In writing about Sarah Palin and her 2022 bid for Congress, T.A. Frank made a promise to readers — and to himself.
A past Palin critic, Frank set out on the reporting with “an avowedly open mind,” as he wrote in The Washington Post in July. He pledged to “fight my own mental shortcuts — such as viewing her moneymaking pursuits as cynical — and come up with the most generous theories of Palin that I could, given the facts on hand. It’s something we ought to be doing more of these days, anyway, if we’re to feel our way back to getting along.”
Ultimately, Frank was able to present a story not just about the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate herself, but about Americans, their politics, and their relationship to each other — and the media. It’s not by any means a story that gives Palin a pass; it’s a thoughtful attempt to look at a controversial, complex subject in a nuanced way in a time of political extremism and tension.
“This is a time when we all hate one another. You hate me, and I probably hate you, whoever you are. We know it isn’t good for us, however,” Frank wrote in The Post. “We know that when we meet many of these adversaries in the flesh, they have qualities that don’t fit into easy theories or diagnoses. We might be able to share a meal, or a yard, or even a country.”
In the context of crucial midterm elections, Americans are polarized and are having trouble simply talking to each other and agreeing on basic facts. Some of the standard practices of the media in covering politics and controversy aren’t helping bridge that divide — and, in fact, are exacerbating it. Complicating this quandary: a news culture and social media universe that steamroll nuance and amplify extremes, and the corrosive tendency of the press to center the “game” of politics — and the candidates and officials who “play” it — versus the problems the electorate deeply cares about and wants addressed.
Of course, these divisions existed before the 2022 election cycle. A study released in 2020 by researchers from Brown and Stanford Universities found that the polarization gap — how negatively members of opposing political parties viewed each other — soared by nearly 70 percent between 1978 and 2016. The researchers said this was possibly due in part to the membership in the two major parties self-sorting more sharply along racial and religious lines in addition to ideology — making the people across the aisle look even more different.
In Congress, Pew has found, “Both parties have moved further away from the ideological center since the early 1970s. Democrats on average have become somewhat more liberal, while Republicans on average have become much more conservative.” One notable difference between the U.S. and countries where polarization declined over the same period, the study found, was the growing prevalence of partisan cable news networks in America versus the higher per-capita spending on public media elsewhere.
There’s a lot of blame to go around for America’s political schism. Still, as Elizabeth Kolbert has written in The New Yorker, “The fact that each party regards the other as a ‘serious threat’ doesn’t mean that they are equally threatening. The January 6th attack on the Capitol, the ongoing attempts to discredit the 2020 election, the new state laws that will make it more difficult for millions of people to vote, particularly in communities of color — only one party is responsible for these.”
Nevertheless, coverage of electoral politics, polarization, and other contentious issues can be more useful — and even more accurate — when it considers voters rather than just vote-seekers, explores divisions without oversimplifying or overstating them, and identifies not only the existence of problems but possible solutions. Of course, there should be no nuance to some political stories. Political violence, election denial, voter suppression, racist attacks must all be called out and condemned. But a more modulated depiction of voters and issues can help deprive those looking to exploit and inflame division of a chance to spread misinformation or outright lies for their own political gain.
Here’s a look at some of the ways journalists and other experts are advancing coverage that gets beyond “us versus them.”
A Pew study released in August found that Republicans and Democrats not only have negative views of the other party, but increasingly describe people in that other party as “as more closed-minded, dishonest, immoral and unintelligent than other Americans.”
In other words, it’s personal.
The rise in those feelings of hostility in just the last few years has been jaw-dropping. In 2016, about 35 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans thought people in the other party were more immoral than other Americans; in 2022, Pew found, that shot up to 63 percent for Democrats and 72 percent for Republicans. Pew also found that “most registered voters — regardless of whether they identify with a party or are independents who lean toward a party — say it is unlikely they will cast a ballot for a candidate from the other party for any office over the next several years.”
