In times of polarisation, how can journalism reach across divides?

We share eight practical recommendations journalists can engage “the other” in stories that matter profoundly

Reverend Harold Good, an Irish Methodist minister who was a vital protagonist in the Northern Ireland peace process, said at a conference in Belfast in August that the best way to build bridges between opponents is through the four Ts: Tea, Talk, Truth and Trust.

This lesson is also relevant for journalists in the digital age.

Algorithms of exclusion are fragmenting public opinion into increasingly isolated groups. These groups are easily pitted against each other by well-planned politics of fear. Indispensable stories produced by independent journalists struggle to engage audiences across ideological, social, religious, geographical and ethnic divides.

So how can journalists engage “the other” in stories that matter profoundly to us all? Here are eight practical recommendations from social psychologists and other researchers on the business of talking with audiences, truth-telling and trust in journalism:

  1. Understand how the internet is manipulated by ill-intentioned actors. They impersonate, polarise, troll, discredit and appeal to emotions and conspiracy theories. Knowing these tricks prevents reporters from unwittingly spreading bogus news. It also makes them more conscious about the dangers of using preying methods. For a crash course on how this works, try this wonderful game developed by DROG, a multidisciplinary team of academics and journalists.
  2. To increase credibility, try exposing your audience to similar news in multiple places. If you write an exposé, which many people may find hard to believe, create different versions of the story from a number of angles and circulate it through diverse channels. Tailor the stories to the specific audiences of those platforms. Listen to their responses.
  3. Providing detail helps to debunk misinformation. Tell stories in a way people can scrutinise and counter-argue. According to Sally Chan and other US researchers, if a story is trying to debunk a widespread, inaccurate piece of news or a popular myth, offering detailed evidence challenging misinformation “enhances the power of corrective efforts”.
  4. Suppose your investigative reporting shows that a public officer in your country is responsible for serious wrongdoing, but you know that half the population will simply not believe any damaging evidence against them. What to do? Oxford University’s social psychologist Sander van der Linden recommends “pre-bunking”. Anticipate the propaganda efforts and warn audiences how they are going to be misled. “Pre-empting the story before it even breaks out could increase critical media usage”, he says. Another way to inoculate people against propaganda is to use satire and show them how ridiculous it is.
  5. If you are publishing in a media outlet with a defined political stance and you want to reach across the divide, provide a gateway for audiences who do not share your media’s point of view. Start your story by repeating what they believe to be true (or untrue) and then make your point. This way, at least your story stands a chance with “the other”, says Van der Linden.
  6. If you expect backlash from a story, join forces with media of different political backgrounds and geographies to produce it. During the Mexican electoral campaign, for example, when emotions ran high, nearly 90 local and national media outlets stood by a fact-checking and misinformation de-bunking effort they called Verificado 2018. By the time the elections came, people really trusted us, says Daniel Moreno, editor of Animal Politico, a media outlet that led the effort.
  7. If you don’t know all of the answers (because who does?), be humble and say so. You can even explain to your audiences that since your story is not a fairy tale, not all the pieces fall into place. Modesty also works when you make mistakes and correct them. However, beware of making too many mistakes and corrections. Swedish researchers Michael Karlsson and others found that readers will distrust you if you mess up too often, even if you recognise it. They also found that “it is only those who already trust media that appreciate corrections”.
  8. Form matters. A friendly mobile interface and a pleasant design will do a lot to gain the credibility of potential readers. Based on data given by 574 participants in an experiment, Andrew Flanagin and Miriam Metzger found that “credibility assessments appear to be primarily due to website attributes … such as design features and site complexity.”

Reaching out across divides with stories that matter to all is a question of sensitivity. Making peace in journalism is putting yourself in the shoes of those who will have a hard time believing your story. Talk over endless virtual cups of tea. Serve them Truth consistently; resist misleading headlines that will earn you a cheap click. Talk and Truth will earn audiences’ Trust, even from those who think and live at odds with you and your media.


This post was first published by the Open Society Program on Independent Journalism. It is reproduced here with permission. OSF’s Program on Independent Journalism is a donor to JamLab.