Chapter 5

Contending with Polarized Audiences

Most news organizations aspire to a goal of delivering quality information that can promote healthy dialogue among members of their communities. Some succeed better than others. But it’s more challenging to do this in a society cleaved by partisan polarization, culture wars, foreign campaigns to use technology platforms to divide us, and more. There is a shortage of moderate voices among political leaders, and no shortage of activists exploiting extreme and divisive rhetoric.

By definition, political polarization means more people are aligning themselves with one side of a divide, and positioning themselves against the other. It also means a shrinking middle – fewer people who split their ticket at the polls or are willing to listen to arguments with which they disagree.

Today that partisan divide is also fed by a toxic mix of partisan content, some of it outright disinformation, often shared on social media.

In addition, some outlets in a crowded media marketplace have embraced polarization as a business strategy. And some of the most influential extremists work for cable news channels and partisan publishing outlets that claim to be news.

All of that means the challenge of navigating division and helping people get the information they need to solve problems – one of the traditional roles of a modern post-colonial press – has become more difficult. It also strikes at a central tension of journalists’ identity: where to locate themselves on the spectrum of involvement – the detached, non-partisan recorder of events on one end vs. the activist (booster or dissident) on the other.

As local and regional news organizations consider how to win back dwindling audiences, some argue that newsrooms have positioned themselves too far on the detached end of that spectrum. Their staffs didn’t look enough like their communities; their stories were flawed by trying to “present both sides” of an issue, but often the extreme ends, and not much more. Efforts to include community “voices” too often translated into dry op-eds that ran on an editorial page or stories that treated underserved communities as some kind of “other” culture to a traditional mainstream white upper-middle class and slightly liberal one. And as editorial-page content became less discernible from news content online, some newsrooms believe that could be contributing to polarization.

Journalists are considering new ways to frame narratives, instead of casting stories as one side against the other.

How can news publishers move toward greater audience engagement without appearing to take sides – an important objective in divided communities – or without aligning themselves with a particular outcome?

This has been the focus of significant work in recent years among journalists, academics and foundations seeking to help news organizations better connect with their communities. As a result, some newsrooms are creating new beats to ensure that otherwise neglected parts of their localities get covered. They are imagining how, instead of casting stories as one side against another, journalists could demolish side-taking, and consider new ways to frame narratives. They are holding community events and creating vehicles for public and audience engagement positions specifically to cultivate these spaces.

In Philadelphia, for example, a community advisory group, working with students and faculty at Temple and Jefferson universities, has partnered with local media to create a resource “hub” to share information and stories from the historic Germantown neighborhood in the northwest part of the city. The resulting discussions and stories aren’t just feel-good pieces about community successes, though there are some of those. The hub has also tackled polarizing issues that affect places like Germantown; it held a conversation with other media and civic-minded local residents about how news organizations could better cover gun violence.

Part of the strategy here is to use in-depth listening and engagement practices to figure out what the members of the community really want and need from their local news organizations. Reporters in the field can provide important intelligence to their newsroom leaders about what people in the community are concerned about, and story assignments can follow. But with newsroom cutbacks, there are fewer reporters and less time for those remaining to spend quality time out in their neighborhoods or with business owners or community organizers, which has in the past been a good way for news organizations to take their communities’ temperature.

There is also the question of how to reach disadvantaged and neglected segments of the community, or specific neighborhoods. In Illinois, for example, the Peoria Journal Star formed a community advisory board as part of an effort to strengthen ties to the city’s South Side. And nonprofits and support organizations like Free Press’ News Voices and the Jefferson Center helps other news organizations conduct this kind of listening work.

The Tennessean is another example of a publication creating space to listen to varied segments of the Nashville-area population. The paper has invited leaders from the Muslim community to discussions with reporters, sharing concerns and real-life experiences, and it has similarly held conversations with gun owners, veterans and area residents who identify with the LGBTQ community. The Alabama Media Group has explored listening across political divides.

In all these places, the hypothesis is that a first step to building community trust in their local media is to help people be heard. API has a program, supported by the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, aimed at helping journalists better listen to their communities. In 2019, 10 journalists from news organizations around the country undertook fellowships to do this kind of work.

Make conflict great again: Complicating the narratives

An indispensable project in the field of connecting better with audiences was authored by journalist Amanda Ripley for the Solutions Journalism Network, whose mission is aimed at helping journalists tell stories about how people are responding to difficult social problems. Her report is called “Complicating the Narratives.”

In her article, portions of which were adapted for a piece in The Guardian, Ripley makes the point that journalists – or anyone working amid conflict that seems intractable – must understand that complexity in a story will produce a fuller and clearer picture of an issue and spark readers’ curiosity, rather than cause them to dig into their previously-held opinions about it.

“As politicians have become more polarized, we have increasingly allowed ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults instead of exposing their motivations. Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation,” Ripley wrote. “Long before the 2016 election, the mainstream news media lost the trust of the public, creating an opening for misinformation and propaganda.”

