Local journalism can bring divided communities together

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Editor’s Note: This was originally published by Signposts for the Future of Local News, a project of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Aspen Digital. The full series of essays is online at aspeninstitute.org/longform/signposts-for-local-news/.

We are separating as a nation and our democracy is at stake. The empirical evidence for deepening social fragmentation and toxic polarization is clear. The dividing lines run along the dimensions of race, gender and class, often manifesting in a further divergence of political parties.

Alarming survey data from the past year tells the story. We characterize each other in extreme ways: 85% of Democrats believe the Republican Party was taken over by “racists,” while 84% of Republicans believe the Democratic Party is controlled by “socialists.” We applaud radically inaccurate caricatures of the other side: A representative sample of Republicans estimates that 38% of Democrats are LGBTQIA+, when in reality the figure is 6%. Meanwhile, Democrats believe more than 44% of Republicans make more than $250,000 a year, when in fact only 2% do.

Our ideas about each other are increasingly detaching themselves from reality.

We also tell pollsters that we are ready for action, that we are prepared for fight or flight. In a country with more than 400 million guns, 30% of Republicans (40% who trust far-right news) and 11% of Democrats say they are willing to use force to save the country. Meanwhile, 41% of voters for President Joe Biden and 52% of voters for former President Donald Trump support their states seceding from the Union to form their own country.

These and countless other indicators all point to a nation on the brink.

Many factors are conspiring to drive today’s toxic polarization and societal fragmentation. Key drivers include deep and deepening economic inequality; government inaction on public concerns (e.g., the majority of the US has long wanted tighter gun controls); “conflict entrepreneurs” who profit from dividing us; and geographic self-sorting and its modern descendant, digital self-sorting via echo chambers that include journalists and social media-induced filter bubbles.

The damage caused by social media is a major contributor to this problem. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, social media makes us “structurally stupid” by undermining all three social forces needed for a functioning democracy: social capital (via trust networks), strong institutions, and shared histories. Recent revelations show the unintended consequences of profit and attention-seeking social media platforms in fostering misinformation, division and hatred. For example, researcher Chris Bail demonstrates how social media creates a systematically distorted view of others—in his words, a “social prism”—that leads us to form distorted destructive mental models of others. Many of the criticisms leveled at social media apply equally to the incentives and consequences of national mainstream media, which are a major source of content disseminated through the platforms.

Trust in virtually every institution has been in decline for half a century, with one notable exception: the local news media. This puts journalism in a unique position to use its ‘capital of trust’ to play a leading role in strengthening the social ties that underpin a functioning democracy.

I believe there are three main tasks that are best accomplished by local news organizations: holding powerful people and institutions accountable; Providing and explaining useful information to residents; and building a sense of shared community in an increasingly pluralistic society.

All three jobs are essential, and all three are innovation-ready. The third area – the role of local journalism in strengthening community understanding – holds the greatest potential for counteracting the toxic polarization and societal fragmentation that threaten the very foundations of a functioning democracy. Local news organizations can help their audiences see and hear the humanity of others.

Simply exposing people to the viewpoints of others doesn’t always bridge gaps. In fact, the opposite often happens on social media platforms. However, extensive studies have shown that hearing the experiences of others increases mutual respect, while hearing facts to support opposing viewpoints does not.

These results suggest that trusted local news organizations should share residents’ diverse personal stories and highlight lived experiences that complicate simple narratives and antagonize us. And when facts are central—as a functioning democracy must be—news organizations can encourage diversity of opinion by showing their audience how the same fact can be experienced in vastly different ways by different members of the community. Exposure to the experiences of others may not change a reader’s opinion on an issue, but hearing different people refer to the same facts can change his opinion about the legitimacy of positions other than his own.

Much of the disruption in local news is rooted in technological changes driven by the ubiquitous reach of the internet combined with artificial intelligence algorithms that enable modern online experiences.

The same technologies that disrupted local news can be channeled to transform and empower local news organizations.

What if we had a social platform designed as the opposite of Twitter, one optimized to discover opinions shared by otherwise polarized opinion groups? This is what the Pol.is designers have created. This tool can hold up a mirror to a community and highlight similarities. It has been used by communities around the world to make progress through otherwise stubborn political deadlocks. Local news organizations could play an active role in learning how to use a tool like Pol.is as a scalable way to find bridging opinions and amplify them as a basis for conflict resolution.

Or imagine a communication platform that brings people together in small intimate conversations where they have real conversations about their own life experiences combined with analysis to find themes and connections between experiences. This goal was in mind for a group of us when we started the Local Voices Network (LVN). LVN has helped local news organizations listen to community members to understand their concerns and incorporate that understanding into their reporting. By finding connections through geographically dispersed community conversations, local news organizations could weave together a new kind of peer-to-peer network based on local voices. One lesson we have learned from systematically analyzing people’s shared personal experiences is that the concept of “public opinion” is too narrow to meet the full needs of a healthy democracy. We must also understand “public experience.” Local newsrooms can use platforms like LVN to uncover and share a community’s shared stories.

Local news organizations can become leaders in a new grassroots movement to engage diverse communities and reflect their perspectives, experiences and opinions in a way that reverses dangerous trends towards toxic polarization and societal fragmentation. Technology is not a silver bullet. Optimized for the wrong goals, we can end up on Facebook. By bringing people and technology together in new ways, powered by civic-engaged newsrooms, we can begin to heal our wounded society.

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