Lessons on overcoming polarization from Bowling Green and Ohio County, Kentucky

A statue of Big Red, the mascot of Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green. Photo: Andrea Wenzel

Political polarization. The so-called urban-rural divide. A growing sense of distrust for journalists. In the wake of a contentious presidential election, how are these national issues playing out in everyday media use?

This pilot study examines what political polarization looks like at the local level, and provides recommendations for how local journalists and community members might bridge the divides of party and demographics. By diving into the media consumption of a small group in Bowling Green and Ohio County, Kentucky, we were able to get a sense of how residents in a region largely considered rural, red, and “flyover”—and either Midwestern or Southern, depending on who you ask—are interpreting and adapting to the current political moment.

Through a series of focus groups, story diaries, and interviews, we asked Bowling Green and Ohio County residents how they decide what news to trust, what to verify, and what to avoid. We also talked to them about how their reading of the news affects how they engage with neighbors of different political persuasions—who they may see at a soccer game or on a Facebook page, but with whom they may not have any meaningful interaction.

Based on these conversations, our recommendations for local media and other community members to foster a more inclusive political dialogue include:

  • Explore local issues and local angles on national issues, with a solutions journalism approach (which looks for responses to problems)
  • Collaborate with outlets that residents are already reading, watching, or listening to
  • Provide opportunities for community engagement and participatory journalism.

This report is the first part of an ongoing project in the region. This initial research will set the agenda for a workshop with journalists, citizens, and community groups in Kentucky. Through that workshop, we hope participants will design initiatives to guide local news outlets in engaging meaningfully with regional community issues across divides.

Introduction

There is a growing concern, among the public and in national media, that the US is becoming increasingly politically polarized. A range of recent studies support this. Attitudes towards news media vary widely by party, and a growing number find it stressful to even talk with friends who differ in opinion on the Trump administration. The Reuters Institute’s 2017 Digital News Report finds that, while concerns regarding fake news abound, “the underlying drivers of mistrust are as much to do with deep-rooted political polarization and perceived mainstream media bias.” Other research suggests geographic migration based on lifestyle and views—the so-called “big sort”—is responsible for divisions. (The growth of in number of counties experiencing electoral landslides in 2016 also supports this.)

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Studies of the rural US point likewise to how a shared identity can form based on where people live, and influence how they see politics. Political scientist Katherine Cramer has tracked the emergence of a “rural consciousness,” which can lead rural residents to resent their urban peers and harden urban-rural divides. And we all see how geographic stereotypes—Main Street versus Wall Street, coastal elites versus “flyover” states, urban cosmopolitans versus “real America”—come to shape how different parts of our country relate to one another.

But how do these national trends resonate in local homes and communities—particularly when it comes to engagement in and around journalism? No one is a passive “consumer.” People interpret what they find on Facebook pages or television screens from within a network of interpersonal relationships, community groups, and media—what we call a local storytelling network. We wanted to understand whether the current political environment is changing these networks and, if so, how residents in politically mixed communities are adapting their news engagement and communication practices. Are there any shared spaces left for people to engage with different news to engage with news? Do residents with different backgrounds and beliefs still read the same local papers, go to the same churches or social functions, or have conversations that break the ranks of the culture wars, online or off?

Starting in April 2017, we’ve sought to take a snapshot of polarization at the local level through a qualitative case study focused on a predominantly Republican region of Kentucky. While the area appears red on the map, it includes the purple college town of Bowling Green, home of the infamous, fake “Bowling Green massacre.” We selected this area of Kentucky because we wanted to understand what polarization looked like in rural communities and smaller cities where pockets of blue and purple were woven into a sea of red. It also hosted a range of local media outlets. And what better site than a region where these tensions were brought to the national stage in the midst of the controversy around Kellyanne Conway’s remarks about the “Bowling Green Massacre,” in the early weeks of the Trump administration?

In fact, the so-called massacre highlighted several reasons why this moment is so polarized. The city of Bowling Green, Kentucky’s third largest, lies within Warren County, which voted 59 percent for Donald Trump, compared to 35 percent for Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential election. The city is home to Western Kentucky University, which has grown its international student population in recent years and brings a diverse range of political views to the town through faculty, staff, and students from around the country and world. Bowling Green is also home to the International Center of Kentucky, which has since 1981 resettled more than 10,000 refugees to the area. (The population of Bowling Green is around 65,000.)