Extreme partisan reactions ratcheted up among allies of former President Donald Trump over the summer after the FBI executed a search warrant at the former president’s Florida estate. The agents were looking for documents Trump was not authorized to keep when he completed his term as president. They retrieved more than 20 boxes of materials, including some marked “top secret,” per court documents. Some of those who had rallied to Trump’s patently false claims that the 2020 election was rigged against him amped up their violent rhetoric after the search, with the most enraged even talking about civil war. Within days, a veteran who had expressed support for Trump on social media attempted to breach an FBI field office in Ohio, firing a nail gun at law enforcement officers. The magistrate judge who approved the warrant became the target of death threats and antisemitic slurs, and the Department of Homeland Security warned of increased menacing of federal officials.
Most people are not that extreme — nor are most people’s views, even on contentious issues. While gun regulation is often painted as a bright dividing line during campaigns, more than 70 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws, according to a recent University of Chicago/AP poll. Research also shows that Americans have increasingly complex views of issues related to gender, with most thinking trans people should be protected from discrimination.
News reporting is “oftentimes the only way in which we get to actually see the other side,” says Dan Vallone, U.S. director of More in Common, a non-partisan nonprofit that studies polarization. At a time when partisans “see the other political side as not just an opponent, but as a threat, [not] just on policy goals, but on the survival of the country, on their own family’s well-being, [the] stakes are very high, and it’s a critical moment for all of us — not just journalists, but citizens — to do a much better job of trying to grapple with more complex descriptions and depictions of other Americans.”
It’s a tough job for a lot of reasons, including what’s called the perception gap — the difference between what Side A believes Side B thinks and what Side B actually thinks. The higher a person’s perception gap, the more distorted — and negative — are their views of people on the other side. “People with large perception gaps are more likely to describe their opponents as ‘hateful,’ ‘ignorant,’ and ‘bigoted,’” according to More in Common’s research. The more media people consume, the wider the gap. In fact, people who said in a More in Common/YouGov survey that they read the news “most of the time” had views of the other side that were three times more distorted than occasional news consumers.
The largest increases in the perception gap, per the More in Common/YouGov study, were associated with consumers of right-leaning outlets, including Breitbart News, Drudge Report, and the Sean Hannity Show. People who consumed news from those sources had a perception gap nine to 11 percentage points higher than those who didn’t. The perception gaps tied to liberal outlets such as Slate, Buzzfeed, Daily Kos, and HuffPost were smaller, but still considerable — about eight percentage points higher than those who didn’t get information from those sites. Fox viewers had a larger gap than viewers of MSNBC and CNN. Only consumers of the three major television networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — were “associated with better understanding [of] other Americans’ views.”
Compounding the problem, Vallone adds, the most engaged news consumers tend to have the least politically diverse social networks. “It helps to have people of the other political party in your social network to reduce your perception gap” through exposure to varying viewpoints, Vallone says. What’s more, according to More in Common research, a relatively small percentage — 26 percent — of Americans report sharing social media posts about politics, and the ones who do share tend to have a higher perception gap than those who don’t. “The political content we see on social media is therefore disproportionately from people with a more distorted understanding of the other side, further adding to the problem,” says a summary of the research.
Investigative reporter Amanda Ripley wrote about diametrically opposed entrenchments in her book “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.” In essence, conflict shifts into “high” gear when people start to view each other as “us” and “them,” or “right” and “wrong,” or even “good” and “evil.” As Ripley has written, when people feel threatened, they become hypervigilant: “In this hypervigilant state, we feel an involuntary need to defend our side and attack the other. That anxiety renders us immune to new information. In other words: no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what.”
Giving voice to people who are conflicted about an issue — whether it be how to spend tax dollars or whether to mandate Covid vaccines for public-facing workers — should not be seen as diluting a story, but as enriching it and making it more accurate, Ripley says.
