How Newsrooms Can Help Bridge Divides: Lessons from SXSW 2021

Our country is faced with a multitude of divides – political, social, geographic, and economical. Bridging these divides is a long and difficult undertaking, but newsrooms can play a critical role in the process.

In a panel presented at SXSW 2021, the Center for Media Engagement convened a group of experts to help newsrooms better understand their communities and humanize those with diverse views by using the principles of connective democracy. Panelists for this discussion were Gina Masullo, Associate Director at the Center for Media Engagement; Erica Anderson, Engagement Journalist and Moderator at Spaceship Media; and Alicia Bell, Organizing Manager at Free Press.

Key Takeaways:

How can newsrooms approach a coverage plan that focuses on what people share in common and presents diverse viewpoints?

  • Build relationships with the communities you serve
  • Know your audience – and make sure your coverage reflects that audience
  • Diversify newsrooms and sources

How can newsrooms frame stories in ways that offer people the news they need?

  • Ensure that stories meet a variety of needs without alienating parts of the community
  • Refrain from making conflict the sole focus of the story
  • Offer solutions to the problem and show who is covering the work on the ground

How can newsrooms use social media to connect people to their newsroom and their community?

  • Utilize social media as a relationship-building tool
  • Don’t ignore your community – especially when they criticize you
  • Protect newsroom employees from abuse so they feel comfortable engaging on social media

What Is Connective Democracy?

Connective democracy is a Center for Media Engagement initiative that adopts a new approach to bridging divides. “What it really aims to do is identify concrete strategies to get people to talk across differences and understand each other, versus just theorizing about it, or talking about it,” explained Masullo. The approach unites newsrooms, scholars, platforms, and public policy entities in a collaborative process that identifies and puts into action practical solutions to help bring people together.

At SXSW, panelists addressed how this method can be applied to journalists’ work. “I think that it’s not antithetical to being a journalist to care about bridging these divides and connecting people across differences … It’s always been sort of what we should be doing, and I think we just have to sort of reawaken that in ourselves,” said Masullo.

For journalists concerned about the resources it would take to accomplish this type of journalism, Anderson acknowledges, “I hope [what] people can get from this panel is that we’re not saying change everything that you’re doing … there is another way and it’s not that different from what you’re doing now, and it’s not a bunch more work, but also it, you know, acknowledging that it’s on editors and higher-ups in these journalism organizations to give people more time, to give people more support.”

By applying connective democracy to reporting, journalists can play a role in creating a better future for journalism. “The thing that feels so important to me is to know that there are futures of journalism, there are futures of media ecosystems where all folks are thriving, and all folks are well … I think that it’s on us now to figure out what are the things we can learn from the past? What are the changes that we can make today so that we can create those futures where everyone is well and everyone thrives,” said Bell.

How can newsrooms approach a coverage plan that focuses on what people share in common and presents diverse viewpoints?

Build relationships with the communities you serve

The panel discussion often returned to the importance of building strong relationships with the community. “I just can’t stop thinking that we cannot afford not to do this, because you can’t replace that relationship. It’s the reason people tell you their story,” said Masullo.

Journalists may argue that newsroom workflow makes this approach difficult, but building strong relationships is important in creating trust and in serving the needs of communities, and it can also serve journalists in the future. Explained Bell, “… being in a relationship, an ongoing relationship, even when you don’t need a source, even when there’s not a story to be told, is the way to figure out what’s bubbling up in this community.”

Forming relationships can mean taking a step back from the reporting process and spending time with community members without angling for a story. During her time as a journalist, Masullo came up with the concept of a “wandering day,” where she spent time out in the community: “There was no agenda, there was no, I don’t have to get a story out of it, and it was a rural area … I was building relationships that served me through my whole beat.”

These relationships can also be formed by engaging with online communities. Anderson recalled of a  recent project, “It is absolutely incredible the change we’ve started to see, when the moderators start to shift their posts to really ask questions and to get the women talking, not necessarily, you know, looking for stories, or looking for sources.” As a result of this approach, the women involved in the project formed a strong relationship with the newsroom because they felt seen and heard.