As the WKU College Heights Herald notes, Bowling Green’s 2014 foreign-born population was 12.7 percent, compared to 6.4 percent for Louisville and 8.6 percent for Lexington, the two (much) larger cities in the Bluegrass State. At least 10 percent of Bowling Green’s population is Muslim, driven by a large Bosnian refugee community and a significant Saudi student population at WKU. Bowling Green is also home to several international corporate headquarters and plants that have brought a range of workers from throughout the country, and the world, to the city.

Our study also includes the more rural Ohio County, the fifth largest in size in Kentucky, with a population of around 24,000. The county voted 76 percent for Trump in the 2016 election, compared to 20 percent for Clinton. White Ohio County is 94 percent white non-Latinx, its minority population has grown significantly in the past few years to approximately 2 percent African-American and 4 percent Latinx. The number of residents from Bowling Green and elsewhere who travel the parkway to work at the county’s chicken processing plant is also significant, and isn’t reflected well in the county’s residential demographic representation.

We selected a convenience sample of residents, including roughly equal numbers of Bowling Green and Ohio County residents, Republicans and Democrats, and genders and ages. Following a questionnaire and series of three focus group discussions about news and social media practices, we invited 21 participants to keep a “story diary” for a week. In this process, they noted not just what media they used, but why particular stories resonated with them, and whether they discussed or shared the story with anyone on or offline. These were followed by in-depth interviews.

In the interviews, we talked to residents about their attitudes towards news media (both local and national). We asked them how local news could play a role in expanding spaces for dialogue across lines of politics and demographics, and what their attitudes towards interactions across ideological and demographic lines are. Ultimately, we wanted to understand how this information might inform future interventions and projects. We also met with six media outlets that cover Bowling Green and/or Ohio County about their current challenges and opportunities.

Below is a sampling of our key findings and recommendations.

Key Findings

Trust in media: “I don’t really believe anybody.”

Unsurprisingly, participants largely relied on distinct national media outlets, depending on whether they leaned right (Fox and Drudge Report) or left (CNN). A few outlets—including The New York Times, NPR, and Yahoo—had users from both sides of the aisle.

One universal sentiment expressed across Ohio County and Bowling Green residents, age groups, and political leanings was that almost all participants expressed frustration not only with media that they associated with a perspective other than theirs (which was to be expected), but also with the outlets with which they felt more aligned. As Christy explained, “There’s not one source that I would necessarily trust more than another just because I think everyone has their own opinions and everyone is influenced by something.” While many participants said they did have sources they thought were better than others, numerous participants referred to all news outlets as biased (especially television)—even the outlets they relied on and continued to use.

For many, the problem was a surplus of opinion:

Even if you’re just reporting on the facts, they’ll bring in a news correspondent from somewhere, and then they’ll bring in a correspondent from somewhere else—and they’ll debate about it. That’s part of the reason that I’m not really interested in it. I don’t want to watch people argue about things because that doesn’t solve anything. You’re just yelling at each other.

A number of participants said they wished news could offer objective facts alone. One participant even quoted Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am; just the facts.” She suggested, “I wish there was a way to where you could make it that they couldn’t put any opinions into the stories.” She, and several others, suggested that she would prefer an outlet that was more “in the middle.”

However, a few said that a more realistic solution might be greater transparency about an outlet’s point of view:

There is nothing wrong in a site or a paper saying, “Okay, we believe in this kind of approach to self-government. We are going to give you the news from that perspective.” At least you are honest. At least you are treating me like an adult. When you have the news outlets both on the left and the right pretending like they don’t have an ideological bent, that is insulting the intelligence of the American leaders and people, in my opinion. I think that’s the way they are losing their credibility.

Given the dissatisfaction expressed by participants, it is perhaps unsurprising that many had altered their news and communication habits to respond to what they saw as a less-than-ideal system. Many fluctuated between strategies to verify information and strategies to reduce tension by disengaging, echoing past studies of how people respond to uncertain and ambiguous situations.

Verification: “Don’t let the media do your thinking for you.”

Participants seeking to verify information referred to a variety of strategies, depending on the nature of their doubt. Sarah’s experience was fairly common. She explained how she checked the information she came across on social media, given concerns with “fake news.” She said, “You’ve got to go to the source.” She explained how, if she saw a story that didn’t seem right, she would look at who the publisher was. If she wasn’t sure whether the source was legitimate, she would then go to the local newspaper’s website for local stories, or Today’s website for national stories. She and others spoke of considering who had shared a given story on social media, and checking with personal contacts considered to be knowledgeable to get their input.

