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Engaging people across lines of difference

“I see journalists actively engaging societal divides as a trend poised to take off, whether it’s rural/urban differences, political divisiveness, or any of the multitude of other cleavages facing society.”

A core component of the journalistic enterprise is helping people understand what they cannot directly experience: decision-making in Congress, fighting a war overseas, discovering the outer bounds of the solar system, you name it. Reading about NASA’s Mars InSight lander isn’t the only way to feel like you’re on another planet, though. The polarization that characterizes our society can make those on the other side of an issue seem just as distant.

I think journalism is helping to change this.

In the year to come, I see journalists actively engaging societal divides as a trend poised to take off, whether it’s rural/urban differences, political divisiveness, or any of the multitude of other cleavages facing society. Journalism has an opportunity to provide an incredible service. I think we should be asking: How can journalism help us understand those who voted differently? Those who practice a different religion? Those who live just 30 minutes away?

In some ways these are old questions, but the new ways in which journalists are pursing this work are what’s truly noteworthy. KUOW, for example, hosted speed-dating-style forums for interested participants to meet people who they might not otherwise (e.g., “Ask a Muslim”). Spaceship Media and their collaborators set up Facebook groups allowing those with diverse views on topics like guns and immigration to interact. In our review of these efforts, we identified 25 stellar examples of newsrooms doing exactly this work. And I think that we’ve only scratched the surface of what journalism could do.

As news organizations look for ways to build community trust, engaging people across lines of difference strikes me as a promising approach. There will be holdouts, to be sure. Engagement efforts take resources and they do not have the reach of traditional journalism. But, they can pay dividends and their effects can be extended through coverage.

As 2019 undoubtedly brings new types of misinformation, attempts to further polarize the public, and new economic challenges, I see newsrooms as helping to light bridges across divides.

Talia Stroud is director of the Center for Media Engagement and associate professor of communication studies and journalism at the University of Texas.

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