Based on her own work with conflict mediators, Ripley has some prescriptions for reporters covering conflict-ridden events and issues, including elections. She suggests amplifying the stories of people who don’t hold standard, easily categorized views on controversial issues or simply haven’t made up their minds, because it presents a real-world view of how not everyone falls into one column or the other on disputed subjects.
She also advocates for asking questions that explore people’s underlying beliefs and motivations, not just their positions — as The Atlantic did about abortion in its Up for Debate newsletter in May, enabling it to gather and present an array of compelling, diverse personal stories by simply asking people what they thought. One respondent said she generally considered abortion “a moral wrong that ends a life” — but also favored discussing “looser restrictions on late-term abortions” in cases where it’s revealed that “the child has a condition that is not compatible with life.”
Braver Angels uses “bridging” techniques — some of which derive from approaches used in couples therapy — to get people at extremes of the political spectrum to actively listen to each other. The group connects people through “Walk a Mile in My News” pairings “designed to break people out of their media silos by getting them to read articles from the other side of the political divide, and get to know someone who appreciates what those articles are saying,” according to a piece published on the Braver Angels website by Mónica Guzmán, senior fellow for public practice at the organization.
In the case of political news coverage, “a lot of people [just] don’t think that the people creating that media even know what their concerns truly are,” says Guzmán. In one session, two women — “red” Wynette and “blue” Vera — read and talked about voter rights and election integrity. Vera sent Wynette a New York Times piece that called restrictive voting laws “Jim Crow 2.0,” for example. Wynette sent Vera an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story on two GOP lawmakers who deliberately used fake signatures as a test to apply successfully for absentee ballots. The women were ultimately able to have a civil, genuine conversation — and a better understanding of why they still disagreed on key points.
“When it comes to understanding what an issue is truly about, I think where we miss out … is taking the time to hear people [out] fully, not just, ‘What do you think? Tell me your opinion,’ but ‘Where did that opinion come from? What are the experiences that inform that for you? And then what are the concerns that animated for you?’ If you can get some of those experiences and concerns behind somebody’s opinion … you give your readers a way into that person’s perspective,” Guzmán says.
Also, there is ample room for a reckoning about how social media algorithms distribute and reward content. Research published in Nature Human Behavior in February found that “the popularity of a news source is weakly associated with its reliability” — understood as the source’s credibility and transparency. The scholars suggested creating an algorithm that boosted stories from outlets with more partisan diversity among its readership, because those sources tend to be more reliable. The approach could also help control the spread of extreme misinformation.
Meanwhile, as Ripley suggests, thoughtfully conveying that no group is monolithic can go a long way. As can talking to people who have changed their minds about a controversial topic. One example: A February Guardian story about a group of former vaccine skeptics working to help others who are hesitant find science-based answers to their concerns about Covid-19 shots. The piece spends time laying out the controversial issue — vaccine hesitancy — and explains how people are trying to address it on a grassroots level. It also manages to examine the underlying fears and worries of those who oppose vaccines, but without falling into the trap of letting their rationales stand on the same plane as empirical evidence.
Abortion is often held up as one of the most classically divisive issues in the U.S. and is often used as a litmus test for candidates. However, this simply isn’t as much of a 50-50 issue as some news coverage would have you believe. A June 2022 Pew report showed, “A 61% majority of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.” That’s been the case for the last few years, according to Pew. The organization also reported that when it comes to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which federally enshrined the right to legal abortion, “Nearly six-in-ten adults (57%) disapprove of the court’s sweeping decision, including 43% who strongly disapprove.”
Katie Woodruff, social science fellow in reproductive and maternal health at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, based at the University of California San Francisco, studied how three top news sources — The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press — covered abortion in 2013 and 2016. “Most of the time when abortion was in the news, it was covered in a political context — so not as a health issue or even a quote-unquote women’s issue,” Woodruff says. “Even when it was discussed substantively, it was in sort of a partisan, horserace kind of analysis, like who wins and who loses among the political parties or candidates by using the issue of abortion in one way or another.”