Like other participants, Sarah also said she sometimes politically crosschecked stories. She would look at outlets she associated with the “other side” to see how they were covering an issue. For Sarah, as a Trump supporter, this meant looking at CNN (while participants on the left spoke of checking Fox News). “You got to know what other people are saying to get a broad range of information,” she explained. “You’ve got to do your own research. That’s what I tell everybody. Don’t just take things at face value.” Other participants, both on the left and the right, spoke of occasionally looking to UK sources like the BBC and The Guardian to offer a perspective they found to be more credible.

For some, verification was also about the absence of particular narratives. Scott, for example, explained how he often used Reddit but now felt that it had been politically censored, with some right-leaning content removed. He shared the example of stories about terrorist attacks in Europe. He argued that these were not covered by the mainstream press, and the only place he could find out what was really happening was by checking 4Chan. While he conceded that 4Chan had unsavory racist and sexist content on it, he said it also had news he couldn’t find elsewhere. Scott said he also checked Drudge Report: “If I want to know what conservatives are going to say or what they think, then you can go to Drudge because that’s where they get their information. If it’s on Drudge, it will be on Fox in two days.”

Disengagement: “I’m over it.”

While verifying information was seen as a necessary step for many participants, some of those same participants suggested that, at times, the news simply became too overwhelmingly negative or frustrating in its tone or bias. Numerous participants, across the ideological spectrum, spoke of how they either had reduced the amount of news they exposed themselves to, or intended to.  

Tricia felt torn. She was a politics junkie, but lately she said she “lost faith” in politicians and the news:

You know, (I’m) seeing people just behave horribly to the point where there’s no trust anywhere. So I’ve decided—and I seriously thought about it last night—saying, “You know what? We’re going to get rid of cable. We’re going to go to like Netflix and something else, and we’re going to watch what we want to watch.” And if I want to get news, I can opt in and opt out. But I also see my sense of well being is—there’s a correlation between the amount of news I’m taking in and a sense of well being.

Scott similarly lamented how much time and energy he had spent on political news and volatile exchanges on social media. He said that, after the election, he quit Facebook:

You have to self-censor. I’m pretty bad at it …You know, to the point where my wife is like, “Delete that.” So what’s the point in even having it? Same way with Twitter. Same way with everything. It’s just like, just delete it all, and don’t even talk about stuff to people.

Ramin said he encountered this news avoidance not just online but also in offline life. He would often talk to other parents waiting in line to pick up their kids from school, and said that since the election, one of the parents that volunteers to help with the line has sworn off news: “So when I would tell him, ‘Did you hear about this?’ or ‘Did you hear about that?’ He’s, ‘No, no, no, don’t tell me; I don’t want to know.’”

Christy, who is a recent college grad, said that, for her, she avoids news because of its negativity:

It’s so depressing because there’s not a lot of happy things in the news. It’s always sad. And I just get so bogged down with school …by the time like I have any time to look at anything, I just don’t need anything else on my plate. I just need to kind of chill and just relax and rest and get away from all the craziness.

She explained that she still got some news secondhand, through word of mouth and incidental exposure. But, when she could help it, she tried to avoid it.  

Brianna, who was also in her 20s, said that she’d rather read celebrity gossip about the Kardashians than news about Donald Trump: “Things are so weird in the world that I don’t want to wake up in the morning and look at bad news. So I don’t. I purposely, like, stay away from it, and just read, like, fun things.”

Attitudes towards local news

For residents, local news often stood apart from this cycle of verification and avoidance. The local news outlets referenced by participants varied more by place than political affiliation. Residents from both the left and right referenced using some of the same outlets—though of course Bowling Green naturally had more residents on the left than Ohio County did.

At the same time, a number of participants expressed feeling disengaged from local news—usually not due to a sense that local news was too biased or negative, but rather a sense that there was not much local news to report, or that local journalists were often inexperienced. Several critiqued the quality of the writing or the presentation of broadcasts, and suggested they mostly got their local paper to check obituaries. Others said it seemed obvious that the outlets are under-resourced. As one participant noted, he saw the same reporter’s byline listed four times in one issue of a daily paper—“That’s a lot of articles to write in a day.”

Local news was not immune from local political controversy; a few mentioned dissatisfaction with the editorial stances of certain newspapers. Others suggested outlets at times tiptoed around local powers like churches, elected officials, or the university in Bowling Green.

