Local journalism and solutions journalism could be the way out of polarization, say ISOJ panelists

In an increasingly polarized world, could journalism offer a way to meet this challenge? For panelists of the 25th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), parts of that path are producing more solutions journalism stories, offering the audience spaces to participate in public life or reporting with a different approach from “them vs. us.”

“How should journalism and platforms constructively address the global challenge of polarization?” panel moderator Amy Mitchell began by noting how “easy it is to point fingers to find where the problem is,” but rather we should look at where the points of convergence are to provide solutions. Mitchell is founding executive director of the Center for News, Technology and Innovation (CNTI).

Richard Gingras, vice president of news at Google, said that focusing on the information needs of communities that “cut across the political divide” may not only address the challenge of polarization, but could also be the path to finding “success and sustainability” in local news.

Over the past few decades, Gingras has seen that the areas where local news has found sustainability are those where the media has adopted a “much more holistic approach to the community.” He said media should not be focused exclusively on accountability journalism – which is important, according to Gingras – but should focus on local issues. Otherwise, he said, the media is missing opportunities at the local level.

“Obituaries if you look at the traffic and see obituaries still matter. and by the way, funeral homes advertise. Local sports matters, community events matter, and they cut across the community”, Gingras said. “When I talked to those folks who are doing that well, they recognize that what they're doing and providing that information is building a fabric of the community across the divide. And how powerful is that?”

According to Gingras, overcoming the divide allows for audience engagement and participation with the media. This would also allow local media to escape dependence on philanthropy to sustain themselves.

“How do we build that sustainable model that matters to the community that provides value to the community and let them understand themselves and have a better sense of how they deal with the trickier questions in their community that are of a political nature?” Gingras asked.

Journalists in front of an audience during ISOJ

“How should journalism and platforms constructively address the global challenge of polarization?” panel during the 25th ISOJ. (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

Another of Gingras' approaches was related to the creation of worlds based on “us vs. them” and of which sometimes the media themselves help to create.

“Fear shifts and hardens our perceptions of reality, our perceptions of who we are and how we perceive each other. Fear drives countries away from democratic principles toward authoritarian regimes,” Gingras said regarding how this politics of fear has been used as a powerful tool.

For that same reason, human beings become alienated from those people – and media as well – who agree with their way of seeing the world. Human beings, he continued, are moved more by emotion than by reason. And the media, for their part, have increased their offering of opinion content instead of informative content.

“Our species sadly is more easily stimulated by emotion than by reason. We prefer our biases to be confirmed. Affirmation is more satisfying than information,” he said.

For Gingras, media have made errors in thinking that their audiences can differentiate between opinion and fact-based information.

“If they don't agree with your opinions, they won't accept the fact based coverage you provide,” he said.

He also made a call to analyze various aspects of journalism: such as the type of language used. For example, the way crimes are narrated, or even protests. The latter usually have words that relate to fire or destruction – spark, fuel, erupt, trigger, ignite.

Finally, he pointed out that the questions that should be part of the debate are directed not only to the media, but also to the platforms and their algorithms.

“These challenges aren't only for the media in journalism communities. How might other institutions do their part? How does Google do its part? How can algorithms and machine learning reflect sources that are authoritative accurate and reflect the diversity of a society's norms and perspectives? How may we offer resources that help users understand how to think and not be perceived as telling users what to think? The answers aren't easy. We won't find them without asking the hard questions.”

Mónica Guzmán, senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, spoke about different projects within that non-profit organization that is dedicated to political depolarization.

As she explained, in recent years she felt a compulsive calling to work in spaces of connection, in the “bridge building space.” The topic became so personal that she wrote the book “I Never Thought of It That Way” based on her family experience: parents with political views totally opposite to her own.

However, on that trip, she discovered that there are meeting points. It’s an exercise that can also be replicated at the community level. Guzmán said that “even across the most agonizing disagreements, people are able to illuminate something, not change people’s minds, but illuminate some understanding.”

For Guzmán, the main problem that leads to this polarization is the constant judging of the other without really being informed about what the other is thinking.

“How can we pretend to be informed when we're not informed about each other?” she asked.

