Sunday, August 20, 2017

Journalists explore ways to serve and connect with their communities in politically polarized times

Carolyn Powers of Internews listens to Lee Bratcher, who runs The Ohio County Monitor,
an online news outlet in Western Kentucky, during a workshop Friday in Bowling Green.
By Jennifer P. Brown
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Community journalists who want to report stories that help build trust with readers and listeners, while also addressing political polarization, can find help from the non-profit organization Solutions Journalism, which offers free training to newsrooms.

"We didn't invent this. We basically put a structure around this idea," Carolyn Robinson told a few dozen participants at a workshop stemming from the "From Polarization to Public Sphere" study, a project of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The researchers are Andrea Wenzel, a journalism professor at Temple University, and Sam Ford, an independent media consultant and research fellow at MIT who teaches at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where Friday's workshop was held.

The researchers recommend Solutions Journalism as one approach to bridge the gap that result from political polarization.

Solutions Journalism puts problem-solving at the center of a story, Robinson explained. For example, a story about the difficulty freed prisoners have in re-entering public life would focus on successful programs and why they work, not just the failures of the system.

Robinson said news consumers complain they are overwhelmed with reports that focus on negative aspects of American life, and "We can't afford to have people tuning out." She said journalists who focus on solutions are "guide dogs" rather than "watchdogs."

Also presenting ideas at the workshop in were Jeremy Hay, co-founder of Spaceship Media, and Carolyn Powers of Internews.

Spaceship Media was established after the 2016 election. Its projects create space for people with opposing political views to have a sustained conversation. One example was a two-month discussion via a private Facebook group between 15 women who voted for Donald Trump and 15 who voted for Hillary Clinton.

Internews helps train journalists to understand their communities and get beyond stereotypical reporting. One effort is the Listening Post Collective, which gets newsrooms involved with their communities and spurs interaction with people whose stories help explain how a community works.

"From Polarization to Public Sphere" collected data from residents of Bowling Green and nearby Ohio County to begin studying new approaches for local journalists. Wenzel and Ford said they will use input from the workshop to make additional recommendations.

Jennifer P. Brown is former editor and opinion editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, Ky., and a member of the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

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