How the media is innovating to engage local communities and fight polarization

The media, which is not highly trusted in much of the world, is often considered both a cause of and a solution for polarization.  

By Tanya Sakzewski 

Disinformation, economic anxiety, mass-class divide and a failure of leadership are fueling polarization around the world, and according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2023, 53 percent of respondents say their countries are more divided today than in the past.  The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 lists erosion of social cohesion and societal polarization as one of the top risks over both the short and the long term. Misinformation and disinformation are considered a potential accelerant. 

The media, which is not highly trusted in much of the world, is often considered both a cause of and a solution for polarization.  

As part of our MEDIADELCOM project, we examine two examples – in the USA and in Norway – of media initiatives trying to be part of the solution. Both are tackling polarization head-on, by introducing new ways to address important and controversial topics. Although quite different, the two initiatives have the same aim: to avoid the fighting between two sides of an issue, and give audiences new ways to consider and engage with issues. The benefits are potentially numerous and the hopes they will bring substantial change, including better decision and policy making, are high. 

In Colorado, USA, a local newspaper has adopted “deliberative journalism” as a way of reaching out to its community and encouraging it to get more involved in local issues. The Coloradoan newspaper had abandoned its traditional opinion page, which wasn’t performing as well as they wanted, and decided to replace it with a deliberative approach. Each week, in a section called Coloradoan Conversations, the newspaper poses a question or questions based on what’s happening in the local news, inviting everyone – subscribers and non-subscribers – to send in their comments and feedback and engage in a conversation.  The aim is to provide a platform for discussion and demonstrate that everyone’s voice is valued and welcome.  

“Ultimately our goal is to work towards community solutions, whether it’s just improving the amount of information that’s available to decision makers. Distrust in media is also seen as distrust in our institutions, and a lot of that comes from, especially in the pandemic era, people feeling not involved in the processes,” says Eric Larsen, Editor of the Coloradoan.

The approach is part of a wider deliberative communications project run by Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation, which aims to improve public communication and community problem-solving. Martin Carcasson, Director of the Center, says the ultimate aim is to engage communities and facilitate better local decision-making, while also improving local journalism.   

“We’re a little bit over a year in and I think we’ve done two big things so far. One is we’ve actually, hopefully sparked a really deep conversation about local journalism. So, we’ve deliberated about journalism, and then we’re also trying to innovate on this idea of deliberative journalism. How is that different than other journalism? How do we build up the skills for journalists to also have that as part of their skillset to help their local community?”  

The Center for Public Deliberation works with the newspaper, by looking through the conversations to identify value-based statements, as well as different examples of good and bad deliberation to help the newspaper frame the conversation. 

Coloradoan Conversations receives between 30 to 90 posts on each question from a core group of 20 to 30 commentators, although others contribute depending on the topic. Larsen says the section is performing better than their traditional opinion offering, with more readership and engagement per post. “We can get beyond the loudest voices dominating and show that there is a place for discussion and consideration of other viewpoints,” he says. 

Carcasson agrees that deliberative journalism is offering an alternative to polarization and his goal is to spark better conversations. “Certainly, our assumption, and I think we certainly have evidence of this with different projects, is that if you elevate the quality of the discussion, then the decisions are going to be better. Not only will the decision be better, but there’s also more legitimacy to the decision. There’s more support for it.“ 

The project also holds once a month in-person events at a local library to further engage the public on issues. Both Larsen and Carcasson think deliberative journalism, although still a new concept, has a future. Larsen says local media needs to engage its community to stay relevant.  

In Europe, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK is also breaking away from combative debates and presenting issues in a more constructive and considered way. It changed its television debate programme, launching Einig in 2019, which is now called Ueinig.

Although they don’t refer to their concept as deliberative journalism, it shares many of the same principles. And like the project in Colorado, the Norwegian programme is trying to engage and win back audiences, especially younger ones. 

Gro Engen, the programme’s editor, says audiences were tired of combative debates, and younger audiences didn’t connect to them and found them boring.  

Einig?/Ueinig tackles some of the country’s major issues, inviting politicians and non-politicians to engage in discussions, leaving their political lines and fighting behind.  

“We saw the discussion got more interesting because they (guests) left that typical political talk behind. They were using examples from their own lives, like talking about how they got involved in the issue or why they became a politician. It got more interesting because they were curious and they thought they could ask good questions to their opponents,” says Engen. 

The reaction from guests, who want to engage in a different type of discussion, has been positive. Following the first show, politicians got in touch with the programme asking to participate.  The show has also managed to bring together adversaries who usually don’t debate each other. What’s attracting them is the idea of debating differently; without the fighting and hardness, according to Engen.   

During the first series, there was no presenter or moderator, relying on the guests to take responsibility for the discussion. A moderator was brought back for the second series, taking on the role of a negotiator.   

Engen says the programme is still in development, as they try to balance the need to produce exciting television that attracts audiences with considered discussions that viewers find valuable. “I think there is a future, but I think there has to be a lot of effort and resources into keeping up the experimenting. We have said in NRK and the BBC that constructive journalism is here to stay and they want to work on it.” 

Both the Norwegian and American projects hope another benefit of their projects will be greater diversity – an opportunity for more voices to join discussions and engage in issues. 

To find out more about the Colorado project, listen to our podcast featuring interviews with Martin Carcasson and Eric Larsen. 

Please look out for new podcasts, including an interview with Gro Engen about her show. 

MEDIADELCOM is a research project finding risks and opportunities for European media landscapes concerning deliberative communication and social cohesion. The 14 EU countries project is financed by the EU’s funding programme for research and innovation Horizon 2020.