Proponents of civic journalism believe that accurate news about politics can enable voters to make informed decisions. They say that it can also promote civic engagement and improve democracy.
Many consistent conservatives name Fox News as their main source of political news, while consistent liberals volunteer a much wider range of sources. But all of these sources are not equal.
When it comes to social issues, political considerations can have a profound effect on news coverage. Politicization of an issue refers to the prominence of political actors in news coverage and can occur for a variety of reasons, including biases in editorial norms and a desire to draw audience attention to particular topics (Bolsen et al., 2014). The degree of politicization can also be affected by the predisposition of the public to rely on political over scientific views (Slothuus and de Vreese, 2010).
In the case of COVID-19, a high level of politicization and polarization has been associated with heightened levels of misinformation and hysteria in some countries. While these trends are understandable in a world reeling from false and inflammatory content, they have allowed autocratic governments to seize the opportunity to tighten controls on freedom of expression and association. For example, some governments have imposed “fake news” laws and given platforms only one hour to remove certain kinds of content.
This study examines the extent to which newspaper and network news coverage of COVID-19 was politicized and polarized in March and May 2020. Results using both the general and targeted dictionaries reveal that newspaper coverage was highly politicized and polarized, with politicians mentioned more frequently than scientists. This finding is consistent with previous studies on the politicization of science and risk news coverage.
Politics in the media
The media serve several essential roles in a democracy. They inform the public, set the agenda for discussion of societal issues, and facilitate civic engagement by providing people with opportunities to join groups that work toward solutions to local problems. They also serve as watchdogs that check government actions and amplify citizens’ voices. Ideally, the media should avoid taking policy positions based on economic interests or biases, but this is not always possible. In many cases, media outlets take highly politicized policy stands that are out of touch with the views of most citizens.
Journalists often use personalized stories focusing on arguments between competing actors to highlight conflict and dramatize an issue (Bolsen et al., 2014). As a result, the language used to discuss Republican and Democratic actors tends to be more polarized than that used to discuss scientists. This type of politicized coverage can lead to biased impressions of an issue, which may result in misguided policies.
While most scholars, including journalists themselves, vehemently deny that they are influenced by owners or managers in their reporting decisions, many studies have found that the political stands taken by news organizations in overt editorials and in less-obvious news coverage often correspond to one another. In some instances, such correspondence is so close that it suggests that the actions of many individual journalists are coordinated (e.g., through selective recruitment or quiet supervision by managers).
There are currently several political parties in the United States. One is based on Donald Trump’s namesake grouping of ideas, economic nationalism, and right-wing populism. Its major funders include Trump-affiliated Arabian oil firms and Russian oligarchs. The other is based on Christian conservatives, with a large base of funding from the Koch family and Betsy DeVos.
While the overall partisan divide has increased, a substantial majority of Americans are independent voters. This has implications for the way they receive political news. Those with down-the-line conservative and liberal views tend to interact with like-minded people when discussing politics online or in person. However, they also rely on a range of media sources with varying audience profiles and often encounter dissenting views. This can create a cleavage between those who have consistent conservative and liberal views, while those with mixed ideological views are less polarized.
Civic journalism, also known as public journalism, aims to align journalistic practices with the ways in which citizens form their publics. This approach aims to restore democratic values and rebuild trust in the news media. The emergence of civic journalism has led to a growing number of small nonprofit news outlets that promote civic learning and engagement. However, many of these initiatives struggle to connect with a significant portion of the public. In addition, they face competition from cable shout shows and mean-spirited fake-news websites.
In the 1990s, a movement within the news industry emerged variously called civic or public journalism. Newspaper and broadcast journalists joined with civic organizations to engage the public in deliberative processes aimed at addressing critical community challenges. This work often began by gauging the needs of the public and asking them to define what matters to them. The movement was controversial, and more traditionally minded editors and reporters feared that it would discourage hard-hitting investigative journalism.
The goal of civic journalism is to increase public engagement in local communities, by allowing them to produce and share the news they care about. This is a radical departure from the way that traditional news sources have approached the news. While there are many different approaches to civic journalism, they all aim to promote public discussion and debate. In the end, these efforts may be the key to overcoming the current divide between the “elites” and the rest of the country.