Conflict makes journalism less trusted, but journalism might also help make conflict better.
There has been a decades-long decline of trust in journalism, but trust has fallen especially quickly among Red audiences since 2016. Some see the “mainstream media” as irredeemably liberally biased, and this is not an unreasonable view as just 7% of all reporters self-identify as Republicans. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the coverage itself is unfair. Still, there’s no doubt that most national news organizations have a more or less Blue sensibility – there is ongoing content analysis to this effect – and some have read recent calls for “moral clarity” as a recipe for simplistic reporting.
On the other hand, media skeptics may not appreciate the fine line that journalists walk. If an issue is sufficiently controversial then both sides will perceive even the most careful reporting as biased, a problem known as the hostile media effect. Merely reporting the truth can push people towards political extremes, especially when political actors are using polarizing strategies – and indeed, both reading newspapers and watching cable news can have polarizing effects.
This tiny analysis will satisfy no one – not those who see the media as Blue hacks, and not those who think the press must stand against Red extremists. Instead we ask: given such polarized territory, how can journalists cover incendiary topics without fanning the flames? News organizations have a role to play in peace and justice.
Journalism sometimes stereotypes, sensationalizes, and generally makes the conflict worse than it needs to be – all of which also burns through trust. The resources below suggest a better way: journalists can tell more complicated stories, be more conscious with the language they use to describe outgroups, and generally try to learn something from the organizations working most directly on polarization.
Complicating the Narratives - Amanda Ripley
This is the best essay we’ve ever read on how to do journalism in divided times.
The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. ... Usually, reporters do the opposite. We cut the quotes that don’t fit our narrative. Or our editor cuts them for us. We look for coherence, which is tidy — and natural. The problem is that, in a time of high conflict, coherence is bad journalism, bordering on malpractice.
The Trusting News Project provides a variety of research and resources for increasing trust in news. Their road to pluralism initiative is a unique working group which “aims to help journalists strengthen trust across diverse values, experiences and political views.” They’re even offering newsrooms $2000 to participate in creating an anti-polarization checklist. Among many other tips, they suggest newsrooms value political diversity in their hiring – let’s call this a Most Conflicted Suggestion.
What Might Journalism Learn From Bridging? - Monica Guzman
Monica Guzman is the Director of Digital and Storytelling at Braver Angels, an organization that facilitates discussions between Red and Blue citizens. In this interview, Guzman suggests that journalists examine the assumptions present in their questions, be careful with their language (even “right wing” can come off as condescending), and report from a place of curiosity.
Journalism as Community Organizing - Will Fischer
Darryl Holliday of Chicago’s City Bureau focuses on “a type of collaborative journalism that melds community organizing, education, and journalism practice.” The publication uses “Documenters” to provide data, connect struggling people to resources, and perform fact-checking. While crowd-sourced journalism is an old idea, the trust it can build is more important than ever.
Conciliatory journalism - Mikko Hautakangas
In this study, Finnish journalists experimented with a different style of journalism more appropriate to times of deep polarization. The participants in this project “implemented conciliatory journalism as an approach that assesses the complex nature of conflicts and provides room for constructive disagreements.”
New and Interesting
This 70 page report lays out “The Conservative Case that Trump Lost and Biden Won the 2020 Presidential Election” through the most detailed examination of claims of election fraud yet. It’s essential that this argument comes from Red analysts, in part because Blue analysts might not take these claims seriously enough to debunk them at this level of detail.
This mediated conversation took place between a gun safety activist and gun rights activist focused on their life experiences, questions of public health, and improving education about guns.
“Democrats are statistically tied with Republicans among Hispanics on the generic congressional ballot … Dems held a 47-point edge with Hispanics during the 2018 midterms.” And other nuggets – worth it.
Quote of the Week
Theorists of journalism have long noted parallels to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in physics: by reporting on something, one subtly but irrevocably changes it.
Thanks for reading!
Mary-Beth Ellis - reporter
Jonathan Stray - editor
great issue! I'm afraid trust is gone (at least for a long time), and in the era of interactive media, the role of journalism must change. there's not point trying to report facts (half the audience won't believe them, and anyway it's often just repeating what others have reported already). the new role for journalism might be to "convene the audience" and help "mediate the conversation." we're not all waiting to receive wisdom from Walter Cronkite (or any of his successors). but if Walter were to tell us where we should all meet (preferably online) to air, discuss and come to consensus on the major issues, I for one would be there.