Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Local journalism is focus of study on political polarization, which has advice for news media

A study of political polarization in a Kentucky city and a neighboring rural county aims to identify ways local news outlets and community members could engage with each other to build trust and find solutions to community issues. In its early findings, the study recommends "solutions journalism" – which emphasizes reporting on responses to problems to improve public discourse and strengthen democracy – as one method to help rebuild the public's trust in local news media at a time when many Americans perceive biased news reporting, especially from national news outlets.

"From Polarization to Public Sphere" is a project of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In a report, the study's co-leaders, Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford, outline the project conducted in Bowling Green, the third largest city in Kentucky (pop. 65,000) and rural Ohio County (pop. 24,000). Ford, an independent media consultant, lives in Bowling Green. He is a research affiliate with MIT and teaches in the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University. Wenzel teaches journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia. 

In addition to political polarization in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the study explores trust issues with the news media, how people engage through social media and in community groups and social networks, challenges that exist for local media with small newsrooms and limited resources, and opportunities for new journalism practices and strategies for community engagement.

"People interpret what they find on Facebook pages or television screens from within a network of interpersonal relationships, community groups, and media – what we call a local storytelling network," Ford and Wenzel write. "We wanted to understand whether the current political environment is changing these networks and, if so, how residents in politically mixed communities are adapting their news engagement and communication practices."

They wondered, "Do residents with different backgrounds and beliefs still read the same local papers, go to the same churches or social functions, or have conversations that break the ranks of the culture wars, online or off?" They chose Bowling Green and Ohio County to "understand what polarization looked like in rural communities and smaller cities where pockets of blue and purple were woven into a sea of red." 

The authors note that Donald Trump won 59 percent of the vote in Warren County, where Bowling Green is the county seat and home to WKU, which attracts diverse political attitudes. The city is at least 10 percent Muslim, they report; through the International Center of Kentucky, Bowling Green has resettled 10,000 refugees since 1981, including many from Bosnia. In Ohio County, 76 percent voted for Trump; many employees of a large chicken processing plant there commute from Bowling Green.

Twenty-one participants in the study were invited to keep a "story diary" for one week to illuminate their media habits and their impressions of particular stories.  Ford and Wenzel also conducted in-depth interviews with the participants and met with representatives of six local media outlets. 

The study, which began in April, revealed that political polarization affected family relationships and social networks. "Participants shared stories of lost friendships and alienated family members. One participant even reported breaking up with their romantic partner due to disagreement over Trump," Ford and Wenzel write. "For most participants, dealing with this new polarized climate in relatively small towns meant self-censorship was a necessity." 

As one participant said, "It's better to censor yourself and have friends from a limited pool of people around you than to not do that, to have no friends."

And even though people in smaller communities with a limited number of public places might be more likely to cross paths with people who have different political views, the study indicated that "shared spaces" don't always lead to "meaningful interactions." However, participants did point to connections being made at the university where students made friends with people from different backgrounds. 

The study's authors see opportunities to bridge political division through local issues. "For example, residents across ideological divides expressed an interest in solutions-oriented stories and followed stories about issues such as local development and tourism."

Despite some distrust of the news media, a weariness with so-called negative news and tendencies to limit engagement with people with opposing political views, participants indicated they are willing to address political polarization: "Almost every resident we spoke with was open to learning more about potential initiatives that would seek to build connections across difference," Ford and Wenzel write.

The researchers provide several recommendations for local news media, community organizations and foundations. In addition to more stories reported from a solutions angle, the study recommends providing a local lens to national stories; collaborations between local outlets; news media providing spaces for community engagement across divides; and getting community members involved with news organizations.

Local journalism needs bolstering, but the authors note, "Much more research and work is needed to develop models for sustainable local journalism, particularly in rural communities, coming out of work like the projects in which we've engaged." A workshop for news media, residents and community groups is planned Friday to react to and continue the work outlined in "From Polarization to Public Sphere" and to develop "experiments these outlets can conduct with one another, and with outside partners, to test potential solutions," the researchers write.

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