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10 Research Findings & What they Mean for Newsrooms

Ten takeaways from our research that can help newsrooms and journalists tackle challenges in the year ahead.

1. Journalists can help bridge the divide between the media and disinvested audiences.

News media often under-represent certain communities. As a result, members of those communities can feel slighted, a notion supported by our research that shows that Black Americans across the country, as well as residents in the West and South Sides of Chicago, feel that the media under-represents or poorly represents them.

In a partnership with Dallas Free Press, we explored how residents in two disinvested communities — communities that lack resources because government and society have not invested in them — perceive the local media landscape.

Interviews revealed that residents in these neighborhoods felt that news coverage of their communities was lacking, did not accurately represent the area, and did not meet expectations. These feelings represent a larger need for newsrooms to connect with disinvested communities. The suggestions that arose from the interviews can be universally applied as a way to bridge divides between the media and local residents. Generally, the findings suggest that journalists should:

  • Develop relationships in the community: Spend time in the community and get to know neighborhood organizations.
  • Be fair and consistent: Ensure certain neighborhoods and communities aren’t covered differently than others.
  • Be a community resource: Provide information such as where to get help for local problems or events happening in the area.
  • Show empathy: Focus more on the human perspective when telling difficult stories.

 2. Practicing solidarity journalism can improve coverage of marginalized communities.

What is solidarity journalism? It’s reporting that is practiced through newsworthiness judgments, sourcing, and framing that centers the lived experiences of people subjected to unjust conditions. In practice, enacting solidarity journalism means:

  • Deciding that ongoing social injustice is newsworthy.
  • Representing the perspectives of people subjected to conditions not of their own making (not simply to showcase their emotional pain, but to amplify their views on what should change).
  • Moving away from “isolated incident” or “exceptional individual” stories to accurately account for systemic barriers that prevent people from ending their own marginalization.

Journalists looking to learn more about solidarity journalism and how to practice it in newsrooms can find digital resources here.

 3. Newsrooms can take steps to better connect with conservative news audiences

News distrust is especially pronounced among those who consider themselves politically conservative or right-leaning. To find out how news organizations can help bridge the divide between the media and these audiences, we partnered with Trusting News and 27 local newsrooms to talk to people who consider themselves politically conservative.

The interviews showed that participants often felt portrayed stereotypically in the news and that they believed newsrooms need to address perceptions of bias against conservatives and those with right-leaning viewpoints. The discussions revealed six approaches journalists can take to better connect with their conservative audiences:

  1. Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.
  2. Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Be cautious of using “conservative” or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.
  3. Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.
  4. Focus on story facts, not interpretation.
  5. Correct mistakes promptly to demonstrate trustworthiness.
  6. Don’t criticize only one side of an issue.

 4. Protest coverage should humanize and legitimize.

Protest coverage can often be harmful to underrepresented groups – casting both the protesters and their causes in a negative light.  Our research found that protest coverage should humanize people whose deaths prompt protests, especially among underrepresented groups. This can be done by mentioning personal information about the person who is the focus of the protest (such as personality, hobbies, family) rather than focusing on details like their criminal past.

Additionally, stories should use language that legitimizes the protests by focusing on the purpose of the demonstration, rather than emphasizing disruptions. Reporters can include motivations for the protest, changes that are being called for, and background information on the broader movement and relevant past events.

Telling stories in these ways may help people better understand the protest and the protesters, thereby running less of a risk that protesters or the protests will be delegitimized. Also, in some cases, telling stories this way may boost perceptions that the news story is credible. While this may backfire with some audiences, the benefits of telling stories in humanizing and legitimizing ways outweigh the drawbacks.

 5. Political posts written with humility can go a long way toward bridging divides.

How can people talk politics online without driving others away? Our research found that writing with humility might be the key.

We found that posts written with humility improved impressions of the poster for both Democrats and Republicans. People who wrote posts with humility were seen as more likable and intelligent by those with a different political viewpoint. The posts also elicited less skepticism toward the argument or the poster from those who didn’t share the author’s perspective. Additionally, people were more willing to engage with the post author by sharing an oppositional view or by expressing interest in working across divides to address the issue.

