What We Learned in 2020 – And How It Can Help Newsrooms In the Year Ahead

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 Black communities.

We asked Black Americans how news organizations could better cover their communities to help bridge the divide between them and the media. The interviews revealed six suggestions for journalists:

  1. Find “Black Joy”: Intentionally cover positive stories about Black people and communities, rather than focusing coverage on police brutality or protests.
  2. Provide a More Complete Story: Develop more sources in Black communities and tell stories that include their points of view.
  3. Diversify Blackness: Don’t treat one neighborhood or community as “Black people.” Instead, realize that Black people live throughout your coverage area and that their needs and beliefs are not all the same.
  4. Explore Your Own Unconscious Biases: Think about the decisions you make about what stories to cover and how you cover those stories, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
  5. Hire Black Journalists: Make a real commitment to hiring diverse staff at all levels.
  6. Connect with Black Communities: Build trust by finding ways to make connections in Black communities before big news happens. Consider getting involved in local causes or community events.

2. Newsrooms can encourage people to bridge divides.

As political divides continue to push people apart, the Center for Media Engagement’s connective democracy mission is finding practical solutions to the problems of divisiveness. Our research has so far revealed strategies for approaching political discussions with people who don’t share our views and explored the habits common among people who are able to overcome differences.

In interviews with Americans who live in communities with mixed political views, we uncovered five overarching approaches to help connect people with opposing viewpoints. The strategies are backed by real-life examples of how people put them into action. For example, we found that it’s helpful for people to find common ground and bond over topics that are less polarizing. This strategy can involve finding shared beliefs and keeping them in mind as tougher subjects are tackled. Though people may be on opposing sides of an issue, there are likely places where beliefs overlap.

3. There are many approaches to improving news audience trust.  

We’ve shown that adding information about how and why a story was reported can increase trust. Unsurprisingly, this only works if people notice. In testing the placement of a card that explained how and why a story was reported, we found that the contents of the card are valuable to readers, but newsrooms need to ensure that the information is highly visible.

In an examination of how TV news stations can increase trust, we found that they should:

  • Explain why a story is being done and make it clear why the explanation is being provided
  • Encourage audience participation or provide additional resources at the conclusion of the story
  • Keep discussions of why they’re making particular choices brief and to the point
  • Be cautious of describing stories as exclusive because viewers may not value the designation

We also discovered that reporter bios are not effective when presented alone. However, our past research shows that combining bios with these additional strategies can increase trust:

  • Adding story labels like news, analysis, opinion, or sponsored content 
  • Including footnotes for citations
  • Writing a description of how and why the story was reported
  • Noting involvement in the Trust Project, an international consortium of news organizations

What these studies demonstrate is that there are many approaches to increasing trust—and we need to keep testing for what works best.

4. Coronavirus coverage should meet local audience needs.

In two separate studies, we took snapshots of local newsrooms’ Facebook posts about coronavirus and asked audiences what information they wanted from their local newsrooms. The results identified opportunities for newsrooms to rethink coverage in order to better meet audience needs.

The most important takeaway is that audiences want local information about coronavirus like the number of cases and how essential businesses are responding. Newsrooms should keep in mind that people turn to local news for information they can’t get from national outlets.

Take a look at additional research-backed tips for covering coronavirus here.

5. Comment sections have proven value for newsrooms.

News comment sections have obvious advantages — they give readers opportunities to interact and to discuss stories. They also allow journalists to engage with readers and identify stories that are important to the community.

Though it may be tempting for newsrooms to turn site comments off when conversations turn argumentative or when the task of moderating becomes a burden, our research found that this decision could end up cutting down on the time people spend on site and could make the experience worse for users.

The study also revealed that the platform newsrooms choose for comments can make a big difference for users and newsrooms alike and can affect the number of toxic comments. For newsrooms looking to reduce uncivil comments, our past research offers several suggestions.

6. Keep it simple when sharing information about registering to vote.

Newsrooms can be effective at communicating voter registration information by keeping the message simple and to the point. Across the three types of graphics we tested, a simple text box with information about voting proved to be the most effective at making people feel informed about registering to vote and making people feel qualified to vote. Given this, newsrooms might want to be cautious about creating elaborate graphics that may be less effective than a simple text box.

7. The headlines and images newsrooms choose for coronavirus Facebook posts affect reader emotions and actions.

People may feel overwhelmed by coronavirus news, but our research shows that they still want – and need – information about the crisis. When testing different kinds of headlines and images on coronavirus news stories, we found that people who viewed posts that used photos without a body bag or patient covered in protective gear were less inclined to blame Chinese immigrants for the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. 

We also found that headlines that were positive or were focused on solutions to problems related to coronavirus, rather than on negative developments, made people less anxious and more willing to “like” the news posts on Facebook.

8. It’s important to encourage the public to understand whether content is news or opinion.

In a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, people often turn to television news for updates. In an examination of primetime cable news network shows and nightly network news broadcasts, we revealed a troubling trend of politicized coverage of the virus.

The results highlight the importance of empowering the public to understand how programs lean and to know whether they are providing news or opinion. For newsrooms, this report shows that strategies are needed to let the public know when content is news versus opinion.  

9. If you have the resources, Facebook Messenger can be a helpful tool in improving online conversations.

Taking a large Facebook group and breaking it down into smaller groups on Facebook Messenger, along with providing guidance on how to have tough conversations, can facilitate better political dialogue and connections between people. 

10. There’s work to be done in the Chicago news media landscape — and the implications are important for news outlets nationwide.

An analysis of Chicago news coverage revealed that the media mentioned Chicago’s North / Downtown region more frequently than the West and South Sides. The study also revealed that the topics covered by news outlets differed depending on which parts of Chicago were mentioned. The results follow up on a previous study where we found that people living on the West and South Sides of Chicago felt underrepresented or poorly represented by Chicago news media compared to those living in the North / Downtown region. We also examined how Chicago news sources covered coronavirus on Facebook and found that coverage did not always line up with where there were more cases.

The results highlight the importance of figuring out how well perceptions of media coverage square with reality and recognizing that there may be work to be done.