Know your audience – and make sure your coverage reflects that audience

Building relationships with the community helps journalists understand their audience – then it’s up to the journalists to make sure that knowledge is reflected in coverage. “Oftentimes, we have this problem where we’re trying to cover issues [where] we don’t have skin in the game and our newsroom doesn’t, and I think that shows in our coverage and it shows in alienating these people who we’re actually trying to serve,” said Anderson.

Part of this process involves thinking about the coverage plan and about who is covering what neighborhoods. Panelists recommended thinking about the stories that typically get told from those communities and then thinking about shifting the narrative. Said Bell, “… at its best, journalism should be and could be a community center; at its best, journalism is a place where people see each other. They weave together. They share stories.” Making this change can include letting go of the “old” way of looking for buzzworthy quotes and churning out a story quickly to meet deadlines. Explained Anderson, “How can you shift that narrative and really take responsibility for the pictures that we paint and how we divide people just based on, you know, maybe it’s our deadline schedule?”

To create journalism that reflects the audience, journalists should focus on engagement and listening during the reporting process. “I think just sort of on a practical level, it’s also involving the people that you are working for and serving in the process, asking them, you know, ‘what are the pain points in your life? What keeps you up at night?’” said Anderson.

Diversify newsrooms and sources

A key part of connecting with communities is addressing the need for more diversity in newsrooms. “I don’t mean just doing it to hit some kind of quota. To really do it thoughtfully, and to diversify [newsrooms] by race, by age, by gender, by socioeconomics, by political beliefs, by all different axes,” said Masullo.

Thinking about diversity should also extend to sources. Masullo emphasized the need to think past the usual sources and to stop relying on the same people over and over again: “… those diverse voices need to be infused throughout the coverage, you don’t want it to be like, ‘oh, well, you know this one reporter handles that group and nobody else can talk to that group because that’s their thing.’ Because then, if that reporter isn’t doing the story, you don’t get those voices in the story.”

It’s important that sources reflect all communities. As was pointed out in the panel, people feel more comfortable talking to people who are somewhat like them. For example, in a study that asked Black Americans how newsrooms can better serve their community, participants pointed out that newsrooms need to hire more Black journalists and need to spend time connecting with Black communities.

To help achieve source diversity, Bell suggested using a “relationship spiral” during the reporting process. “The thing you should always have to do before leaving that conversation is ask them who else you should be talking to. So, maybe you know who the pastor is at a church, but you ask them, ‘are there any of your congregation who I can speak to?’ And then you ask them, ‘do you have any siblings that don’t go to this church? Do you have any family or friends?’ And then that creates a spiral that gets you out further from where you know,” explained Bell.

How can newsrooms frame stories in ways that offer people the news they need?

Ensure stories meet a variety of needs without alienating parts of the community

This approach encourages journalists to acknowledge all the sides of a story that affect different parts of a community. To achieve this, journalists need to have an awareness of the various groups affected by an issue and need to find a way to weave a story that serves all those needs.

By doing so, journalists can give people the information they need to use their place in the community to work toward a solution. Explained Bell, “I think about an issue like homelessness, for example, and the information and the news that folks who are maybe living in a tent city need is different than the news and information that people who are organizing around that issue and advocating for that issue [need].”

To help with the task, Anderson recommends this piece by the Solutions Journalism Network on complicating the narrative. She further explained, “…this is looking at the way that we write stories, and who we quote, and how we tell those things, and that, in these really polarized times, our tendency is to seek simplicity in order … but when we can actually complicate and bring nuance to the stories that we’re telling, that’s where people can actually open up a little bit more of that curiosity.”

The end result is more effective journalism that presents a variety of perspectives and can help bring these different groups together. Explained Bell, “If we want policy, if we want governance, if we want culture, if we want society that works from this framework and this understanding that we can and deserve to have our needs met and we deserve to be well, then we also need to create journalism, and write stories, and work with communities, and tell the stories that create that culture. What is the journalism that tells the story that all these needs can be met?”

Refrain from making conflict the sole focus of the story

Shifting the focus away from conflict doesn’t mean ignoring problems or negative stories — it’s about reframing the stories so they don’t focus solely on the spectacle of the conflict.