However, overall, participants expressed fewer concerns about bias in local news reporting. Some said they found the local news more trustworthy—“a lot better than the big national news networks.” Tom explained that he felt less compelled to verify the news coming from the local outlets as he did with national outlets. Several participants praised one of the hyperlocal outlets for doing “a pretty fair job of reporting.” In particular, they appreciated how the outlet seemed to avoid mixing opinion and news. Tom shared the example of how the outlet covered local government meetings—giving basic info about a proposed ordinance on trash coming out of the fiscal court.

A few suggested they’d like to see the outlets do more to engage residents. “I’d like to see more community involvement,” said Lisa, who thought more could be done with features like the local calendar of events that might connect the different small towns in the area.

A few participants expressed dissatisfaction with the dominance of negativity and gossip in their local papers in particular—where it was not uncommon to report details of recent arrests and infractions. In response, several suggested they’d like to hear more about positive or at least constructive initiatives. Rachel referenced a local effort where volunteers built a house for a homeless resident of the community. She said that, when the local paper didn’t cover it, she offered to write something herself. They said they would take it, but that, if she wanted to post a photo, they would charge her. “And it’s like, ‘But I’m doing your job for you,’” she laughed. Meanwhile, Christy suggested it might be interesting for residents of her rural area with a growing Latinx community to learn about what Bowling Green had been doing by developing an international school that offered services for English-language learners.

Online and offline social networks

Of course, residents don’t process the media they read, watch, and listen to in isolation; they do so in ways rooted within their various communities: interpersonal networks, community organizations, and institutions.

How has the political climate shaped this part of the storytelling network? For many residents, polarization took a personal toll on family and social networks.

Rachel had fond memories of time spent with her nephew. “We were together a lot,” she said, recalling various outings built on waking up early in the morning to take nature photography. But that all changed with the election. She said that, while they never talked politics, he assumed he knew how she voted. “And so, on Facebook, the day after the election, he starts talking about how he shakes at the thought of seeing his Republican stepfamily. Excuse me, I’m a registered Democrat.”

Rachel was a registered Democrat who happened to vote for Trump. Her experience was one of many that illustrate the messiness belied by color-coding of states and counties as “red” or “blue.” While the area leaned Republican and conservative, almost everyone knew someone from the “other side.” Numerous participants reported having difficult interactions from social media bleed into their offline lives in ways that had not been the case prior to the 2016 election.

These were not just distant Facebook friends, but rather people, like Rachel’s nephew, that they would run into at the local diner, Walmart, or gym, or in their homes. Participants shared stories of lost friendships and alienated family members. One participant even reported breaking up with their romantic partner due to disagreement over Trump. For most participants, dealing with this new polarized climate in relatively small towns meant self-censorship was a necessity. As Scott reported, “It’s better to censor yourself and have friends from the limited pool of people around you than to not do that, to have no friends.”

Many shared examples of how they avoided discussing or posting anything political for fear that professional colleagues or customers would encounter it, judge them as a member of the “wrong” side, and hold it against them in their work relationships or business transactions. This was particularly the case for participants who leaned left in an overwhelmingly Republican area. However, it was also mentioned by some Trump-supporting participants, particularly within the university community, where they said almost all of their colleagues leaned left. In their story diaries, participants did note talking to people about various political stories—but almost all were talking to others who agreed with them.

Social media was often cited as exacerbating polarization and contributing to silence, if not conflict:

The old rule of thumb about not talking about religion and politics in person… People feel completely free to do so on Facebook, and very vocally. And it does kind of make you look at people that you’ve known for a long time that were your friends. You’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, I didn’t know that’s the way they felt.’ But, given the strength of what they post on Facebook sometimes, I wouldn’t even begin to be presumptuous enough to try to change their minds or even engage in conversation.

Several participants underlined that things had not always been this way. Dev explained:

It was never this intense, and (with) this dislike of people having different point(s) of view. It was never like this. I mean, you just go to a bar and have all kinds of arguments, talk about any kind of things, and you go home—shake hands, and go home—and, next day, you’re back to work and friends like ever, nothing happened. You cannot have that kind of interactions anymore.

Dev, and several other participants, expressed a sadness bordering on fear about where this polarization was leading. As Lynn shared:

I think our media and our government has put such a great divide between people, and it’s very worrisome when you think, like I said, you’re either on this side, or you’re on this side. Both people think they’re right. That’s when you start having to fight for what you feel like you believe in, and that’s very scary.