NPR, among others, has explained how it handles charged phrases such as “fetal heartbeat” and “partial-birth abortion.” NPR’s policy as stated in 2019 was grounded in medical terminology related to human development, not the language preferred by politicians or activists on either side of the debate. It was also partly based on the guidelines of The Associated Press, which got some static this year when it issued style guidance on the use of terms such as “pregnant people” and “people seeking abortions” in consideration of conceptions among those who do not identify as women.
An example of coverage that got past the immediate political implications was the data-driven reporting and interactive graphics presented by NPR in August, which focused on the reality on the ground and showed that states with the toughest abortion laws also tend to have higher rates of child poverty, higher rates of uninsurance among women aged 19 to 64, and a larger share of people living in “maternity care deserts.”
This is not to say that there’s no room for stories that focus on political controversy, daily “trail reporting,” or the mechanics of campaigns and elections. But, in a world full of either-or political choices, covering politics with more nuance doesn’t require an either-or dimension. Experts both inside media and collaborating to improve it recommend several tracks, including changing the way we focus on politicians themselves and shifting how we listen to and cover the people actually voting in elections (or opting out).
For Ripley, it’s worth thinking about what readers and voters actually need to make a decision on or before Election Day. “Everybody has a camera in their pocket, so they don’t need you to be the first on the scene at a major national political rally repeating what happened,” she says. “I don’t think people need nearly as much who, what, when, where as they do why and how.”
That could mean setting up a web page or email address, as The Texas Tribune has, to ask voters questions like, “What’s at stake for you this election cycle? What issues would you like to better understand?” It could be giving readers a data-driven glimpse into what’s on the minds of their neighbors ahead of the election, as Axios started doing earlier this year, making the info publicly searchable by congressional district, representative, and even address. Or it could be a helpful explainer, such as one from Mountain State Spotlight in April that laid out not only why two West Virginia House incumbents were running against each other (redistricting) and how they differed, but also who could vote, how, and when.
Jennifer Brandel, chief executive officer of the engagement platform Hearken, says actively listening to audiences can shift election coverage from what politicians want to say to what people are interested in learning more about.
“Following candidates and reporting back to the public, ‘Here’s what candidates are saying,’ whether it’s at a press conference or on the campaign trail, [lets] candidates drive the agenda of what they want the public to know, versus if [you] believe that it’s true that in a democracy, citizens are the most important actors, then the coverage should be citizen-focused,” she says.
Brandel has worked with NYU’s Jay Rosen on a “Citizens Agenda” approach to reporting that gives the audience a bigger say in how stories are selected and produced. “The Citizen’s Agenda is really all about asking the electorate, ‘What do you not know that you want politicians to be talking about as they compete for your votes?’” Brandel says. “When newsrooms optimize for relationships and relevance and trust, [they] include the people that they’re serving in the decision-making process, rather than assuming they know what’s best and kind of going with whatever is the fastest and cheapest to produce.”
To that end, programs like Election SOS and Democracy SOS, in concert with Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), Hearken, Poynter, and other partners, are helping newsrooms identify and rethink how they handle coverage, including soliciting questions and comments from the audience and incorporating those throughout the reporting. Democracy SOS has awarded training fellowships to an array of news outlets, especially in swing states, with a goal of helping the industry “replace stories about conflicting and competing polls and candidates — which we know contribute to distrust — with more deep, ongoing examinations of important social issues,” according to its website. Election SOS this year offered training sessions specifically geared toward midterms coverage, including material on identifying and communicating with audiences newsrooms aren’t reaching.
This midterm cycle is a hot one for swing state Wisconsin, given the high profile Senate and governor races. As The New York Times has reported, the GOP nominee for governor, Tim Michels, is a Trump ally who “has embraced calls to dismantle the state’s bipartisan election commission, invoked conspiratorial films about the 2020 election and even expressed openness to the false idea that Mr. Trump’s loss can still be decertified.”