Research shows that news stories that focus on the fight and not the issue can have negative ramifications. Said Masullo, “…if the news story focuses on the conflict between, say, the Democrats and Republicans about a particular issue, versus the issue itself, it makes people think that our society is more polarized than it is. And it is pretty polarized. But they think it’s even more, it’s even worse, and why is that bad? Because it makes people disengage. It makes them say, why bother?”

For example, an analysis of coronavirus coverage found that news outlets were covering the negative effects of the virus, like businesses closing and the economy collapsing, but many of the issues people actually wanted to know about revolved around how the virus was affecting them and their communities. “We call this gap ‘the crisis coverage gap,’ but really what it is, it’s a failure of news organizations to serve their readers at a time when the stakes of not serving them are deadly,” said Masullo.

It may seem like more work, but for many journalists, the work is already part of the reporting process. Refocusing the story could be as simple as repackaging information and making sure people have news they can use. Explained Anderson, “If you do a big piece on immigration, for instance, you’ve done enough reporting to also write a couple of explainers that go at the bottom: if this is a specific issue that you’re dealing with, here are the places that you can go. Here are some things that people have found that have been particularly helpful, here’s who we talked to for this piece.”

Offer solutions to the problem and show who is covering the work on the ground

Shifting the focus away from conflict can include covering difficult and divisive issues through the lens of people who are working to solve the problem. Using solutions journalism, which research has shown can make readers feel more informed, optimistic, and interested in engaging with an issue, is a way to show people that the problem isn’t hopeless.

Said Anderson of the approach, “And maybe that’s really small, but you’re seeing those bits of change work and I think it’s how we choose to cover things, and not just sort of going straight to the drama that makes a good “story.” I think it’s, you know, figuring out where there’s more nuance.”

How can newsrooms use social media to connect people to their newsroom and their community?

Utilize social media as a relationship-building tool

To get more out of social media, news outlets should take a step back from the metrics and think about how social media can be used to start a dialogue with the community. “If you can create sort of a healthy relationship, and a well-moderated one on your social media platforms, they’re an incredible place to form a relationship with people, and that means getting better stories, getting better sources, and really using it as a, you know, an extension of your humanity, and of like of you being a human on these platforms,” explained Anderson.

Journalists should think about what each platform has to offer and how it functions – the language people use and how people relate to each other on the site. Instead of looking at social media as a distribution platform for news stories, journalists should take the opportunity to break down complicated ideas, make content more digestible, and communicate with the audience.

Don’t ignore your community – especially when they criticize you

Though it can be difficult to engage with critics, panelists recommended taking this approach as a way to bridge divides. “If your newspaper, or your TV station makes a mistake, or a reader questions something, giving a straightforward answer without being defensive is helpful,” said Masullo.

In working with journalists to employ this kind of response, Bell said the outcome has always been positive, “There hasn’t been a time, even when folks have been critical, there hasn’t been a time where we had journalists and newsrooms leave the space feeling deflated and defeated.”

Opening these types of conversations can lead to a better relationship with audiences and communities. “Folks are way more likely to trust journalism, and trust the news, if the news trusts them. So, when folks come and say this is harming me and my people and my community, then you have to believe them … I think really kind of coming back to these real human needs and ways of interacting, and moving, and building trust is really key in figuring out how we navigate social media,” said Bell.

It’s important to note that this approach is for criticism, not for abuse or harassment. Masullo advised, “… for those people you can’t engage, you need to remove them if it’s on your site.”

Protect your employees from abuse so they feel comfortable engaging

Reporters can be hesitant to engage on social media. This is often a result of feeling vulnerable and feeling like newsrooms won’t offer protection from harassment. “I’ve done a lot of research in the space and I want to just underscore a call that I think newsrooms need to do more to protect their own employees from that harassment,” said Masullo.

In order for reporters to feel like they can fully engage, newsroom management needs to make it clear that they will support their journalists. As Masullo explained, “I think if they did more and they had structures in place, where, particularly women and people of color, felt comfortable coming to an editor and saying ‘this is what’s happening to me,’ and they wouldn’t be worried they’re going to be branded a problem for bringing that question, or that challenge, up, I think then journalists would have an easier time actually answering the legitimate criticism that goes on in social media, because they know the newsroom has their back if things go really badly.”

To learn more about connective democracy and to view the full SXSW panel, visit our connective democracy page.