The Press, Polarization and Empathy: Working towards Unity

Political polarization has surged in recent decades and has arguably reached a peak since the 2016 presidential election. Most political discussions, whether they occur in Congress or in the classroom, seem to boil over into vitriolic attacks against the opposition. In fact, recent polling shows that 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican — the largest separation of this sort in the past two decades.

Not only is there greater disagreement on a variety of political issues but there is much more contempt for individuals in the opposite political camp. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2016 found that individuals are increasingly seeing members of the other party as a ‘threat to the wellbeing of the nation’. Moreover, currently, individuals are significantly more likely to view members of the opposite party as ‘close minded’ or ‘immoral’ compared to 2008. This suggests that we are trapped in a cycle of distrust and abhorrence for those who disagree with us.

While these trends are driven by numerous factors, they ultimately relate back to communication and the use of language. Language can be both a unifying and dividing force but the rhetoric of today tends to be dangerously divisive. In times like these, we expect the press to rise above the fray and to incite nuanced and educated discourse. On the contrary, the press is splintering and endorsing increasingly extreme positions. Of course, in the age of information, the press has had to evolve which has resulted in greater emphasis on 24/7 media, at the expense of investigative and nuanced journalism.

The emphasis has been placed on producing large volumes of content at the expense of select extensive pieces. Not only does this compromise the quality of information the public consumes, but it also makes for cursory examinations of extremely complicated issues. For this reason, it is easy to see how people view politics as black and white and why people view their political counterparts as ignorant or close minded. While the news media has exacerbated polarization in many ways, there is still reason to be somewhat optimistic.

Mario Small, Grafstein Family Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, commented that the public is fatigued and one avenue to promote a more holistic press is to capitalize on such fatigue. “Many of us are tired of the minute-by-minute, Twitter fed, scandal-oriented, outrage-feeding media environment in which we find all currently ourselves.  And many of us are weary of the increasingly open partisanship evident in much of the media discourse.  A source for consistently thoughtful, investigative, disinterested reporting and commentary would certainly find an audience,” Small said in an interview.

There are strong examples of pieces which encapsulate Small’s sentiment. Publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and others publish pieces that are thoughtful, investigative and holistic. These pieces involve personal accounts and help shed light on nuances of the topic, not reinforce stereotypes. The example Small highlighted was Stephanie McCrummen’s piece in the Washington Post on evangelical Christian Trump supporters. In this article, McCrummen uses empathetic rhetoric and illuminates the complexities of evangelical Christians’ perspectives.

Beyond providing insightful and nuanced commentary, the press ought to focus on building empathy. A substantial part of the growing gap between the left and right can be explained by an inability to understand the perspectives of other individuals. From a very early age, we all learn about the concept of ‘empathy’ yet the rhetoric of news organizations tends to be largely devoid of it.  In a commencement address delivered to the Northwestern University graduating class in 2006, Barack Obama said, “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us,” and while it is true that there is an empathy deficit, it is equally important to emphasize that we need to practice better empathy. Maybe if we solved this empathy deficit, we wouldn’t see others as close minded and instead have respect for differing opinions. This is where the press can be a serious force for positive change. By taking steps towards building empathy, compromise can become a reality rather than solely something we learn about in history class.

The most effective way to cultivate empathy is to “Eschew stereotypes,” Dr. Small explained, as a large part of empathy deficit stems from portraying the gray areas of politics as black and white. Journalists ought to stray away from reinforcing stereotypes by underscoring both the nuance in one's perspective and diversity of views within a certain population. However, the standard is infrequently met. For example, after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the news media, in an attempt to explain the surprising phenomenon, resorted to generalizing all working class people as staunch Trump supporters. This explanation was met with confusion by many who viewed Trump’s agenda and personal history as contradictory to the interests of the working class population. Therefore, reinforcing the idea that individuals are close minded or ignorant. In reality, Trump voters came in many forms, had diverse backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. Thus, this explanation did little to paint a clear and detailed portrayal of the people who voted for Trump and their motives.

Rather than using to personal accounts to describe perspective changing experiences or the internal logic of Trump supporters, much of the post-2016 presidential election journalism painted with broad strokes and reinforced stereotypes. This shouldn’t be viewed as an issue specific to left-leaning or right-leaning news, it is a problem that affects all news organizations. For example, we see the stereotyping of deeply complex populations in the generalizations made about welfare recipients and the drawing of false equivalences between impoverished communities across the nation (Source?). We need to be attentive to our tendency to think of one’s own group as diverse but other groups as homogeneous. Doing so can bring us one step closer to seeing another’s predicament the same way we would view our own.

The press must use its platform to rise above polarizing rhetoric, this requires a critical evaluation of current practices and a willingness to understand others even in these hostile times. If we fail to do so, polarization will continue to worsen, causing legislative gridlock and reducing faith in governmental institutions as well as other civic institutions. George Washington was prescient in his farewell address when he posited, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities.” Let us heed Washington’s warning and change direction by bringing empathy into our political discourse.