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These divided states: The media’s role in today’s fragmented society

David Lazar, Andrew Hayward, Brooke Foucault Welles, and Matt Carroll speak on a panel during the Conversations: New frameworks for public discourse event in Raytheon on March 31, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The nation is so deeply divided that it feels like “everyone’s worst possible Thanksgiving, with two crazy uncles shouting at each other and threatening to throw cranberry sauce at each other,” says Matt Carroll professor of the practice in Northeastern’s School of Journalism. So what role does the media play in either uniting or further dividing people? A host of scholars, journalists, and media executives tackled that question Friday at Northeastern.

The answer, it seems, is just as complex as the problem, and may involve a complete overhaul of how news organizations think about their newsrooms, analyze data, and make news judgments, according to the panelists at a conference titled, “Conversations: New frameworks for public discourse,” held in Raytheon Amphitheater.

“The way people are now getting news is being shaped by politics. We believed that the internet would bring the world together, and in fact it’s had the opposite effect,” said Jonathan Kaufman, director of the university’s School of Journalism. “I think we’ve discovered that we all live in our own bubbles.”

Bringing together experts with a diverse range of journalism knowledge and experience is a good step toward bursting those bubbles, however, said Elizabeth Hudson, dean of the College of Arts, Media and Design.

“It’s exciting for me to think about the ways in which journalism intersects with so many critical issues that are facing the world today,” she said. “We’re all wrestling with these incredibly complex problems, yet the synergy across fields,” like that represented at Northeastern, she noted, “is where we can start to come up with solutions.”

Beyond the data

Kaufman noted that though the 2016 election was contentious and polarizing, it wasn’t the root of a divide in the U.S., but the result of it. It exposed chasms between socioeconomic classes, between race groups, and between political mindsets, as well as between what the mainstream media predicted would happen and what actually did.

“There’s been a lot of good work in the media around polling,” said David Lazer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Sciences, “which is ironic, given that it didn’t work so well in November.”

Indeed, panelists said Friday, November’s election served to starkly highlight the ways that news organizations need to improve and refine their use of data storytelling.

“I do see folks looking at data, and including snippets of data to support stories, but I worry about the over-reliance on data without explaining what they are,” said Brooke Foucault Welles, assistant professor of communication studies, adding that it’s vital for journalists to cast as critical an eye at the source and collection method of data as they would at any other source of information.

Further, it’s important not just to “spray stories with data insights,” as Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News and a visiting researcher at Northeastern described, but to tell the human stories behind those numbers.

“The fact is that we have to make progress in marrying data to the human beings behind the numbers,” he said. “Then, breaking through filters at the root of how that data is collected, that’s something journalists haven’t figured out how to do.”

Fostering dialogue on diversity and difference

One of the ways to tell more representative stories is to mine the data for smaller trends, not just focus on the majority. Another, noted members of the day’s second panel, is to create more representative newsrooms.

“Talking about diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be the focus when you’re trying to diversify things that have not worked for people for a very long time,” said Sydette Harry, writer and community lead at Mozilla’s Coral Project. “We have to fundamentally remake media.”

Empowering and giving voice to historically underrepresented communities is vital to properly covering those communities, Harry said.

“If we as the media are losing, it’s because we’re not relevant, and it’s not other peoples’ jobs to make us relevant to them,” she said.

Jeff Howe, assistant professor of journalism and director of Media Innovation, noted: “If anything, newsrooms have become less diverse in the past few decades because of last-hired, first-fired policies.” It’s a shift that’s meant newsrooms have become less equipped to do the sort of nuanced storytelling needed in the U.S. today, he said.

Further, in Howe’s research for his latest book, Whiplash, How to Survive Our Faster Future—which he co-wrote with Joi Ito, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab—he found that “mathematically, a diverse set of abilities will be more effective at problem solving than a narrowly-honed set. So even mathematically this doesn’t make sense.” Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun will host Howe and Ito on Tuesday at 5 p.m. in East Village for the next installment of the “Future of …” series, in which they will discuss how the exponential rate of innovation is transforming every aspect of society.

Howe’s point is reinforced by the firsthand experience of Mary Meehan, a journalist with the Ohio Valley ReSource. Meehan, a Kentucky native, noted that her lived experience in Appalachia was largely absent from the national media discourse.

“There are communities out there that are really suffering, and it’s not because they’re too ignorant to try,” she said. “Journalists have to meet people where they are.”