As she explained, her work has allowed her to see three paths that lead to division and that could be translated as sorting, othering and siloing. Human beings are usually surrounded by those people who think similarly to themselves. Once you are in that group you begin to put distance between “us and them,” until finally, each person becomes isolated from other perspectives. It’s much easier with the internet and social networks that create thought bubbles.

“It narrows our view of the world while convincing us we see enough of it. I think part of the problem is that we are so divided we are blinded,” she said. “So the question I think that can be really revolutionary is, ‘What kinds of people do I talk about but never with?’” she asked.

For Guzmán, audiences should be invited to answer that same question. She considers it especially important because it hides this uncomfortable truth: “that in this divided world whoever is underrepresented in your life will be overrepresented in your imagination.”

Guzmán's research allowed her to establish seven ways for individuals to get out of their imaginaries and see reality: 1) question their certainties, 2) question their fears, 3) question their assumptions regarding other people, 4) question assumptions about motives, 5) people only listen when they are listened to, 6) reveal experiences (how a person came to think what they think) and 7) reveal their values.

“The research into values as I see it, what it concludes is that we do all share our values. We just rank them in a different order for different issues,” Guzmán said.

For Tina Rosenberg, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, the strategies and principles that can be given to get out of polarization must first focus on local journalism. And hence the first lesson is to save local journalism.

“When local news disappears, national news steps in and what we want is as Richard said to be covering our communities from birth through the obit,” Rosenberg said. “That is something that we all have in common and that can bring us together and and when we are divided if we don't nationalize those issues if we focus on what's important locally, it will help to depolarize us.”

Rosenberg explained that solutions journalism stories allow the community to see that experiences that have worked elsewhere might work in their own community. This is what the Seattle Times has done, showing projects from other states to improve education, perhaps one of the most polarizing issues.

For Rosenberg, one of the advantages that solutions journalism provides is the ability to report beyond stereotypes. As she explained, marginalized communities are usually covered through stereotypes that try to define the communities.

“That's what happens in these communities according to us and that is not the way people want to be covered. People want to feel reflected and respected by the news and when they don't when they feel that the elites in the media -- and this is really important -- when they feel that the elites in the media are looking down on them and humiliating them, it is polarizing,” Rosenberg said. “I think is a big cause of polarization in many countries today. Especially in the United States, people feel that the elites have contempt for them. And this is expressed through media coverage of their communities. We have to change that.”

One way to change it, she explained, is to look at what people are doing to solve their own problems in their community. However, she explained that it is not about publishing only stories of solutions, but rather offering a “balance” of the situation.

“You're going to be writing about problems, but we should also be writing about people as agents not as victims and not as perpetrators, but as agents in their own lives, and that I believe is polarization reducing itself,” she said.

Sonal Shah, CEO of the Texas Tribune, focused her comments on how people have stopped trusting institutions and democracy in general, especially among the GenZ generation. This, Shah explained, should be a concern for journalism since journalism is linked to democracy.

Shah offered some numbers from a global survey, such as that 74% of people thought elected officials don't care about what they need. In the United States, 40% of people believe that the political system should be completely renewed.

However, Generation Z firmly believes that they have the power to change the country (76%), and 77% are looking for ways to get involved in ways that they can help it to change.

“People believe in their local government. They don't believe in the national government. They don't believe in the state government, but they believe in their local government. People believe in local journalism because they want to know how they can get involved. They want to know how they can solve a problem,” she said. “If we want people to participate we need to understand how to give them ways to participate. It's not just voting.”

Shah invited journalists and media outlets to meet that generation where they are – on the platforms – and to talk to them to find out what they are looking for and how they could solve it. Especially because many times this generation sees the media and journalists as the link between them and the government.

“But if that's true, how might we as journalists think about democratizing journalism to help people?” asked Shah, who added that although there is a lot of polarization on the platforms, there are also people “looking for ways to get engaged and very local ways and solving very local problems.”

ISOJ is a global online journalism conference organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2024, it is celebrating 25 years of bringing together journalists, media executives and scholars to discuss the impact of the digital revolution on journalism.

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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