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Dan Vergano: Pole-vaulting a polarized public?

How do you solve a problem like Dan Kahan and his polarization puzzle? I confess it worries me. How, for example, do I write about his finding that conservative-minded men view risks in a way poles apart from other people without  feeding into that very same polarization? And more important, how do I write about it in a way that doesn’t prevent me from doing my job?

I write news for a living. Sadly a rare thing now, I write news stories for the general reader, the average Joe, the man-or-woman on the street, the likely not-you if you are reading this post.

Who is this person? He is a man towing his daughter’s furniture to college who stops at a Hardees for curly fries and who is deciding, right now, which newspaper he is going to use as a placemat.  She is a woman sitting on a wheeled suitcase at  an airport, glancing at news stories on her iPhone while she waits for announcement of her plane’s delay.

These are busy people, people who really just want news.  More than a million of them decide every weekday to pay me and my colleagues four quarters – one-two-three-four – banging into a metal box in exchange for the news. That’s all they want. They are not paying for education (that’s called tuition) but for news.

So I write the news for them. I freely acknowledge as I do this that I have my biases; I like cold beer, scientifically-gathered evidence and professional football. I am bourgeois and don’t mind if you mind. All that aside, I really write news stories by asking myself, what would that man or woman sitting in the Hardees or airport like to know next about the news. Say news such as, “What scares you more, drones in the sky or pollution in the water? A psychology study suggests that older conservative men  fear stuff that doesn’t scare other folks.”

I don’t really like question ledes, but that one is okay. But here is one more question. What if I’ve already lost the readers? Thanks to polarization, maybe  the audience is already seeing the news (“study suggests thing”) as more evidence as grist for becoming more polarized. “Aha, I knew those hippies are kidding themselves about what really matters.” The pieces of the news that I am busily filling in over the next few paragraphs, “the study drew on responses from 1,500 people tasered at a New Haven Wal-Mart and forced to answer risk questions in a back room by Yale’s psychology goon squad”,  and that I think are so important, don’t matter to them. They are too busy hardening their view about however they view the story. What if this is true about every polarized science-related issue, from climate to evolution to economics?

Frankly, I am not supposed to worry about this. Like a lot of our society’s institutions  -- law and politics are the best examples -- journalism has an 18th Century basis. A certain amount of honest rationality is assumed from the participants, and that is expected to produce the best results for society. People can get upset about the news, but eventually they will think it over and argue and come to the best decision.  This is the kind of thinking behind having judges, juries and elections. So it is with news. If people decide to act foolishly or wrongly about the news, I’ll report that next. It will all come out right in the end, Candide.

But there is a lot evidence that polarization is getting worse in our society (see this fun chart).  So, since I am not a revolutionary (as I’ve mentioned), I worry. In my spare time, of course, when I’m not watching football or drinking beer. At least one sociologist has advised me to write off the most heavily-polarized part of the reading audience, mentally, when I write. Just write the news straight up and you will reach the most people possible. Which may be solid advice and which it what we generally aim to do, because it is also the simplest thing to do. Some people will always complain, God love them. C’est la guerre.

That  is tens of thousands of people likely being written off with each story. Worse, my job is to get them the news, and they are not getting it  if all they are coming away from a story with is confirmation of their biases. (They are the ones thinking right now, “Vergano is only saying this because he is the kind of beer-drinking, football-watching stooge to which I am superior. He just can’t bring himself to admit hippies/old men are evil because he lacks my integrity.”) It is hard enough just reporting the news and not make too many mistakes to contemplate crafting separate narratives psychologically tuned to both egalitarians and hierarchs for every story with a political dimension.  We could just leave them to Fox News (whoops, here I am polarizing folks), but then we are feeding the polarization machine.

So what to do? I don’t see a simple solution. For now,  I can keep in mind some of the lessons of the science communication research community, looking for speakers in stories who come from polarized communities, for example, or bearing in mind particular sensitivities. I did not know. For example, that older conservative men might be more worried about drones for example. How can I write for people if I don’t understand how they see the world. This sort of research on polarization seems overdue, something that journalism schools should have supported decades ago. If nothing else, a little more insight into readers can only help to get them the news.  I hope.

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