55% of Journalists look out of touch all of a sudden. That’s the percentage who don’t think it’s necessary to cover both sides of a story equally, according to a new Pew study. Compare that to their market - the American public - where 76% want both sides of a story covered equally, including the perspectives of liberals and conservatives. It’s a stunning disconnect between a business (news reporting) and a market (readers and viewers) - and it’s at the heart of change in news reporting at two of the most prominent players: Facebook and CNN.
This disconnect follows decades of news media profiting from going “all in” on one worldview, conservative or liberal, separating Americans more than ever before. Since 2000 - the start of the digital transformation of American culture - news drove consumer enragement, which led to more readers, viewers, ad revenue, and profits. In the Pew study, it’s no surprise that online journalists are the group that believes the least (37%) that both sides deserve equal coverage. Consider the rise of the phrase “political polarization” in American books together with divisive reporting in this chart:
When journalists emphasize one worldview's perspective, they perpetuate echo chamber reporting, telling liberals or conservatives what they want to hear. Separate research from the University of Chicago Law School shows how separating the two groups further polarizes people and increases divisiveness. If you're going to solve divisiveness, you need to bring the two sides together.
Hunter Avallone is using digital media to do just that, going so far as to help de-radicalize those with extreme views. He hosts political debates on YouTube and Twitch, having shifted his views after engaging with people with different perspectives. He comments on Cnet:
“I was confronted with a lot of data and information, and also arguments that I hadn't heard before. And all of that along with things happening in my personal life that kind of put me in a place of reassessing my beliefs."
For the American public, the desire for balanced reporting cuts across every group: Young, old, liberal, and conservative - a substantial majority of these groups believe the news should include multiple perspectives. That’s creating a market force for positive change.
As Americans desire more balanced reporting, the business strategy of using enragement to get engagement to drive profits is now failing. News consumption has dropped off a cliff, most remarkably with online news (-65% YOY), creating a business imperative for the news business.
Two days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is shifting resources - engineering and product support - away from news to focus more on the creator economy. One of the drivers behind this decision is the increased regulatory pressure to pay for the news they distribute, increasing the cost of the information. Executives at Facebook no doubt also see the steep decline in news consumption on their platform, forcing them to look elsewhere for growth.
This move by Facebook has significant implications for the overall temperature of political opinion in America. Facebook has the biggest reach of any platform to influence how Americans receive news and react. With less emphasis on news and more on “creators,” Facebook can serve to reduce divisiveness. A strong majority of the most viewed posts on Facebook are political and divisive.
CNN, as detailed previously, is also making a significant shift away from pushing a singular worldview. Chris Licht is the new CNN boss coming out of the merger between Warner Media and Discovery. He’s making fast changes to move CNN away from a liberal news outlet to something more balanced. It’s certainly far from 50-50, but he’s making progress as he adds more conservative voices to the programming. The success or failure of these changes could be the harbinger of all future news reporting.
A return to healthy debate in the news media won’t be a return to 2000 when digital media started driving divisiveness. We are left with an American public - your customers - more divided along conservative and liberal worldview lines. But that’s not such a bad thing. A collateral benefit of the past few decades is that many Americans have sorted themselves as conservative or liberal, resulting from greater political knowledge, leading to higher levels of civic engagement. That’s not a problem as long as we have healthy debate. The problem arises when the two sides are separated, at war, and don’t listen to each other.
For businesses, this sorting of customers into conservative and liberal clarifies how they see brands, products, communications, and more. This clarification enables businesses to think differently about their markets, to align with different groups, or both by understanding better how customers think, without an ounce of politics. This clarity drives business opportunities without costing more because it’s about optimizing strategies with the investments you are making today.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter Red and Blue Customers.