Binary debates are the enemy of progress

Binary debates are the enemy of progress

Cultural change is hard work. Get out of your comfort zone and ask more questions if you want to genuinely tackle the challenges in media right now.


So many of the important issues in media are characterised by a binary debate. The DE&I trail blazers are sometimes challenged by criticisms of wokeness. Sustainability is rising up the agenda but still has to deal with the anti purpose movement. Politically the cost of living crisis is a divided landscape when it comes to economic policy.

And closer to home, for me at least, media measurement is a battleground methodologically. Industry currencies are rapidly evolving to incorporate new tech, but new approaches around attention are emerging which have supporters and naysayers.

I believe all of these issues have something in common. Often, the supporters of one side or the other, view the world through a particular lens. We all have a lens through which we view the world. It’s influenced by our upbringing, who we surround ourselves with, our personal circumstances and the things that we choose to read, watch and listen to — the media.

In sociological terms we might think of a lens as a paradigm, which is defined as a broad framework with theories, laws and generalisations. The problem is that sometimes these theories can lead to dogma.

Dogma happens when a principle or set of principles is laid down as incontrovertibly true. Most issues are not black and white with a singular truth.

Binary debates lead to both sides digging trenches and neither finding a way forward. I’d like to argue that we all need to look more carefully at the grey. We need to forge more cross cultural and cross disciplined communities.

Whilst we might view the world through our own personal lens, debates will likely shift as society does and new perspectives become more readily adopted. This is how cultural change happens. The world in which we live today has very different perspectives about gender, ethnicity, and the planet than it did 20 years ago.

But if you think this change is too slow there are things you can do. You can actively seek out other perspectives, you can listen and engage and you can have a conversation with your so-called adversaries. In practice this is actually harder to do than you might think and for me this is the biggest challenge in media right now.

Our algorithmically driven media environments naturally serve up content that supports our existing world view. AI is really good at crunching lots of data fast — it will help narrow down your options. Think about how you use Amazon to choose products and services or Tripadvisor to suggest holiday locations.

AI struggles when you need to consider a broader context, if you want to take leaps of faith into the unknown, indeed if you want to grow. With these goals in mind you might ask a human and not a computer to recommend a book or suggest which restaurant would expand your culinary horizons.

Relying on algorithmically served content means that sometimes we get stuck in debate as the noise around a topic escalates and defending your ground feels critical. Time spent doing this is time not dedicated to driving change and tackling the problems you believe need to be addressed.

So let’s get down to some more practical advice. How do we tackle the biggest challenges in media right now? How can we move beyond the binary in all these debates to drive cultural change at a pace.

The power of asking questions

I believe we should start by asking more questions.

Too much time is spent honing our own personal brand and spouting our distinct point of view.

I know that is a bit rich coming from a columnist but I am also a researcher who loves to ask questions.

This is a great book to read if you want to unlock the power of conversations to drive meaningful change: Let’s Talk: How to Have Better Conversations by Nihal Arthanayake”

Seek out alternative perspectives

It’s also really important to actively seek out alternative perspectives. For example if you are a white, middle aged, middle class woman, spend some time with younger and older people, or people from different backgrounds to your own.

Or simply vary the stimulus you engage with, read a book written by a Nigerian author, listen to a podcast from a working class entrepreneur.

These are easy things to do. Harder perhaps, but more important, is to build a diverse team within your organisation.

Organisations like NABS and Bloom can support you to achieve this. A great example from Bloom is ‘The Exchange’, which is their effort to engage men in the gender debate via a cross mentoring programme designed to break down the barriers contributing to the gender divide in our industry.

Change your context

The most extreme way to seek out alternative perspectives is to change your own context.

This could mean changing your job, but if that is a step too far then spending some time in a related world can also be useful.

The Squiggly Career by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis offers a new perspective on this model of personal growth. Helen and Sarah have made a career out of this philosophy and now have their own platform, ‘Amazing If’, which is dedicated to supporting professionals who want to embrace a growth mindset.

Ditch the process

Structure and process is the enemy of creativity and innovation. If you want to drive extraordinary change you probably need to operate outside of the system at least some of the time.

This is the principle behind #ChangeTheBrief, an alliance championed by the Purpose Disruptors. It’s an on-demand and face-to-face learning programme designed to support media professionals to adapt briefs and pivot towards work that promotes sustainability.

What all of these suggestions have in common is they rely on human interaction to drive change. But I’m not anti-algorithm.

Whilst some may argue that the algorithm has played a role in Brexit, Trump and the rise of racism or antisemitic movements, it has also contributed to the success of social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

A binary debate about which media channels are more trustworthy is unhelpful. Certainly as technology evolves it’s just as likely to come up with solutions to some of these challenges.

The emergence of BeReal, the new social media platform for those who want an alternative to the over-edited presentations of life found on Instagram, shows how technology has evolved to cater to authentic human needs.

It’s possible that an algorithmically driven technology might be one of the ways that we tackle diversity and inclusion, sustainability, or media measurement.

In a non-binary world our minds can be open to a wider range of solutions. We can bring diverse perspectives together and forge new paths. Cultural change is hard work. It involves moving beyond the debate and breaking down barriers.

Anna Sampson is the founder of Anna Sampson Consulting and was previously insight and strategy director at magazine marketing body Magnetic.

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