The media today: Lessons from Kentucky on overcoming polarization

Image: AP

It’s no secret, after this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville, that political polarization has reached a boiling point—and that much discontent on the right, incited by Trump, centers around the press. And we are all aware of how geographic stereotypes—Main Street versus Wall Street, coastal elites versus “flyover” states, urban cosmopolitans versus “real America”—have come to shape how different parts of our country relate to one another.

But how do these national trends affect how people read the news and talk to each other? What does the filter bubble look like at the local level? In a pilot study, Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford, fellows at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, interviewed residents in Bowling Green and Ohio County, Kentucky about how their news consumption has changed since the 2016 election. Those residents also kept media diaries, recording and reflecting on specific news stories they discussed with other community members.

The study reveals a strong skepticism around all aspects of the national media and a conscientiousness around news sources and political slant. While some participants in the study suffered from media fatigue, others went out of their way to verify stories at multiple outlets. As one Kentuckian put it, “Don’t let the media do your thinking for you.”

As full-time residents of Trump country, they were also savvy about the media’s hunger for the elusive “Trump voter,” and how that stereotype was portrayed in broad strokes to their part of the nation. One person said: “I get the feeling that [reporters] stand back and they wait and they watch and find the person that’s got about four teeth, you know.” Another person worried that misrepresentations of her rural area as “dumb and backwards” had real consequences in terms of deterring economic growth and investment opportunities.

 

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Other notable stories

  • In a press conference on Tuesday, President Trump backtracked from his earlier condemnation of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and reiterated his blame for “many sides” of the conflict.
  • CJR’s reporting in the wake of Charlottesville continues. Today, Anna Clark spotlights the Toledo Blade’s hustle after a copy-editor spotted that the Charlottesville driver’s car was from the Toledo area. And United States Project Editor Brendan Fitzgerald unearths an editorial in the Charlottesville paper that placed the responsibility on the only black person on the city council just days before the violence.
  • Vice took Elle Reeve’s coverage of Charlottesville, in which she interviews white nationalist leaders, from behind a paywall.
  • Slate reports that “In January, Fox News Posted a Video of Cars Mowing Down Protesters That Urged Viewers to ‘Study the Technique.’” It follows a larger trend of right-wing memes showing protesters being run over. Fox has since taken it down and apologized.

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Nausicaa Renner is editor of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s vertical at Columbia Journalism Review. She tweets at @nausjcaa.