult to move forward as a state if we don’t have some basic level of trust and understanding,” said Ron French, senior writer at Bridge magazine. “We felt that this was the issue that we needed to work on.”
The magazine is an online publication of the Center, a nonprofit “think and do” tank located just outside of Ann Arbor. The organization launched a yearlong project called “Michigan Divided,” in which it is following more than a dozen families to gain insight and explain the political gap, how it widened, and what can be done to minimize it.
“What became apparent is that people were not working from the same basis of facts,” French said. “And if you don’t agree on some basic facts, then how can you come to any sort of rational discussion about how to solve issues?”
People seemed to be living in “news bubbles,” where most of the news they consumed came from sources they agreed with. To foster empathy and pierce those bubbles, Bridge had some Michigan residents swap news feeds for a week. A conservative from Troy listened to NPR and read The New York Times and Jezebel, while a liberal couple from Ann Arbor listened to The Patriot talk radio and read the Drudge Report.
“It was a disaster,” French said of the experiment.
He said the participants were good-natured about the swap, but totally disagreed with the other side’s news outlets. Both sides realized that if that is all the news the other person consumed, it is no wonder they would be so wrong about politics.
The article went viral and within five hours of publishing it, Bridge decided to invite readers to participate. More than 230 people from 36 states and six countries signed up to swap news feeds, French said. They were asked where they get their news and were assigned sources opposite of what they normally read.
“The biggest thing I gained from the experience was the realization of just how divided our country is right now,” said Kayla Miller of Kalamazoo. “On some level, I already knew that, but until really diving in, reading articles and especially looking through Facebook comments on these articles, did I really see how much hate so many people have for people on the other side of the aisle. It was disheartening.”
Yet Center President and CEO John Bebow said he was heartened by the large number of volunteers who signed up for the news swap and the thoughtful ways in which they grappled with the questions it raised.
“Perhaps this is Pollyannaish given the chaos in Washington right now, but … perhaps the more people can walk in each other’s shoes, the better chance we have of eventually restoring a civil society in this country,” Bebow said.
Bebow is not ready to announce details, but said his organization is developing plans for a statewide public engagement campaign to coincide with the 2018 election.