We the People: Who is to Blame for Political Polarization?

This month KOLR 10 News is having another courageous conversation about political polarization in America.  So far we've explored many different factors that have brought us to the point where some say our nation is more divided than ever before. 

So who or what is to blame?   You'll get lots of answers depending on who you ask.   And indeed some say we, the media, add fuel to the fire. 

Webster's dictionary defines the media as the public institutions that report the news, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.  But that very definition and how it's interpreted may be part of America's polarization problem.

"The 24-hour news cycle has kind of changed a lot of media that people consume every day," says KOLR 10 News Director Chuck Maulden.

Chuck Maulden is our News Director at KOLR10 and a journalism veteran of almost 40 years. 

Maulden, like other broadcasters, knows our job is to report the facts and let you form your own opinions.   But that job is muddied and made more difficult because of confusion surrounding opinion-based media-sources.

"Our role is to distinguish ourselves from that.  By making sure our audience understands that we don't do that.  Keep opinion and commentary away from what we do and just report the facts.  Whether it's Fox News which is conservative or MSNBC which is liberal, that's fine as long as they don't call it journalism.  That's commentary."  

"It's forced us to look at how do we do what we do," says Jonathan Groves, Associate Professor, Drury University.  

Jonathan Goves is a former newspaper reporter who now teaches journalism and heads the communications department at Dury University.  Groves says the growth of social media has made it easier to feed conspiracy theories and polarization.   That's caused a changing power dynamic when it comes to mass media.
"Basically what you had was 3 primary networks.  You had limited media choice.  So there was a little more faith in the mass media than what we were seeing.  Now with everybody having a platform with which to express themselves on Facebook or Twitter or website or blog, everybody is saying I can put this information out there, and my information is as valid as your information, even if I don't have much of a foundation to talk about it," says Groves. 

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," says Dan Shelley, Executive Director, Radio, Television Digital News Association.

Dan Shelley is Executive Director of the RTDNA, a group that advocates for the rights of a free press.   Shelley believes there will come a time in America again when journalists aren't viewed as an enemy of the public.   But he says journalists have a role in that process of solving polarization.

"The only way to return to greater civility, from a journalist's perspective, is more and better journalism. Every day in Springfield Missouri and the Ozarks, reporters are uncovering problems in the community, are uncovering issues and shining light on issues that otherwise would go unnoticed.  And many times, those stories, those flagrant acts of responsible journalism are leading to positive changes in the community," says Shelley.

"Our job is to give information on which the citizen can act.  Or not act.  They can watch our news and decide I'm gonna write my congressman.  I'm gonna go protest.  Or they can do none of that.  That's their choice.  Our job is to give them the information to chose to do whatever they want to do," says Maulden.

Maulden says media organizations like KOLR 10, that define their values and share them with the public, will help news consumers better differentiate legitimate journalism sources from those that are not.    And Dan Shelley points to research that suggests local journalists may not bare quite as much blame when it comes to America's political polarization. 

"When you look at the opinion surveys, Pew research, in particular, it shows that while overall public support for the media is tepid, people tend to support local journalism and believe and trust local journalism more than they do national journalism. That's why it's so important that you guys are taking a look at civil discourse and what can be done about it.

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