The findings can be used by news organizations interested in uplifting content that builds bridges. Journalists who engage with the public may want to consider looking for comments that express humility.

6. Journalists should try acknowledging the emotions of a commenter rather than dismissing them.

Though it’s often an expected part of the job, many journalists are hesitant to get involved in comment sections. Interacting with the comments can have many benefits — and there are several discussion tactics that encourage quality conversation among commenters. Our previous research suggests, however, that journalists often don’t get training on what to say.

The results of one of our latest studies show that acknowledging the emotions of the commenter gave people a more positive impression of the way the comment thread was handled and a more positive impression of the news outlet in general. This was true whether the response came from a journalist or from another commenter. It also held up regardless of the topic of discussion.

This suggests that, when getting involved in the comments, journalists should try to acknowledge commenters’ emotions rather than dismiss them. This strategy also holds up when trying to redirect behavior. Though this approach is shown to be effective, it should not be used when faced with hate speech or abuse. In that case, we recommend removing the comments.

 7. Comment deletion should focus on removing hate speech and explain why content was removed.

News organizations and social media platforms often delete comments that are offensive as a way to improve online discussions. We teamed up with researchers from Erasmus University in the Netherlands and NOVA University in Portugal to find out how people in various countries feel about deleting these comments.

The findings suggest that newsrooms consider the following when deleting comments:

  • Focus more on removing hate speech, because people see hate speech as more in need of deletion than profanity.
  • Explain specifically why content was removed, rather than offer general explanations.

 8. The results of a Google search can help signal trust in a newsroom.

The issue of trust in news has been tackled from a multitude of angles. Previous research revealed how newsrooms can build trust by making changes to story content or news site elements. Now a recent study shows us that trust can also be built or broken before consumers even click into a news site.

Our research showed that people can get a sense for how much they trust a news organization by viewing certain information in a Knowledge Panel – the sidebar shown alongside a Google search. The results of this study show that the following signals can act as powerful indicators of trust and should appear when people search for a news outlet:

  • A description of the news outlet that clearly articulates reputation.
  • Information about additional news outlets site visitors have accessed.
  • Identification of a corrections policy.
  • Information about awards, founding date, and journalists.

For newsrooms, it’s important to make sure elements like awards information, founding date, and journalist bios are available on the news website.

 9. Awareness of gaps in American knowledge can identify potential news stories.

How much does the American public know about contentious political issues? Or about how platforms work? We asked American adults a series of questions about platforms and a range of hot-button issues.

Questions about platforms included:

  • How are decisions made about what news stories people see on Facebook?
  • How does Facebook make money?
  • How are decisions made about what search results are shown on Google?
  • Will two people searching for the same phrase on Google get the same search result?

The results revealed important gaps in the public’s understanding of how Facebook and Google work and also showed that people’s beliefs vary based on their demographics, partisanship, and platform use.

The political questions focused on four issues: Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, whether the flu had killed more people than COVID-19, whether President Trump failed to send COVID-19 experts to China, and whether it is illegal to mail ballots to every registered voter in the U.S. The findings reveal substantial gaps in the American public’s understanding of these issues — and suggest that Americans’ perceptions of hot-button issues are largely driven by partisanship.

10. There are issues that need to be addressed with the public interest standard.

The public interest standard was intended to ensure that television and radio stations serve the public. But many experts say the regulation that stands today does little to meet this objective. We hosted a roundtable to discuss the state of the public interest standard and what improvements need to be made.

Our expert panelists identified several adjustments that can be made to improve on the public interest standard:

  • Reshape the conversation to prioritize quality local journalism.
  • Request more data on the demographics of license owners.
  • Hold companies accountable for the promises they make during the merger/acquisition process.
  • Reinstate regulations that prioritized the public interest (such as ascertainment & the main studio rule).