More Than Fluff: Dismantling Journalism’s Hard News Bias

Ellen Mayer
Aug 17, 2016 · 8 min read
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Chad Kaines | Flickr

Say you’re an editor of your city’s main newspaper. Which of these news stories do you think your audience needs most?

A. The latest gaffe from a political campaign

B. An overview of gun violence that took place in the last 24 hours

C. The history of a Black community center and skating rink

Now, how did you come to that conclusion?

Most people in the news business would likely select option A: campaign gaffe, or B: gun violence, because they both fall under the under the umbrella of “hard” news. Meanwhile, C: a history piece about a community center does not fit under that same umbrella. It’s “soft” news, sometimes called “fluff.”

Though hard news doesn’t have an iron-clad definition, many journalists seem to assume that hard news is the only kind of journalism that audiences truly need. In other words, journalism has a hard news bias.

To get the obvious out of the way: I believe in the absolute necessity of accountability journalism. We need investigative reporters in local newsrooms to shine a spotlight on wrongdoings. In order to be well-informed voters, we need coverage about our elected officials and the candidates running for office. I believe most topics under the hard news umbrella are very important.

But too often, journalists dismiss any story that doesn’t qualify as hard news as trivial or “fluff.” In doing so, they dismiss so many vital services journalists can and should perform for their communities.

A Quick Thought Experiment

I believe the hard news bias stifles journalists’ imagination when it comes to the kinds of stories that their audiences might value and need. So, let’s expand our imaginations for a moment.

Pretend the news industry hasn’t already decided that hard news is the only type of journalism that audiences need in order to be informed citizens. Consider:

  • What kinds of information do you personally need?
  • What kinds of information do your family members or closest friends need?
  • What kinds of information does your community need?
  • What kinds of stories could journalists tell to meet those needs?

Here’s what I came up with for myself

I need stories that:

  • Help me better understand my history and lived environment
  • Represent the fullness of my community, not just the worst and the best of it
  • Make me feel engaged and emotionally connected to civic life

I’m going to delve into each of these needs and provide examples of stories — beyond the hard news bias — that already do address them.

The Need to Understand Our Lived Environment

I believe that in order to be civically engaged and well-informed, people need the news to help them identify and understand the forces that have shaped their environments and communities. This belief isn’t without foundation: In my work at Hearken, I’ve seen audience members ask for those kinds of stories over and over again.

Hearken’s partner newsrooms publish stories that are prompted by audience questions. (Audience questions are essentially a big, flashing arrow pointing to an individual’s stated information needs.) Those questions have led to stories about the names of streets and towns, the history of accents and indigenous languages, and why some public transit lines are so indirect and twisty. Freed from the typical constraints of a news story, our partner newsrooms also experiment with form: explaining the phenomenon of bus bunching with animated gifs, or illustrating the legacy of the Civil War with a walking tour of St. Louis monuments.

These stories aren’t necessarily pegged to current events, they’re not breaking news, they don’t involve celebrities or prominent political figures, they aren’t rife with conflict: all values that journalists usually look for in a “newsworthy” story. But they’re also not fluff.

Every single one of these stories illuminates a power structure, unearths a history rarely told, or helps audiences understand the fabric of their community. A street name connects to a displaced indigenous tribe. A suburb’s ban on “For Sale” signs is actually a corrective for housing segregation. A train line follows the path of least financial resistance.

Stories like these help me become more critical of my surroundings: to see beyond what is and learn how it came to be. Maybe you disagree, but I believe these outcomes are vital for a healthy democratic society, especially in our current moment: when the news is scary, the country is violently divided, and we live in information bubbles that confirm our own biases and beliefs.

The Need for Diversity and Deeper Representation

Hearken’s CEO Jennifer Brandel has an expression I love: that the news is a funhouse mirror; it reflects a warped view of society in which people are only extremely wonderful or extremely terrible (or sometimes, extremely bizarre). I believe that all news audiences unfortunately experience that fun house mirror. But I also see that the mirror’s warped effect is far less pronounced for white people like myself.

I can open up any major news outlet and see pages and pages about white people breaking records and glass ceilings, rising and falling spectacularly, or just buying puppies while drunk.

When journalists talk about diversity in news, we often talk about the need for more reporters, editors, and publishers of color (this is extremely important!). We also talk about consulting with diverse sources, and not seeking out people of color just for Stories About Race (also very important!!!). But we don’t often talk about the need to publish more diverse stories by and about communities of color.

For example, I live in Chicago where just under a third of the population is Black. With so many Black residents, you’d imagine there must be a great many stories to tell about Black life in Chicago. But most of our news outlets are stuck telling the same kinds of stories over and over again: stories about conflict, crime, and — in particular — gun violence. This is true of media all over the country. Studies by The Sentencing Project and Color Of Change have found that news outlets actually overrepresent Black people as perpetrators of crime.