She suggested that changing the situation required change on the part of the media, and a willingness for both sides to “sit down and talk and realize that I think we all want the same thing.”

Community groups and spaces

Despite this polarization, residents reported using many of the same community resources, community groups, and institutions. In smaller towns and rural areas—where there were a finite number of gyms, restaurants, and children’s sports clubs—people from different political identities did cross paths and share spaces.

Sharing space, however, did not necessarily lead to meaningful interactions.

One of the most common activities participants of all political leanings recalled was taking their children to various sporting activities—be it gymnastics or soccer. Ramin said that, in the past, he’d get into conversations with other parents, even though they generally seemed to be more conservative than him. But, during the 2016 campaign, he got into a heated conversation with one of the other fathers, “and my wife said, ‘Can you just not talk about politics or the news with these people?’” Ramin complied with her advice, with the exception of two Latinx mothers who were also on the sidelines. He’d switch to Spanish to talk with them about their fears and concerns about their own immigration status and the future. So, while parents of varied backgrounds shared a space, the storytelling network was bounded along lines of politics.  

Almost all participants referenced belonging to a church, unsurprisingly given Kentucky’s Bible Belt location. Church, however, did not seem to be a space where participants encountered diverse political views. Jim shared an example of how his pastor had spoken out against Trump’s travel ban:

He spoke very openly about his distaste for the idea that we are, as Christians, neglecting people. And the guy behind me during it was so enraged, and he was saying, “I’m going to have to find another church. Now I have to find another church.” And I never saw him again.

Another participant, Jenny, shared her frustrations feeling like a political outsider in her more conservative church:

The week before, it’s so terrible, the week before election, I didn’t go to church because I was tired of hearing it. I was just… I go to church to worship, not to listen to the… it’s my one hour to not listen to all this other. They’re trying to tell us who to vote for.

Jenny said she was almost always the only Democrat at work or at home, and it had become too much to face at church as well.

Participants did share some examples of spaces where residents from different backgrounds were able to connect. Several referenced university settings, including recent students who spoke of having developed friends with different views from classes or student groups. Others spoke of long-time coworkers or friends that they had managed to maintain an understanding with over time, though it often involved not discussing politics. One participant spoke of an experience getting to know someone with different views from volunteering for a community organization. A Latinx participant shared that, while there generally was not a lot of interaction between members of his community and other residents, he was encouraged to see at least fleeting interaction with white residents that came to shop at a Latinx grocery store.

 

Challenges, Opportunities, and Recommendations

For residents of this region of Kentucky, political polarization was taking a toll on the local storytelling networks that link residents with media and community groups. National media was a source of frustration for many participants who cycled between deploying verification strategies and turning away from the news. Local news held more promise but was seen as limited by resource constraints and a lack of engagement opportunities. Community organizations and spaces were shared between residents with different views, but self-censorship generally prevented substantive interaction—keeping communication networks bounded by partisan affiliation.

Nearly all participants saw this status quo—where communication with “others” was limited—as problematic. While some were skeptical that this could change, most expressed interest in the concept of initiatives aimed at bridging differences.

For media and other organizations considering what might be done to improve connection with and between residents in polarized communities, we offer some considerations based on the reflections of participants.

Place matters—and place is complicated

Situating our study in Kentucky, we deliberately included two areas in close proximity where residents had interconnected, yet somewhat different, place identities. As Katherine Cramer’s work on rural consciousness underlines, place identity can play a significant role in influencing how residents conceptualize how they see themselves in relation to their larger state or country. For both Bowling Green and Ohio County, residents’ sense of place shaped their local storytelling networks—in terms of which media outlets and community groups they connected to.

We are particularly interested in how those varied senses of place shape people’s identities, as well as the intersections within the region across urban and rural places. On the “red/blue” map, areas like the small metropolitan area of Bowling Green and the more rural counties around it (including Ohio County) are all swathed in red. But, of course, the realities are complex within each of these communities. Communities that voted 59 percent or 76 percent for a particular candidate are of course not “in themselves” actually solidly red (nor does that take into account the approximately 39 percent each of eligible Ohio Countians and Warren Countians who didn’t vote, nor the many residents of the area ineligible to vote).

