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Is Opinionated Journalism Actually Better at Getting People Involved in Politics?

A new study finds that opinionated reporting might be better at motivating the politically unengaged.

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But for those who were not already involved in conversations about the issue, those who, it can be assumed, did not already have a hard and fast opinion of the protest, the “reinforcing” article made them far more likely to have a positive impression of the protest and want to take part.

What does all this mean for journalism?

It seems that if your goal is actually motivating people to participate in politics, journalism written by those who push participation is good. Mendelson noted that there has been a lot of research that has focused on how to get readers involved in political or civic life. “Just telling people how you get involved moves them from passive to active. Focusing on solutions rather than just problems moves an issue from 'Something that I just need to take in' versus 'Something that actually can be solved.' Looking at issues thematically rather than episodically, moving from an individual crime to the trends, the issues around a topic rather than just focusing on an individual event in isolation. A lot of studies have shown that those moves will engage audiences.”

The journalism that is calculated to appeal to the largest swath of the population-- “objective” reporting, which Kim noted originally became popular because publishers thought it would help them sell more papers and provide more eyeballs to advertisers—is ironically more likely to disengage people than engage them in the political system. For reporters determined to appear neutral, giving readers information on how to get involved would spoil that carefully cultivated neutrality.

But, Mendelson pointed out, there are problems with this research. “I'm less impressed with this specific study than I am with the concept it was trying to examine,” he said. Because the report doesn't show what specific articles were given as “objective” and “reinforcing” stories, it is hard to judge what Kim meant by an “objective” news piece—or whether we can translate that type of reporting from Korea to other countries. Cultural differences and differences between the way the media practice their craft could mean that the results of this report wouldn't hold up in the US.

Kim argued that “objectivity needs to be distinguished from social detachment, and it is the latter rather than the former that a journalist needs to overcome.” The problem so often, though, is that reporting of the facts and pushing to find the truth is replaced with false balance in the name of objectivity—which leads to a kind of detachment, the unwillingness to point out that one side or the other could be, objectively, wrong. And that breeds the cynicism about politics and civic life that Mendelson mentioned. News outlets such as NPR have been turning away from this ideal of balance toward a more nuanced ideal of reporting the truth, and it would be interesting to see more research on the impact that change has on political engagement.

“We need to do more research,” Mendelson said, “but we have done a lot of research on the topic. The best way to engage audience in a genuine way about their community is to give them context and not set up false dichotomies that really don't go on beyond the predictable positions that a party would have. To understand complicated issues you really have to step outside of partisan positions.”

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

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