Ripley started this project after that election, which she said left her with the feeling that journalists, herself included, hadn’t understood how the nation was so divided and how those divisions produced an outcome that so few people saw coming. As a result, she spent time with people who specialize in dispute resolution, like conflict mediators and psychologists, to find out how they bridge differences. What she found, she said, was that these people have techniques that journalists could use to better listen to people and elicit interesting opinions and details that can make stories richer and more complex.

Better listening, not surprisingly, is one of those techniques and, arguably, central to the others. (For a deeper exploration of the techniques, Solutions Journalism put together a guide for journalists to understand them and how they might be implemented in real-world situations.) For a reporter presenting a story, whether on television or in writing, Ripley says, the journalism produced will be more interesting if the journalist listens better – and shows it. This is particularly important for television, which Ripley notes is still the primary source of news for six in 10 people.

Among her other strategies, the notion of amplifying contradictions may be the most counterintuitive for many journalists, who often spend time trying to get at the “heart” of an issue, a single “nut.” A story, after all, provides a frame for people to understand something and, presumably, they understand it best when it’s not complicated. Even when journalists are not framing issues as a tension between groups, they do tend to frame them as a tension between ideas, usually two.

It’s hard to blame them. Journalists in already-stretched newsrooms can get hurriedly lured into the most simplistic this-versus-that interpretations of news developments and cast their stories that way. As Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach write in The Elements of Journalism, good stories explore tensions. But, the authors note, journalists often find themselves reporting on the extreme sides of those tensions. That becomes even more tempting in today’s hyper-partisan environment, especially when the most prominent representatives of each “side” are themselves promoting their views. And those views are easy to find in today’s social media environment: They’ve been summed up and blasted out in 140 characters or less.

A related issue is that often, in a bid for balance, journalists will seek to find the opposite view of whatever one side says, and can end up offering a false equivalence that even they know isn’t right. Or they will generalize with attribution, casting a point of view as one that “Republicans say” or “Democrats say,” further entrenching the divide. Such framing leaves no room for a Republican, for example, who believes a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases is needed to slow climate change or a Democrat who wants to limit immigration at the southern border. In this kind of framing, readers aren’t presented with middle ground – they’ve been offered a choice of partisan loyalty or nothing at all.

The result is the kind of story Ripley identifies, which ends up amplifying insults and downplaying the complexities that might lead to a better understanding of the issue at hand. The vicious circle back to finger-pointing then commences.

The power of meta-perception

The notion of stereotyping or oversimplifying arguments or points of view plays into another concept that University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Emile Bruneau has been researching: It’s called “meta-perceptions” and it refers to how people in one group perceive what members of another group think of them.

Bruneau, who directs the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication and is lead scientist for the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab in Boston, says that members of a group who feel that they are being dehumanized, or treated as less human or less evolved by another group, are more likely to react negatively or even aggressively toward the opposing group, which can drive division.

Two classic examples of meta-perceptions surfaced in the last two presidential elections. One was the quote, captured at a private event, at which Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” who have “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” views. The other was Mitt Romney’s 2012 comment that 47 percent of people would never vote for him in his challenge against President Obama because they are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them…”

The power of meta-perceptions is they reinforce the suspicion people have about the other side – that deep down they are looked down upon. “Groups are obsessed with what the other side thinks of them,” Bruneau said.

Clinton and Romney’s words were damaging because they not only generalized about the other side, but they also “confirmed” for one side that the other thought the worst of them. Both politicians tried damage control but once the words were out there, they went viral. In fact, the Trump team in 2016 played off the Clinton comment by selling merchandise with the word “deplorable” on it, to remind people of the negative meta-perception that she triggered.

But, Bruneau says, what people think the other side thinks about them is often inaccurate. “Humans have a negativity bias that makes them think the other side thinks worse of them than they really do,” he said.

He said recent data collected from both Democrats and Republicans shows that both sides think that the other side dislikes and dehumanizes them nearly twice as much as they actually do. In addition, he said, both sides believe that the partisan divide on ideological issues – from gun control to taxation and border control – is twice as great as it really is.

At the API summit, Bruneau also talked about the importance of exposing people to realities that challenge their assumptions about other groups. Correcting falsehoods of an opposing side may be less important, he said, than providing people with context about what one side really thinks of another.

In that light, journalists seeking to avoid deepening partisan divides should be aware of ways in which writing techniques like generalized attribution can reinforce and even deepen meta-perceptions by feeding the notion that one side is more dug in than it really is. That only worsens the cycle of conflict.

Journalists do sweeping attributions such as ‘most conservatives’ or ‘many liberals’ for a number of reasons. One is for space. “Democrats say” is easier (though less accurate) than quoting a variety of Democrats who might have similar but not identical views. The ingrained habit of trying to make things clearer by oversimplifying them is another factor that leads journalists to unknowingly feed meta-perceptions. To do that, the writer defaults to an X-versus-Y construction. That not only builds tension through conflict into the story – one thing journalists are taught to do is make things interesting – it also, supposedly, makes the tension easy to follow. But it also may result in a false generalization that is not only inaccurate, but also makes the problem it is trying to describe worse.