And even thinking carefully about the complications of the proportions/concentrations of political views within each spot in the region still doesn’t capture the various types of interconnectivity across the region. Bowling Green residents engage with college student populations from more rural areas. Refugees from the city travel to work in rural places. Rural residents travel to the city for shopping, dining, or other recreation. These are deeply connected ecosystems where these cultural differences and their various senses of place are constantly navigated. For instance, Michelle came to Bowling Green to attend the university from a town an hour away, but she feels the difference:

I feel like there’s a lot more open-minded people here, as opposed to my hometown, and it could just be the people that I surround myself with. We’re on a college campus, types of things like that. In my hometown, it’s more farmers. Everybody knows each other. Like that typical small town Kentucky.

Rachel felt that there was no need to look far for cultural differences in this part of Kentucky—where a relatively small number of residents were often dispersed over a relatively large geographic space:

What a lot of people don’t understand—we say cultural barriers, they think you’ve got your Hispanic, you’ve got your Czechoslovakian, you’ve got… No, no, no. It’s just the dynamics of different communities, even though they’re only separated by 20–30 miles. It’s just different.

Scott suggested a lot of these complicated dynamics had to do with people leaving the small towns they grew up in. He said he was one of the few people who went away to college and then came back. He suggested it may have had something to do with his more conservative political views, because he saw more of his friends with more liberal views moving to Lexington or Louisville, or leaving the state. Other participants, who leaned to the left of Scott, also said they had moved back to their smaller communities, but acknowledged they, at times, grappled with both local attitudes and external assumptions about their community.

Issue priorities

Participants were invited, in answering open-ended questions, to share up to three issues which they saw as the most pressing facing their area, as well as up to three facing the US. Key national issues were clustered and included: international issues/security; jobs/economy; polarization/attitudes towards politics/leadership; health care; immigration; education; race/police relations; drugs; and environment. The top local issues included: local development/local government; economy/jobs/poverty; drugs; education; and immigration.

Overall, issues appeared to have as much to do with place as party affiliation. For example, residents of Ohio County were more likely to prioritize issues such as jobs and drugs—irrespective of ideology. This may be due to the area’s relatively higher unemployment rate (6.1 percent in Ohio County versus 3.4 percent in Bowling Green, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016) and potentially greater challenges with the opioid crisis. (Ohio County’s annual average was 26 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people from 2012–15, as opposed to the 13 deaths per 100,000 people on average over that period in Warren County, where Bowling Green is located. This puts Warren County in the least severe of the five categories, while Ohio County was in the second most severe, as outlined by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.)

Some issues, such as international security, were mentioned evenly across place and party. However, through interviews, we learned that the narratives circulating around these issues were often partisan; for example, some emphasized Trump’s role in a naval ship going the opposite direction of North Korea, while others downplayed this aspect of the story. Similarly, narratives around shared issues such as immigration and sanctuary cities varied widely, mostly along party lines.

Local-issue priorities often held interest across party lines. For example, residents across ideological divides expressed an interest in solutions-oriented stories, and followed stories about issues such as local development and tourism. At the same time, some local stories were politicized, reflecting national partisan rhetoric. For example, an effort by WKU’s student government to seek reparations for African-American students divided participants along political and demographic lines.  

Media representation

Place identity also influenced how participants reflected upon media coverage of people they saw to be “like them.” For many, distrust in media went beyond a sense of media bias or fake news; it also spoke to a sense that they did not see media representing their community, or others like them, in ways they believed to be fair or respectful. Many expressed resentment toward media institutions and the journalists who worked for them, who were seen as smug, and far removed from their realities. This sentiment was expressed more frequently on the right. However, participants from more rural areas expressed a sense of marginalization in how media portrayed them, regardless of party. They felt they were often depicted using stereotypical frames, if at all.  

Rachel shared her dissatisfaction with how she felt reporters offered stereotypical representatives when they covered rural communities like hers:

I get the feeling that they stand back and they wait and they watch and find the person that’s got about four teeth, you know. I feel like they look for the person that looks the worst physically and probably is not very articulate and would come across as being uneducated, you know.

Lisa similarly felt that she could not recognize her reality in media depictions:

I didn’t vote for Trump, but I live in Kentucky. So, from a national standpoint, I’m clumped in with a bunch of hillbillies. Right? And I didn’t vote for Clinton, either so it’s kind of on the political side, or there’s always going to be that, “Are you red or blue?” And some of us fall in the middle.

She worried that misrepresentations of her rural area as “dumb and backwards” had real consequences in terms of deterring economic growth and investment opportunities.

