Nudging News Producers and Consumers Toward More Thoughtful, Less Polarized Discourse

At a time of extraordinary domestic and international policy challenges, Americans need high-quality news.  Readers and viewers must decipher the policy options that the country faces and the manner in which various decisions affect them personally.  It often is not readily apparent how to assess complicated policy choices and what the best steps are for moving forward.

Having poor quality news coverage is especially problematic when the political process is sharply polarized.  As has been documented by political scientists Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein, the United States has a Congress today where the most conservative Democrat is to the left of the most moderate Republican.[1]  There are many reasons for this spike in polarization, but there is little doubt that the news media amplify and exacerbate social and political divisions. 

Too often, journalists follow a “Noah’s Ark” approach to coverage in which a strong liberal is paired with a vocal conservative in an ideological food fight.  The result is polarization of discourse and “false equivalence” in reporting. This lack of nuanced analysis confuses viewers and makes it difficult for them to sort out the contrasting facts and opinions.  People get the sense that there are only two policy options and that there are few gradations or complexities in the positions that are reported.

In this paper, West and Stone review challenges facing the news media in an age of political polarization.  This includes hyper-competitiveness in news coverage, a dramatic decline in local journalism and resulting nationalization of the news, and the personalization of coverage.  After discussing these problems and how they harm current reporting, they present several ideas for nudging news producers and consumers towards more thoughtful and less polarizing responses. 

Key recommendations:

1) Journalists should go beyond Noah’s Ark reporting to strive for more diversity.

2) They should include a broader range of sources and add links to outside organizations that provide more in-depth coverage.[2] 

3) News consumers should be nudged by web portals and search engines to choose in-depth materials as opposed to the most popular items being read.

4) Social media need to incorporate broader means of reader reaction in their platforms. 

5) Funders should endow investigative journalists to protect them from outside pressures. 

6) Media organizations should consider partnerships with universities and non-profit organizations and leverage their expertise. 

7) Citizens should utilize multi-channel viewing as a way to escape a false sense of balance and in order to hear more complete perspectives.

[1] Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Basic Books, 2012.

[2] Darrell West, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, and E.J. Dionne, “Re-Imagining Education Journalism,” Brookings Policy Report, May 11, 2010.