Can narrative journalism overcome the political divide?
No self-respecting liberal would trust anything written on Breitbart, and every self-respecting conservative knows that The New York Times is a liberal rag controlled by people with New York values. Combine that with the echo-chamber of social media, the decline of local news, and the general political atmosphere of 2016, and you get a divided country with a divided media.
Or so goes the prevailing wisdom. But a study conducted this spring by the Columbia Journalism Review and the George T. Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism found that sometimes the content of a story matters more than its source, even to politically polarized readers.
For our study, we randomly assigned readers along the liberal-conservative spectrum to read this California Sunday Magazine feature about a plot to kill a police officer. The story appeared to have run in one of two fictional magazines: a purportedly conservative publication called The Patriot, or the The American Progressive, which we presented as a liberal magazine.
We specifically chose a story whose topic wasn’t overtly polarizing but contained enough political valence to trigger different reactions depending on where readers stood on the political spectrum. The core tension of the story is whether law enforcement entrapped two misguided but harmless malcontents or eliminated a legitimate extremist threat. We expected readers’ political views on issues like law enforcement and domestic terrorism to influence how they judged the actions of the cops and the would-be cop killers; we also anticipated their level of trust in the story would change depending on the political affiliation of the publication where it appeared.
Instead, the study found that readers were equally likely to trust the story no matter where it had been published. On average, readers of both publications and from both parties also rated the credibility of the reporter and her sources within a similar range. The results suggest that people across the political spectrum are equally likely to trust a long narrative story, regardless of whether they read it in a publication whose political leanings align with or differ from their own.
While there are several possible explanations, previous research on narrative persuasion suggests that a lengthy, compelling feature told through the eyes of a character or characters with whom we can empathize—possibly despite ourselves—may be one antidote to political polarization....MUCH MORE