Seeking solutions

Negative news may not have been a new development for participants, but there was a sense among many that they were reaching a threshold where they could no longer process it. As mentioned, some even avoided news or social media entirely, due to what they labeled negativity.

It’s worth noting that, in addition to a general concern about negativity, there was also a political dynamic. Many participants mentioned what they saw as disproportionately negative coverage of Trump. This even included participants, like Brianna, who identified as opposing Trump:

So, anything bad—it’s like, “Oh, this is what Trump did today.” Guess what? We’re going to remind you an hour from now, too, and we’re going to remind you the hour after that. Actually, all hour long we’re going to talk about how bad he is.

Even if Brianna agreed with criticism of Trump, she found the tone and delivery style unhelpful. For those who supported Trump, this perceived negativity was listed as one more piece of evidence of media bias.
Christy suggested that, while she currently avoided news, she might be inclined to reconnect if the news took a more solutions-oriented approach:  

Just focus more on what is actually happening, and, then, if it’s something negative—because there are certain things that I mean it’s people who are dying or if someone is—if there’s illness or if something is clearly wrong, like focus on what people can do to help, or what can be done to make things better, rather than placing the blame on something. Because you usually spend so much time placing blame, you spend so much time arguing about who’s right, that you forget about the fact that people are hurting, and people need help.

This idea of focusing on “what can be done to make things better” aligns with the concept of solutions journalism—or reporting on responses to social challenges. Several participants brought up the idea of wanting more constructive reporting, as opposed to only learning about what is wrong. Upon doing so, they were introduced to the idea of solutions journalism—to which all responded favorably and were curious to learn more.

Local media resources

Many participants shared that, while they could no longer talk about national politics with their neighbors or coworkers, or even many friends, they were generally still able to talk about local news and issues.

Of course, the division between local and more partisan national issues was fluid. Many national issues were local issues, and vice versa. Local coverage and discussion about health care, immigration, or racial justice could be difficult and politically sensitive. But at least some participants shared an interest in trying to defuse polarized issues like immigration by exploring local dimensions of the issue and experiences with fellow residents.

When sharing a wish list of what they would like to see from local news, many suggested additional resources might help outlets do more in-depth local coverage and include coverage featuring positive developments in community life. While they didn’t have the term “solutions journalism,” some suggested doing essentially these kinds of local stories (e.g. reporting on an innovative education initiative in Bowling Green that might offer ideas for residents in Ohio County, etc., or a theater and community development project in another Midwestern state that might offer a model to adapt locally.)   

Still, a fair number of participants did not use local news. How could these potential audiences be engaged to feel a greater sense of belonging to their local community, or a sense that local news is offering valuable information?

Some suggested local news could make more of an effort to appeal to younger generations; a few suggested that the local newspapers were really mostly geared towards older people, both in the kinds of stories they covered and the media they used (often print, with more limited online or mobile offerings). A few suggested they would be open to getting involved as community reporters or participating in engagement activities.

Of course, addressing any of these calls for new journalism practices or engagement strategies requires resources that many local news outlets lack. In our discussions with local media professionals, it became clear that, for many in local and rural journalism in this area, staff time to work on initiatives was not a luxury they had. Often, one or two journalists would be responsible not only for reporting and writing stories, but also for editing them or running the website. In operations that were often run on a shoestring budget, any additional demand on their time would require additional resources to support their work.

Recommendations

Through discussions and media diaries, we have taken a qualitative snapshot of an area of the US where polarization is felt strongly at the personal level—even in a region that people might imagine as being monochromatically red, as being rural, as being Midwestern, Southern, hillbilly, or flyover. (Kentuckians can wear quite a few different culturally stereotyped hats.)

Here, residents have created their own strategies to either verify or avoid news, and many self-censor or limit their engagement in community groups where they may encounter political “others.” At the same time, almost every resident we spoke with was open to learning more about potential initiatives that would seek to build connections across difference.

