Group polarization in student journalism

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A change to The Cord this year that readers may notice is the absence of “Unsigned Editorials,” at least from most upcoming issues.

The Unsigned Editorials, appearing on our editorial page, were published weekly with the following descriptor: “These unsigned editorials are based off informal discussions and then agreed upon by the majority of The Cord’s editorial board, including the Editor-in-Chief and Opinion Editor.”

Basically, editors would have a group discussion on a given topic while the opinion editor took notes. Afterward, the opinion editor would compile their notes from the discussion into a brief piece meant to convey the editorial board’s consensus on said topic. 

Dropping the Unsigneds was a decision supported by myself and much of The Cord’s 2017-18 team. Reasons motivating the decision included the difficulty in finding a new important topic each week to discuss and the sometimes awkward process of discussion that goes into putting the piece together. 

It has occurred to me that another pernicious effect of unsigned editorials is that the process of putting them together is an exercise in group polarization among members of The Cord’s editorial board.

Group polarization, an established phenomenon in social psychology, happens when group discussion among a set of individuals with initially shared attitudes leads to each individual developing even stronger attitudes than they began with. 

In other words, if a group of people who all have a similar opinion about a topic come together and have a conversation about said topic, they will all walk away from the conversation with an even stronger opinion than they went in with.

It is important to note that the group polarization phenomenon only strengthens the opinions and attitudes that are initially shared by the members of the group. It does not account for the division of a group into two increasingly opposed sides should attitudes not be initially shared.

When The Cord’s editorial board would come together before each issue to prepare the unsigned editorials and each member would come to the discussion with a set of somewhat similar beliefs, opinions, and attitudes, the group polarization phenomenon would begin.

After the ensuing group discussion, rather than coming to an even consensus on whatever topic was being discussed, an opinion perhaps more extravagant than that of any one member emerged and was solidified on the editorial page.

This result, however, does not seem like something to be desired for. Despite the fact that unsigned editorials are meant to be opinion pieces, the opinions expressed in them may not in practice turn out to representative of the opinions of the people they are meant to represent.

Further than merely being a potentially inaccurate representation of the editorial board’s views on a given topic, the resultant opinions disseminated through The Cord and carried on through the minds of the editorial board members who are a part of unsigned discussions may needlessly intensify discourse around contentious topics.

It is for these reasons, in addition to the aforementioned reasons considered by the rest of the editorial board, that I support the decision to eschew regular unsigned editorials, at least from most upcoming issues.

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