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is pursuing what it calls “Wisconsin Main Street Agenda” with the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin Public Radio. The project is asking citizens what issues they want their politicians to talk about and also holding a series of in-person events around the state that gives locals a chance to air their concerns.
“It’s a chance for people to have a thoughtful discussion in an age when thoughtful discussion and deliberation is really hard to do,” says David Haynes, who oversees the Journal-Sentinel’s Ideas Lab and solutions journalism efforts, and has worked with Democracy SOS. “We’ve got politics right now that is all bollixed up because we can’t talk to one another very well, and we’ve got social media platforms that don’t encourage deliberation — in fact, just the contrary; they encourage conflict.”
The project has given the paper insight into not only where partisans diverge, but a nuanced view of issues that multiple groups identify as a concern — each in their own way. For example, as Haynes reported in August based on survey results, “people who identify themselves as Republicans, Democrats and Independents, say they are concerned about our democracy. But they may mean different things: For Republicans, it might mean ensuring that elections are secure. For Democrats and Independents, it might mean concerns about a continuing refusal by some on the political right to accept that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.”
In Pennsylvania, another battleground state, public radio station WITF largely eschews political coverage that solely focuses on the outcome of horserace polls, because even when they’re accurate, they don’t hold much news value and can even “potentially suppress votes … We’ll use a line or two about a poll, but we’re not focusing a story on a poll,” says Tim Lambert, multimedia news director for the station, which is also part of the Democracy SOS 2022 cohort.
Scott Blanchard, WITF’s director of journalism, says the station, which serves 17 counties in central and south-central Pennsylvania, generally turns away from blow-by-blow coverage of campaign attack ads, Facebook brawls, and “all that sort of infighting and political strategy stuff.” How to treat candidate endorsement stories, which can matter in certain instances but can also have a definite scorekeeping feel to them, is also something the station has discussed, including considering when to limit them to the digital site versus making them the focus of a radio story.
Instead, WITF is focusing on digging into issues surrounding their big midterm races — and considering who to craft that coverage for, not just about. “What we believe [is] there’s a segment of the population … not on either extreme or either fringe that is actually looking for good, reliable, trustworthy information about issues that they care about,” says Blanchard. “That’s who we should be talking to — not the people on either edge.”
Sharon Jarvis, an associate professor of communications at the University of Texas, has researched how the language used in articles can affect how citizens see themselves within the electoral system. When the press portrays voters as having agency versus being pawns of political strategists, it can have a lasting impact.
Adults who read articles in the “mobilized participant” frame — which depicted voters as making choices and being mobilized by parties and candidates — responded more positively and were more likely to “depict citizens as efficacious,” according to Jarvis’ research. Those who read an article in the “isolated spectator” frame — which depicted voters as pawns of political strategists — were more inclined to talk about elections as a “negative game that did not involve them” and to voice frustration with both politics and the media, she found.
In a recent interview with The Whole Story, a publication of the Solutions Journalism Network, Jarvis also explained that presenting solutions to election threats gives people a sense of control relative to stories that highlight the dangers without exploring how they might be avoided or addressed. A test by Jarvis and others at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin of voting-related social media content also found “tweets written to increase awareness of voter suppression without offering individual-level solutions decrease trust in the election.”
In other words, focusing on the problem but not the solution creates more distrust, pushing audiences away a time when journalism needs to bring them in.
Frank says the “alternative perspective” he tried with his piece on Sarah Palin may not be suited to every political or election story. Still, “it’s useful for journalists to keep in mind that a lot of the actions taken by our fellow humans can be as easily cast in a positive light as in a negative light, and, in political journalism, which light we choose can easily depend on whether we like that person’s politics,” he says. “If we respect disaffected readers enough to understand and remedy some of what made them lose faith, then surely journalists can rebuild trust, bit by bit.”
Photo Illustrations by Dan Zedek