For these reasons, we recommend the following for local media, organizations, and foundations positioned to act in this or similar regions:    

  • For local media producers, consider how you might explore local community issues from a solutions angle. This might mean looking at responses to this or similar problems happening in your community, nearby, or in other parts of the country or globe. By taking a constructive look at efforts to address challenges such as health care, economic development, initiatives working on integration of immigrants and refugees, or any other issue faced by your residents, newsrooms can shift polarized narratives from “who is to blame” to “what can be done.” Solutions journalism also may appeal not only to audiences across the political spectrum but also to audience members who have become disengaged from news and civic issues more generally, in part due to polarization and negative news coverage.
  • Providing a regional and local lens to national stories that is not partisan in tone might engage local audiences across divides in thinking productively about key issues. Many of the residents raised concerns about seeing national issues primarily through a partisan national filter, while at a local level there’s a realization that everyone is “in it together,” so to speak. How could local outlets find ways to engage people through understanding international and national issues through a local lens, rather than a partisan one?
  • Collaborations between local outlets in the region may offer opportunities for residents to better understand how complex issues play out in their region, and the connections between them. (For example, regarding immigration issues, as we’ve noted, Ohio County and Bowling Green have very different populations, but immigrants travel between the two.) There will be valuable lessons to be exchanged between outlets of different scope and size. Journalists from small outlets may also benefit from the experience and resources of their colleagues at larger outlets, while journalists from larger outlets may have the opportunity to learn about communities more deeply that often only get covered when big controversies erupt because of their size compared to the population centers of their coverage area—through finding ways to rely on and draw from the cultural knowledge and focus of hyperlocal partners.
  • News outlets, individually or in partnership, could potentially play a significant role in providing spaces for productive community engagement across divides. Our conversations along the way brought with them a discussion of local traditions in the region like literary or current events clubs that brought people together to discuss pressing issues, often hosted in individual members’ homes, as well as the longstanding dominance of “liars tables” in local diners and general stores, where residents (traditionally men) would gather to discuss and debate issues of the area. (This is the coffee shop of Habermas’ public sphere, with a healthy dose of distrust in the veracity of the pontificators.) How could such traditions—that often have found themselves feeling displaced as communication moves to virtual spaces and as chains have replaced local joints—be revived and made more inclusive across political views, gender identity, age, and positioning within the region? Such solutions might include a mix of online and offline spaces as solutions. Whatever the case, at the heart of any engagement effort is listening—so, before starting any project, local outlets must try and find ways to give residents an opportunity to weigh in on their interests and preferences.
  • Participatory journalism offers potential avenues to rebuild trust in media as well. Particularly in communities that have felt marginalized and misrepresented by the media, narrowing the distance between journalists and the public can create opportunities for people to feel more connected, confident, and invested in local media. This also helps bridge divides when local outlets lack sustainable financial resources to give the coverage they would ideally provide on issues. This might mean offering training for community reporters, or inviting residents to participate in crowdsourcing projects where they share story ideas, or join the process in some other way. It may also mean evoking the longstanding local tradition of community reporters in the form of columns from local experts or “society columns,” providing weekly social news from each small community in a rural area, and finding twenty-first-century twists on these rooted practices.
  • For foundations and organizations supporting media initiatives, consider how you can meet audiences where they are by working with existing local media outlets, and facilitating/enabling collaborations between them. While there has recently been a number of excellent regional journalism initiatives, many struggle to reach beyond relatively elite or already engaged audiences. Working with existing entities, including commercial outlets, presents complications, but we argue these are outweighed by the possibility of reaching a wide range of residents, and tapping into hyperlocal knowledge.
  • Going forward, supporting local and rural engagement initiatives may become a vital part of bolstering local journalism and encouraging the retention of talent in small outlets. Certainly, the shrinking budgets of newsrooms leads to fewer resources to cover news in regions like this, growing the distance between these audiences and the journalists who may occasionally cover their communities but who don’t live there. However, much more research and work is needed to develop models for sustainable local journalism, particularly in rural communities, coming out of work like the projects in which we’ve engaged.

We hope this initial research is a catalyst for additional work. The next step, for us, is a workshop we are hosting in Bowling Green connecting local media from Bowling Green and Ohio County, regional media, residents, community groups, and actors working on local and rural journalism and engagement, to discuss this work to date and to build on ideas for solutions. We look forward to exploring these issues, learning from participants, and brainstorming possible pathways to create spaces for dialogue that bridges boundaries of party and demographics. We hope to come out of that process with experiments these outlets can conduct with one another, and with outside partners, to test potential solutions. And we welcome the opportunity to think about how what we are learning in this area might connect with work being done elsewhere and might be adapted for other areas tackling similar tensions, issues, and divides.

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Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford are fellows at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Andrea Wenzel is an Assistant Professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. Sam Ford is a media/journalism strategy consultant, research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and instructor with Western Kentucky University Popular Culture Studies Program.