Partisanship and belonging

Group identity is a powerful force, though, and framing stories as one group opposed to another can just reinforce what Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Social Perception and Evaluation Lab at New York University, calls “the partisan brain.”

Van Bavel has studied people’s perception of facts and how social identity shapes the way people perceive information. He says that when people are considering whether to trust information, they often put a higher value on group identity than on accuracy.

“Partisan identities bias a broad range of judgments, even when presented with facts that contradict them,” he and social psychologist Andrea Pereira wrote in “The partisan brain: An Identity-based model of political belief,” a review of current research that concludes that partisanship can bias information-processing in the brain.

This research, they said, “suggests that partisanship can even alter memory, implicit evaluation, and even perceptual judgments.” Further, they wrote, the influence of partisan identities “threatens the democratic process, which requires and assumes that citizens have access to reliable knowledge in order to participate in the public debate and make informed choices.”

They suspect that the affiliation is so strong that even when people who strongly identify with a political party are confronted with the failure of that party or one of its leaders, some will “double down” on their support and may even try to recruit others to join their party.

This also explains why people are often susceptible to misinformation that comports with a partisan identity, and resist facts that might contradict or threaten it. It may also explain, at least to those who disagree with Trump, why support for him has remained so consistent despite behavior that in other presidents would be condemned by both parties.

Certain loaded language or partisan frames are more likely to bring out a reader’s partisan bias when they read a story.

For the purposes of journalism, this framework suggests that a just-the-facts approach is not going to persuade everyone that a story is delivering the truth. For journalists, who dig out and deal in facts as their life’s work, it might be hard to accept that people aren’t always persuaded by facts, but rather by their group identities. As Ripley wrote, “we like to think of ourselves as objective seekers of truth.”

But there may be ways to mitigate this tendency toward groupthink. According to Van Bavel, certain loaded language or partisan frames are more likely to bring out a reader’s partisan bias when they read a story. “Highly moral emotional language,” like characterizing a debate by saying that one politician is “slamming” or “bashing” another, is more likely to trigger divisiveness, he said at API’s summit.

So while facts alone may not be able to persuade many readers, journalists might consider avoiding language that triggers partisan reactions they think will get audiences’ attention. It may, the research shows, cause them to tune out.

None of this is easy at a time when politicians are using emotionally charged language on a regular basis, acutely aware of – and perhaps motivated by – the reality that the press cannot avoid reporting it.

Van Bavel does offer one optimistic note. While polarization in society is higher today than it’s ever been, he says, it’s still probably not as high as people think it is. Like Bruneau’s observation about meta-perception – that people usually think those in an opposing group think worse of them then they really do – this is one way in which reality may not be as bad as perception.

If people are not as divided as they think they are – or as polarized as journalists believe – that represents an opportunity to open minds with the kinds of framing Ripley is advocating. The one thing people on opposite sides of the partisan divide have in common is that they’re human. Stories that don’t accentuate one side dehumanizing the other and that recognize common human experiences, even among opposing groups, are more likely to have an impact.

The message from both Van Bavel and Bruneau: “Affirm a common sense of humanity.”

Strategies for reaching polarized audiences

1. Story framing: Have conversations within your newsroom about story framing and whether new frames could have the power to better deliver truthful information to polarized audiences. Discussion topics should include:

  • How stories become more interesting (rather than less so) when sweeping attributions are avoided.
  • How “presenting both sides” is not enough. How can we better show the texture and frustrations of people in communities or groups?
  • How to avoid false equivalencies. By now most journalists understand that stories about vaccine hesitancy do not need to include anti-vaxxers, for example. In late 2018, when Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press held an hour-long segment on global warming, he was lauded for including no climate change denier. Are there cases from your news organization that deserve revisiting?
  • How can stories and headlines steer away from moral outrage phrases or keywords that might contribute to and reinforce groupishness?

2. Doing richer interviews: Discuss potential interview techniques that can help elicit nuance and texture. Topics should include:

  • Listening and “looping.” As Ripley says, people will open up more when they feel they’ve been heard. Looping involves repeating back to the subject what you think they said; often the interviewee will clarify or enrich what they said the first time, strengthening the quote.
  • Taking more time: Are journalists too rushed to conduct interviews? How can we elicit more than sound bites? How do we even convince our interview subjects that we want more than that, if that’s all we’re delivering to readers?

3. Community listening: Consider and discuss ways your news organization can implement listening strategies to better understand the community’s news needs. Topics should include:

  • Whether public events can bring people together and help a news organization tap into what people are talking about.
  • Ways to create opportunities for reporters to spend quality time in the field, away from deadline pressure, to report back to newsroom leaders about what they’re hearing so that story ideas can follow. If not reporters, who can put their ear to the ground in the community?

4. Overall coverage: In polarized communities, seemingly straightforward decisions can give people the impression that the news organization is “taking sides.”

  • Is the beat structure of your newsroom built to cover conflict in a way that goes beyond X vs. Y? The flashpoint of a key issue might be at the city council, for example, but is coverage to focused on the process and politics of the issue?
  • Is the “voice” of the opinion page giving people the impression that the news organization as a whole is “taking sides”?