Fractured, distrustful, polarized. Online and off, it’s easy to see why many of us use these words to describe our current moment. Most news organizations seek to inform and provide a common set of facts that can help their communities solve problems. But in today’s disrupted media environment, newsrooms have also wrestled with questions about whether they might be contributing to the divides.
It’s not a simple picture. Some of the narrative of media dividing the public should rightfully be ascribed to “conflict entrepreneurs” — people who take the kindling of disagreement and light a match for their own benefit. They may be politicians, media organizations or influencers who create a story where there isn’t one, raising the temperature of public discourse and increasing the threats facing journalists who aim to inform and serve the public.
But many news organizations want to have more nuanced conversations. They want to assess their own practices, keeping what is good and reimagining what is not. They recognize there is a conversation worth having, even if the answers are unclear.
In a 2019 report on misinformation and polarization, API dedicated a chapter to this topic. We started looking at how journalists are framing narratives, who they were quoting and how, and added to our exploration of how new forms of engagement could foster more connection and capacity to dialogue across various differences.
This year, we are taking that discussion a step further. We are delving into more questions, acknowledging that the answers may be unclear, but that exploring the dimensions of the problem will get us closer to new ways of dealing with it. For example, what are the many ways polarization influences journalism – how it’s done and how it’s perceived? What can we learn about the forces within journalists’ control, and those that may not be, as our field navigates it? And in this moment, how can journalism influence legitimate discussion, either in a good way – by providing solid information and supportive environments for dialogue – or in a bad way, by contributing to the perception that people are more divided than they seem?
The answers to these questions won’t all come from within journalism, and solutions will require collaboration between journalists and many others. People get their news and information from a wide range of sources, and journalists must take into account the inescapable reality that their “take” is not the only one people are hearing. In a series of Q&As, we are interviewing people who work outside of newsrooms on healing fractured communities to help promote more understanding and to help journalists see possibilities that may be eluding the conversation within our field.
This is essential as we consider the role of journalism in our communities. If we ignore the question, if we do not show an openness to self-reflection and change when critiques are fair, our work can be dismissed as a partisan or monocultural enterprise. And once that happens, we lose the audience.
What happens if we lose the audience? One answer is this: If there is no reputable source of facts people feel they can turn to, we leave a vacuum. Vacuums often get filled. Misinformation can rush in, and fractures will deepen.
Here is what we’re learning from our interviewees:
- Author Amanda Ripley reflects on what has changed or not since she wrote Complicating the Narratives, a popular 2018 essay for Solutions Journalism Network that spurred many experiments on how news can help communities emerge from conflict. One bold experiment she describes is a “fear and loneliness” beat, given that those emotions underlie so many human conflicts.
- Researcher Noelle Malvar of the nonprofit More in Common helps illuminate “perception gaps,” or distorted understandings that people have of one another and how journalists might avoid framing politics as a “team sport.”
- Author and strategist Mónica Guzmán of the nonprofit Braver Angels talks about how important it is for journalists to get at people’s concerns, not just their beliefs, and about the power of conversations, which, she says, has been diminished by social media and its emphasis on performance as opposed to the exchange of ideas.
- Researcher Yanna Krupnikov highlights that news coverage of polarization can misrepresent the bigger picture unless it captures people’s “involvement” with politics. Who journalists quote and how journalists use even the word “politics” can obscure the views of many Americans who don’t fit standard depictions of polarization.
We’d love your feedback or suggestions of other experts you’d like to hear from.
Have you seen ideas outside of journalism that give insight into how journalists might help communities overcome division? We’d welcome hearing from you. Email Kevin Loker, director of strategic partnerships and research, at email@example.com.
Trusting News, a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and API that helps journalists earn trust and demonstrate credibility, recently began a new initiative: the “Road to Pluralism.” If you’re a journalist interested in the themes in the above interviews, consider getting involved.