This overrepresentation has real consequences, adding fuel to racist assumptions and causing audiences (including police and policy makers) to view Black people as more dangerous and more criminal than other Americans.

The unfairly skewed nature of crime coverage is not simply because of the hard news bias. It is certainly a problem of implicit racial bias in newsrooms. Hiring more Black journalists and editors will go a long way toward solving that problem. But to reverse the media’s overrepresentation of crime in Black communities, we also need to adjust newsrooms’ assumptions about which kinds of stories are valuable and newsworthy.

I believe that fair and balanced reporting in a city like Chicago means reflecting the full diversity of experience in Black neighborhoods. That requires making room in the newshole for stories that aren’t just about disinvestment, crime, and dysfunction. It requires investing significantly in reporting about history, culture, enterprise, and day-to-day life in Black neighborhoods.

I am — of course — not the first person who’s thought of this, and there are many Black journalists around the country already doing this work. Stacia L. Brown is a journalist in Baltimore who has devoted the past year to telling different kinds of stories than we see in national headlines about Baltimore. Through AIR’s Localore Initiative, she created the Rise of Charm City, a documentary series at WEAA that spotlights Baltimore’s Black cultural institutions. There are episodes about Black banking, Black nuns, and even the Great Blacks In Wax Museum. And yes, there is an episode about a Black community center and skating rink.

These stories are charming, surprising, and rich with personal narrative. In broadcasting them, Stacia Brown has woven bursts of light and vibrance into the media’s tired and typically bleak narrative about Black Baltimore. In this way, she’s beginning to correct the public record, representing experiences and voices that major news outlets overlook.

Now it’s up to the rest of journalism to catch up with Stacia Brown and her counterparts around the country who are not just imagining the possibility of more and richer stories about communities of color, but actually reporting them.

The Need for Emotional Resonance and Connection

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By Arthur Jones

Finally, I want to go there: I want to talk about feelings, because I think the hard news bias puts an emotional muzzle on journalism, limiting the range of feelings a news story can evoke.

I believe that audiences need to experience the news and feel something other than fear, helplessness, or sadness. Otherwise, the natural reaction is to disengage. I’ve certainly done that. But audiences don’t actually want to disengage. Audiences want to connect to each other (see Jeff Jarvis’ great piece Death to the Mass) and have conversations. Hard news rarely accomplishes this function.

Many journalists (and journalism schools) consider the existence of conflict to be one of the key features of a newsworthy story. In practice, that means that much of the news feels sad and bad and many journalists think that’s how it should be.

I won’t argue that there’s a lot of bad news out there that’s important and newsworthy. But I do know it’s possible to elicit more kinds of feelings (even positive ones!) without deluding audiences about the state of the world or resorting to puppy listicles.

I know that because Hearken newsrooms do it every day, and so does Stacia Brown at WEAA. The story examples I’ve listed above all resonate across multiple emotional frequencies. They make me feel a sense of discovery, curiosity, and even delight. Most importantly, these stories make me feel more connected to the subject at hand, to the people and places depicted, and to civic life as a whole. That feeling of connection is what motivates me to become more involved in local politics and community organizing, and it’s what makes me feel capable of creating change. To me, that seems like a very important feeling that journalists should want to replicate and multiply.

According to a slew of Founding Fathers, many Supreme Court cases, and journalists throughout history, the whole raison d’être of the press is to inform the voting public and thereby sustain democracy. But in 2016, Americans are about as disconnected as they have ever been, and I think journalism has to go a few bold steps further to sustain democracy. I don’t think it’s enough just to inform; we need to engage and connect as well. That means getting beyond the hard news bias, with its emphasis on conflict and its funhouse reflection of society. That means wholeheartedly embracing other kinds of stories.

I am hungry for more. I want more imagination. I want more kinds of stories that feature more kinds of people, and elicit a greater range of emotional responses than what I experience from the daily news. Based on the questions that Hearken newsrooms receive from their communities around the world, I know a lot of other people share my hunger. We’re starving, really.

Update: When I published this piece, I did not realize that the wonderful show The Rise of Charm City is in fact fundraising for a season two. If you agree with me that the Charm City team is doing vital journalism, you can give to their Indiegogo here.

Read next3 Flavors of Delight: A Hearken Story Roundup by Engagement Consultant Summer Fields for a taste of how delight in journalism isn’t just fun — it’s immensely valuable.🍦

Want to learn how to better engage the public? Download our free engagement checklist guide.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and…

Ellen Mayer

Written by

Chicago Media Gal. Host and producer of IlliNoise. Freelance reporter and community engager. Formerly @wearehearken.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

Ellen Mayer

Written by

Chicago Media Gal. Host and producer of IlliNoise. Freelance reporter and community engager. Formerly @wearehearken.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

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