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New Public Agenda Report: Journalists React To The Media’s Role in Cross Partisan Divisiveness

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New Public Agenda Report: Journalists React To The Media’s Role in Cross Partisan Divisiveness

Journalists Emphasize Institutional Norms Encourage Conflict-Based Reporting, Especially In Television

To Provide More Nuanced Reporting, Journalists Need More Time And Resources

NEW YORK – Journalists believe that divisive journalism simply reflects a divisive time, according to a newly released Hidden Common Ground report from Public Agenda. This qualitative research report of journalists (national, state, local, and online) focuses on how they view their roles and responsibilities in reporting on cross-partisan divisiveness. The report also unpacks what newsrooms can do to address polarization and conflict.

Interviews, conducted in the fall of 2021, capture a snowball sample of thirteen print and five radio journalists, employed at a range of local, national, for-profit, and nonprofit news organizations. The Kettering Foundation served as a collaborator in this research.


Key findings include:

  • Journalists learn early on in their careers that conflict is a valuable – and necessary – narrative device to engage readers
    • Journalists note that sources tend to offer up conflict narratives to garner coverage, creating a feedback loop
    • Journalist also believe that conflict, and the emotions that come along with it, is key to connecting with readers
    • “[Conflict] is easy for people to understand,” said one interviewee. “Every story should have tension,” said another
  • In order to cover common ground and divisiveness differently, journalists need resources, especially time and skill – but this requires institutional support beyond the scope of one individual
    • Interviewees emphasized that writing compromise or solution-based stories requires the time for them to build expertise in a subject or connect with a community
    • “Because you need the time to do the community-building, it takes time to embed yourself and dig into the story,” one editor noted
  • Journalists believe they have a professional responsibility to to inform the public about partisan conflict, the reality of which informs divisive reporting
    • Despite Public Agenda’s past HCG research that suggests substantial cross-partisan agreement on many issues, interviewees indicated that common ground is rare
    • “It’s a fact that things are polarized. People won’t believe you otherwise if you say it’s not,” one interviewee noted
    • Generally speaking, however, interviewees did not view the media’s focus on partisan conflict as a problem, though they were split on whether or not it drove business to the industry

Public Agenda’s broader Hidden Common Ground (HCG) initiative challenges the narrative that Americans are hopelessly divided and incapable of working together. Through research, journalism, and public engagement, HCG helps Americans identify and strengthen their common ground, productively navigate their differences, and create fair and effective solutions to the challenges of our time.

For the full report, including additional findings, quotes from interviewees, and details of methodology, click here.

Any references to the report must be credited and linked back to Public Agenda.

Questions or requests can be directed to [email protected].

About Public Agenda

Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to strengthening democracy and expanding opportunity for all Americans. Through research and public engagement programs with both local and national impact, Public Agenda focuses on amplifying the voice of the public, bridging divides to facilitate progress, and strengthening relationships between institutions and the people they serve.

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