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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Can journalists depolarize local news coverage?

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

Nadia Tijan is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A seasoned journalist knows what will grab a reader’s attention: a strong headline, intriguing characters, allusions to contentious issues. They write up a solid draft featuring hard-hitting facts, powerful quotes from sources and a clear, thought-provoking conclusion. Then, when it comes time for the editing process, editors scour their stories for grammatical errors, fact errors or confusing jargon before adding a striking headline to the top and publishing. 

But when the audience’s reaction to a story is negative, journalists often do not know what went wrong. Frustrated with the journalist’s coverage, readers can become distrustful of local news and disengage with local publications. Now more than ever, journalists face unintended consequences for their seemingly neutral stories.

Journalists at Trusting News, a research project that empowers journalists to demonstrate credibility and earn trust, are addressing those unintended consequences with a new, anti-polarization checklist

Sue Robinson, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Patrick Johnson, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, are helping to analyze research results from Trusting News’ A Road to Pluralism initiative, which aims to “help journalists strengthen trust across diverse values, experiences and political views to bridge divides, foster productive conversations and fuel open-mindedness.” Their most recent research follows nine journalists in the span of eight weeks who altogether conducted 76 interviews with people in their communities. Robinson and Johnson then conducted follow-up surveys with these community members.

The surveys reflected a growing disconnect between consumers and producers of news, with respondents pointing to polarizing coverage as the main culprit. 

The research team analyzed the results and worked with five newsrooms to examine reporting that could be perceived as polarizing and thus could further seed distrust in news. Based on that work, they created and refined the anti-polarization checklist, which cites three main elements that contribute to polarizing coverage: source selection, language use and framing.

According to Robinson and Johnson, journalists should ask themselves if the sources they’re citing really reflect the beliefs of a larger group and considering where sources fall along the range of views on an issue. Journalists should also include a balance of perspectives and think about how sources could be perceived by different readers.

“I’m basically trying to put myself in the shoes of a reader who may not agree with either the source or myself. What words would I use to prove bias (at least in my head)? Then try not to use that language,” said one editor from a partnered newsroom.

Playful words and colorful language may give a story personality, but they can ultimately cause more harm than good. Removing any adverbs and adjectives that imply a specific position will reduce polarization and help develop trust between the reader and the journalist.

The checklist also asks journalists to reflect on how and when they refer to diverse groups and identities. Some readers are more sensitive to certain labels and do not understand their relevance to the larger story.

“The [newspaper] as with their masters at AP, WaPo and NYTimes always stress race when it promotes their stereotype that all whites are irredeemable and the cause of all problems,” one community member said.

Framing a story within the context of a larger issue seems like an essential part of reporting, but it could cost the trust of a local audience. The checklist questions how relevant national themes are to the journalist’s local coverage. It suggests shifting local publications’ news coverage from national trends back to local, nonpartisan topics.

Trusting News’ previous research on wire content showed that readers associate perceived biases and polarizing content in wire stories from national sources with local publications. If readers perceive biases in national stories that are in local publications they believe local journalists hold those same biases. This discourages community members, especially conservatives, from reading local stories about issues that might directly affect them.

“WAPO is at it again. Jan. 6 is, was and should be condemned by all, regardless of party affiliation … but where are the heartbreaking stories of the many small business owners, many of whom are people of color, whose lives were destroyed by out of control BLM and Antifa rioters all over the country? … Is it because one atrocity affected the elitist political society in DC and the other affected common people in local communities,” a conservative respondent said.

However, it is not always easy or ethical to abandon important social contexts. Robinson said for many local journalists, it is a balancing act of touching on deeper, national themes and maintaining trust from readers with diverse views.

“If they see that it’s about gay rights. If it’s about anything related to race, anything related to LGBTQ, or anything that they consider to be a liberal issue, they automatically tune out and brand that publication as liberal. It doesn’t matter what the content is, or if they even cover the issue. So what does that mean for journalists? You can’t not cover those issues. So how do we? That’s the question we’re working on,” Robinson said.

The Uphill Battle of Depolarization

An anti-polarization checklist is a step in the right direction, but journalists looking to regain community trust face some tricky hurdles. One particular challenge is the implementation of anti-polarization techniques in professional newsrooms. Johnson highlights that depolarizing is counterintuitive to traditional newsroom practices, such as including the most passionate voices on a subject and having a set definition of objectivity regardless of changing social norms.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in newsrooms throughout history making a lot of assumptions and deciding we’re not going to cover these people. In the interviews that we went through, some community members are like, ‘can you stop picking the loudest, craziest person in the room? We get they’re the loudest one, but everybody thinks that’s who we are,’” Johnson said. “On the flip side, there are a lot of problems historically with journalism and marginalized communities. The fact that we still teach objectivity as if it’s this God term and believe it’s exactly what it needs to be. The method may work. The philosophy doesn’t because it leaves out a lot of voices.”

Johnson proposes emphasizing anti-polarizing practices in journalism education. These practices, he hopes, will then be introduced into professional newsrooms.

“What we have to be doing is training newbies to reframe the conversation when they get to newsrooms. But I think we also need to be working with leaders within these newsrooms to help them reframe the professionalization culture so that it’s more likely people are open to ideas of how to change or shift their philosophies, perspectives and practices,” Johnson said.

Though depolarizing ideology is slow to develop in the professional journalism sphere, there is an even greater barrier preventing journalists from gaining community trust: the ever-evolving problem of social media.

During their sessions with community members, Trusting News found that many people relied on family, friends and local influencers as their news source. Moreover, these community members accessed their news through online platforms such as Facebook and Reddit.

“The journalists who participated in this program talked to a bunch of Spanish-speaking people in one of the communities. They all mentioned these three Instagram influencers as to where they get their news. So the influencers were not like family or friends, but everybody knew who they were. And they had decided that those three people knew what was going on in the town. And so those people stood in for the news. So what does that mean for local journalists?” Robinson said.

The Importance of Community Outreach

Trusting News suggests that journalists build relationships with influencers as a method of establishing a trusted position in the community. But one strategy for earning trust is as simple as speaking with the disengaged community members themselves.

After their sessions with journalists, 23% of the community members reported in their follow-up survey that they felt better about journalism, 86% said they felt a sense of trust building after the conversation and 28% said they would consider subscribing to the journalist’s publication.

Being conscious of polarizing habits and using an anti-polarization checklist is only part of solving the larger issue of distrust in local news. Through community engagement, journalists learn how community members perceive their coverage and the effects it has on local news trust. It is the journalist’s willingness to reexamine their coverage and meet disengaged community members where they are that is the pillar of effective local journalism.

“If we genuinely believe that journalism is a beacon of democracy, then it is the journalist’s ethical responsibility to engage in these outreach-based conversations. It is their responsibility to understand what is making their language polarizing,” Johnson said.

Read Trusting News’ anti-polarization checklist here.

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