Polarization fosters an “us versus them” mentality that erodes democracy by decreasing the possibility of compromise or productive dialogue. At a high level, it can lead to gridlock in government (hello, shutdowns) and undermine trust in democratic institutions. But on an interpersonal level, polarization encourages and amplifies divisive rhetoric that can turn people with opposing viewpoints into enemies that are incapable of determining of working toward a shared, collective good.
When media take advantage of this divisive rhetoric, intensifying it for reader engagement, they sow polarization and further push people into echo chambers, where preconceived notions are reinforced and the likelihood of hearing other perspectives is limited. Beyond that, when media outlets exhibit bias (partisan or not) in their reporting without acknowledging it, the public’s trust in journalism falters. That makes it hard for people to separate credible information from ideology.
While journalists can’t necessarily prevent polarization wholesale, they can mitigate it by:
- Being transparent about their ethics, editorial decision-making and the demographics of their newsroom
- Building trust with communities that may exist in a blindspot
- Exercising thoughtful judgment about how they cover misinformation and hate speech
- Doing solutions-oriented reporting that works to find nuance and commonality instead of giving into the reductive binary of conflicts.
Guides & Best Practices
This regularly-updated, two-page checklist from Trusting News contains a set of questions designed to help editors work with reporters to determine who may feel ignored, misrepresented or harmed by all aspects of a given story, from headline and tone to sourcing.
“Pro-drama or pro-democracy? Use these checklists to ensure your reporting serves people, not politicians”
This set of printable prompts for reporters and editors offers reporters nine interview questions to ask for more understanding and nuanced answers. It also includes 11 editing questions to ask yourself or a reporter about how the framing of a story can best serve, not enrage, the public.
“How should journalists talk about polarizing statements by politicians?”
This blog post uses the results of a news experiment in Arizona to provide a framework for journalists who must report on polarizing statements made by politicians or public officials. It encourages them to do so without isolating readers or making it appear as though the news outlet is actually responsible for the polarizing statement.
American Press Institute
“Contending with Polarized Audiences”
This excerpt from a larger report provides editors and reporters with tips for how to break through to already-polarized audiences that may be distrustful of your content, and how to offer context instead of forced correction in those situations.
Radio Television Digital News Association
“Improving Trust in Local Political Coverage”
This report commissioned by Radio Television Digital News Association uses the results of a survey of 2,000 local news consumers to reveal what audiences believe signals that news coverage is “trustworthy,” plus a path to trust-building coverage strategies.
“How Journalists Can Counter Polarization”
This report includes a curated list of case studies from newsrooms around the globe (including Haaretz, The Guardian and The Texas Tribune) about how they tackled polarization in their communities — from events and listening techniques to content moderation and fact-checking tools.
Solutions Journalism Network
“How to do great journalism on polarizing issues instead of making things worse” by Hélène Biandudi Hofer
This blog post provides reporters with strategies for pushing beyond personal biases alongside impact testimonies from newsrooms that participated in the Complicating the Narrative program.
Solutions Journalism Network
“Solutions Reporting Checklist”
Solutions journalism is often seen as the antidote to polarization, and this illustrated checklist with examples from Solutions Journalism Network is a good start for reporters looking to try solutions reporting in a democracy or election context. It includes reminders for active listening, asking sources to explain how they know what they know and to examine the efficacy of one-sided solutions.
Trusting News is an industry leader for journalism training and resources that created Dimensions of Difference alongside Spaceship Media. It’s a set of reflective activities for reporters and editors to help parse the differences in their biases and experiences with those held in the communities they cover.
Spaceship Media specializes in dialogue journalism that helps bridge gaps and foster empathy among seemingly divergent and hyper-polarized communities. They offer consulting services for newsrooms looking to improve moderation; community engagement efforts in polarized or distrustful spaces; and their ability to generate constructive dialogue.
Constructive Institute is a pioneer of “constructive journalism,” or forward-looking coverage that melds solutions journalism with spaces for dialogue amid polarization. They offer a toolkit for reporters and editors, training and a trial algorithm for editors to rate the constructiveness — or depolarizing nature — of articles.
Solutions Journalism Network is authority on solutions journalism training and best practices. Their Complicating the Narrative toolkit is a short, self-paced training kit that relies on teachings from conflict mediation experts to help journalists get the skills they need to report on divisive issues.
“At the Extremes: Assessing Readability, Grade Level, Sentiment, and Tone in U.S. Media Outlets” by Jessice F. Sparks
“AP-NORC poll: Americans fault news media for dividing nation” by David Klepper
“Maybe just shut up about national politics if you want to reduce polarization?” by Joshua Benton
“Reaching Republican Voters”