Editor’s Note: This was originally posted by Signposts for the Future of Local News, a project of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Aspen Digital. The full set of essays is online at aspeninstitute.org/longform/signposts-for-local-news/.
We are falling apart as a nation, with our democracy at stake. The empirical evidence for deepening social fragmentation and toxic polarization is clear. The dividing lines follow dimensions of race, gender, class, often manifesting in political parties that move further apart.
Alarming survey data from the past year tells the story. We characterize ourselves in extreme terms: 85% of Democrats think the Republican Party has been taken over by “racists,” while 84% of Republicans think the Democratic Party is controlled by “socialists.” We embrace the radically inaccurate caricatures of the other side: A cross section of Republicans believe that 38% of Democrats are LGBTQIA+, when in fact the number is 6%. Meanwhile, Democrats think more than 44% of Republicans earn more than $250,000 a year, when in fact only 2% do.
Our conceptions of each other are increasingly detached from reality.
We also tell pollsters that we are ready to act, we are ready to fight or to flee. 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 ready to use violence to save the country. Meanwhile, 41% of President Joe Biden’s voters and 52% of former President Donald Trump’s voters support their states seceding from the union to form their own separate country.
These indicators and countless others all suggest a nation on the edge of a precipice.
Many factors combine to drive today’s toxic polarization and societal fragmentation. Key drivers include deep and worsening economic inequalities; government inaction in the face of public concern (for example, the majority of the United States has long wanted stricter gun control); the “conflict entrepreneurs” who profit from dividing us; and geographic self-sorting and its modern descendant, digital self-sorting via echo chambers, which include journalists and social media-induced filter bubbles.
The damage caused by social media is a major contributor to the problem. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, social media makes us “structurally stupid” by eroding the three social forces necessary for a functioning democracy: social capital (via trusted networks), strong institutions, and stories. shared. Recent revelations demonstrate the unintended consequences of profit-seeking, attention-seeking social media platforms in promoting misinformation, division and hatred. For example, researcher Chris Bail demonstrates how social media creates a systemically distorted view of others – in his own words, a “social prism” – that causes us to form distorted destructive mental models of others. Many of the criticisms leveled at social media also apply to the incentives and consequences of domestic mainstream media, which is a major source of content delivered through the platforms.
Trust in virtually every institution has been declining for half a century, with one exception: the local news media. This uniquely positions journalism to leverage its “trust capital” to play a leading role in strengthening the social bonds that underpin a functioning democracy.
I believe that there are three main tasks that can be done better by local news outlets: to hold powerful people and institutions to account; provide and explain useful information to residents; and build a sense of shared community in an increasingly pluralistic society.
These three jobs are essential and all three are ready for innovation. The third area – the role of local journalism in building community understanding – holds the greatest potential to counter the toxic polarization and societal fragmentation that threaten the 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 does not always bridge the divides. In fact, on social media platforms, the opposite often happens. Yet extensive studies have shown that hearing about the experiences of others increases mutual respect, while hearing facts to support opposing points of view does not.
These findings suggest that trusted local news organizations should share the diverse personal stories of local residents, highlighting the lived experiences that complicate the simple narratives that pit us against each other. And when the facts are front and center – as they must be for a functioning democracy – news outlets can foster diversity of viewpoints by showing their audiences how the same fact can be experienced in entirely different ways. by different members of the community. Exposure to the experiences of others may not change a reader’s view of an issue, but it may change their view of the legitimacy of positions different from their own when they hear how different people relate to the same facts.
Much of the disruption to local news is rooted in technological changes driven by the ubiquitous reach of the internet combined with artificial intelligence algorithms that power modern online experiences.
The same technologies that have disrupted local news can be harnessed to transform and strengthen local news organizations.
What if we had a social platform designed as the reverse of Twitter, optimized for uncovering opinions shared by otherwise polarized opinion groups? This is what the designers of Pol.is have created. This tool can serve as a mirror to a community and highlight commonalities. It has been used by communities around the world to move forward on otherwise intractable political stalemates. Local news agencies could play an active role in learning to use a tool like Pol.is as a scalable way to find connecting opinions and amplify them as a basis for resolving disputes.
Or imagine a communication platform that brings people together in small, intimate conversations where they engage in real discussions about their own life experiences, combined with analysis to find themes and connections between experiences. This was the goal a group of us had in mind when we created the Local Voices Network (LVN). LVN has helped local news agencies 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 outlets could weave together a new kind of peer-to-peer network based on local voices. A lesson we have learned from the systematic analysis of people’s shared personal experiences is that the concept of “public opinion” is too narrow to meet all the needs of a healthy democracy. We also need to understand “public experience”. Local newsrooms can use platforms such as LVN to surface and amplify a community’s shared stories.
Local news outlets can become the leaders of a new grassroots movement to engage diverse communities and reflect their views, experiences and opinions in ways that reverse dangerous trends of toxic polarization and societal fragmentation. Technology is not a silver bullet. Optimized for the wrong goals, we can end up with Facebook. By bringing people and technology together in new ways, fueled by civically engaged newsrooms, we can begin to heal our wounded society.