Media can bridge societal divides in reporting with 5 strategies

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA


News distrust can be especially pronounced in communities that feel underserved by their local newsrooms. In ongoing research that examines how news outlets can help bridge societal divides, the Center for Media Engagement spoke to several communities that feel the media can do better to reach them.

The five strategies below address overarching concerns that arose in these interviews.

One of the best ways for publishing companies to connect with underrepresented communities is to diversify newsroom staff.
One of the best ways for publishing companies to connect with underrepresented communities is to diversify newsroom staff.

1. Build relationships in the community

Building relationships with local communities helps journalists understand their audience and build trust.

Overall, our interviews point to a need for more journalistic investment in communities — simply showing up when a big story breaks is not enough to develop a meaningful relationship. Taking steps toward better connections can include getting to know the area, developing relationships with community members and organisations, getting involved in local causes and events, and using social media for a two-way dialogue.

Our research also uncovered that journalists aren’t well known in communities that are often underrepresented. Many residents of predominantly Black and Hispanic communities shared that they rarely engage with journalists in their community. Letting people know how to reach you can be an important tool in building ties.

2. Showcase a variety of voices within the community

People want to see their communities and perspectives reflected in their local news. Journalists can address this in part by employing source diversity. This includes reflecting voices that vary in age, race and ethnicity, gender, political beliefs, sexual orientation, and socio-economics.

While deadlines can present a challenge, it’s crucial to develop a wide range of sources and refrain from regularly turning to the same people for a soundbite. It’s also important to include the voices of people who are directly impacted by the issue and to not overly rely on official government sources.

Though it might make for a good soundbite, try not to focus your interviews on people with extreme views. This type of coverage can appear one-sided and not truly reflective of the community.

3. Examine story framing

Being fair and consistent in coverage means first examining how certain communities are regularly portrayed in the media. Communities that feel underrepresented often think coverage of their community is too negative. Some people we spoke with shared that coverage often sensationalises events happening in their community and leaves out key information about the story.

To address these concerns, journalists should ensure certain communities aren’t covered differently than others. People we interviewed suggested using neutral language — avoiding descriptions that might be subjective or evoke certain emotions — while covering contentious situations. They also wanted journalists to focus more on the human perspective when telling difficult stories.

Some people were also concerned about catch-all labels. It’s important to acknowledge communities are nuanced and not everyone has the same needs and beliefs. When writing a story, try to avoid terms that may portray groups stereotypically or lump all members of a community into one group that shares similar views.

4. Think beyond the published story

One concern that arose in our interviews was the need for empathy when speaking to sources, particularly when covering tragic events. When asking someone for a quote, remember to be gentle and keep in mind the person may be deeply affected by the story.

People we spoke with also recommended reporters and editors think about their own unconscious biases by exploring ideas or questions that might make them uncomfortable as they consider what stories to cover and how to cover them.

Beyond the story, newsrooms can support communities by sharing information about resources, such as where to get help for local problems or details about events happening in the area. Addressing these interests gives newsrooms an opportunity to cover positive community developments and helps community members connect to each other.

5. Diversify the newsroom

Communities want to be represented in their newsrooms, not just in the coverage. A key part of connecting with communities that feel underrepresented is addressing the need for more diversity in newsrooms.

Newsrooms can address this issue by making a commitment to hiring diverse staff at all levels. This includes diversifying by age, race and ethnicity, gender, political beliefs, sexual orientation, and socio-economics.

About Katalina Deaven

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