Understand, Engage
and Re-connect
From Texas to Illinois: innovations for restoring trust in media
“Unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box…”
This was the famous speech by CBS reporter Ed Murrow to the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in Chicago in 1958, when he challenged the broadcast industry.

That speech inspired me personally 50 years later to participate in the launch of a Ukrainian independent TV channel Hromadske, which became the go-to-news source during the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2013-2014.
Today, media owners and managers from New York to Warsaw, from London to Tbilisi address similar criticism to tech-giants and social media companies who started to gain major profits overtaking the market of online ads. Little by little, the most savvy media corporations have managed to crack algorithms and instrumentalize polarization, hate, and negative coverage so that their content is competitive online.
Edward R. Murrow
"Wires and Lights in a Box" speech - Edward R. Murrow - 1958
Meanwhile, quality and public interest media that “teach, illuminate, inspire struggle to reach the public through news feeds that favour people’s confirmation biases. The need to reinvent the media industry in the public interest is an overwhelmingly big task. Yet there are already many innovations and initiatives driven by forward-thinking non-profits, from which we all can learn.

I talked to three US-based institutions which are at the forefront of innovation of public interest journalism globally. And here is what they recommend.

The Center for Media Engagement

Founded in 2017 at the University of Austin, the Center conducts original research co-operating with newsrooms, social media platforms, and organizations which research which media practices may be beneficial for democracy, and in particular ‘connective democracy’ which bridge gaps in society. They work with over a hundred and fifty different news organizations in the United States. There are organizations that are more open to data-driven practices than others.

For the founding director of the Center Talia Stroud, the main question is not purely technology (which of course matters), but how to find commercially viable and democratically beneficial ways of improving media. She looks at three sets of solutions.

Tools, technology and design – this is the easiest part according to Stroud. Part of the research was devoted to the buttons that are available on social media. The Center did a study on whether people’s behavior could be changed if the ‘like’ button was swapped with a ‘respect’ button and found that people acted in less partisan ways when they had the ‘respect’ button than they did when they had the ‘like’ button.

In another case, the question was whether to display likes, shares and comments, and whether media should delete comments that receive the most recommendations/likes, for instance. Co-operating with the New York Times website, it turned out that comments that were more partisan and uncivil were getting more recommendations than others, and so the most recommended comments that appear first and are most likely to reach people are exactly the comments that are the most uncivil, partisan and polarizing.

While discussions of the digital space often focus on eliminating troubling content, the Center suggests that we should think about digital spaces, in the same way as the physical spaces we live in. Thus, public-friendly design should be used, based on the following principles which could be key for social media algorithms: invite everyone to participate, ensure people’s safety, encourage the humanization of others, keep people’s information secure, cultivate belonging, build bridges between groups, strengthen local ties, make power accessible, elevate shared concerns, provide reliable information, build civic competence, promote thoughtful conversation.

Psychology has become a new direction when researching social media. The Center has been looking at self-compassion which is a physiological variable whereby if you are kinder to yourself and recognize that there is a common humanity, people are more likely to approach others in a less polarized way. Through considered messaging, journalists may aim at producing content where people come away with less polarized feelings on the other side. The Center digs into what the characteristics are for such messaging and how that differs across topics.

However, what’s critical according to Stroud is something that media so often struggle to find the time for – and that’s the importance of constantly measuring impact and success. As Straub mentioned, good ideas which look perfect in the beginning often turn out to be not that successful. The early example of this was the research showing that if presented information in a comedic format then that might have a depolarization effect because people wouldn’t counter argue. They would be enjoying the experience (entertained) so much, it would not have an antagonistic effect. However the Center did a further study on this and it was not the case at all, in fact the follow up study showed that it could make things worse. People were offended by satire, perceiving it as against ‘their side’ and they did not even want to watch it if it seemed to be challenging them. Some also became less tolerant of people whose views they didn’t agree with.

The Spaceship Media
Spaceship media was created in 2016 in the run up to the presidential election. Its founder and veteran US reporter Eve Pearlman was watching ‘the rise of discord, vitriol and nastiness in our public spaces’, and started thinking about how journalists might go to the heart of divides, to places of conflict, as journalists always have, but once there, do something different.

So Spaceship Media mapped out a process, which they called dialogue journalism, for building journalism-supported conversations between regular people about the issues of deep consequence to the society.

They continued to grow and develop, hosting dialogues in partnership with media organizations across the USA about some of the most divisive issues: guns, immigration, policing, electoral politics, race, education.

E.G. they set up a Facebook group where women from a very conservative area (Alabama) and women from a very liberal area (California) were brought together to chat digitally. The media worked really very hard to cultivate good practices so that they would have good conversations and exchanges and form friendships, yet difficult issues were tackled.

Once they gathered 21 people from around the US with a range of opinions on guns in cooperation with TIME, the Newseum, the Center for Investigative Reporting. And later kicked off online discussion in the closed group. It was all followed by the articles in the media.

With Minnesota Public Radio they gathered farmers — large and small, conventional and organic — as well as consumers, in a conversation about farming practices; in Seattle they designed a conversation experience about the inequities faced by many students of color in Washington.

They examined the achievement gap that exists between white and black students in Alabama and nationwide. Another project brought together more than 60 Alabama teachers of different races and from different grade levels to discuss the causes of this inequity, and to strategize on the best ways to respond in their classrooms. The discussion in a closed Facebook group led some participants to become more active in local government and education policy.

In California they worked with a number of state media to design a conversation about the enforcement of immigration laws, a flashpoint topic of that moment, which touched on identity, the economic impact of illegal immigration, and assimilation; another project in California connected a Police Department and students of color. Also in California they brought residents of North and South Fresno, long divided by measures including income and race and ethnicity, into a conversation to discover points of understanding and common ground in what one Fresno mayor dubbed “A Tale of Two Cities”.
Too often we've gone to each side quoting a partisan voice on one side and a partisan voice on the other with a telling anecdotal lead and a pithy final quote, all of which readers are keen to mine for bias - Eve Pearlman TED speech
According to Pearlman, too often journalists “have sharpened divides in the name of drama or readership or in service to our own views. And too often we've gone to each side quoting a partisan voice on one side and a partisan voice on the other with a telling anecdotal lead and a pithy final quote, all of which readers are keen to mine for bias”.

So, despite the fact that the dialogue-based process has a slower pace and a different center, she suggests guiding journalistic work by the principle that dialogue across difference is essential to a functioning democracy, and that journalism and journalists have a multifaceted role to play in supporting that.
Eve Pearlman TED speech, January 2019
Media startup Hearken
“The path to conversion on Hearken-powered story pages had an average that was almost double the average recorded for all stories,” – The Dallas Morning News.

“The average time-on-page for Hearken-powered stories was 5 minutes and 25 seconds, which is about four times higher than the average for WPR.org,” – Wisconsin Public Radio.

Hearken-powered journalism has won the most prestigious awards in the industry, including PRNDI Awards, Associated Press Awards, and the Edward R. Murrow Awards.

Hearken is a women-led startup that was founded in Chicago, with a global team and offices in Denmark. Hearken brings citizens into the editorial and agenda-setting process, welcoming them into newsrooms in order to develop trust and participation. They help the media to refocus journalistic practices around taking an active part in the community and facilitating social change through community engagement.

Hearken served 200+ news organizations, helping to practically apply engagement to journalists’ work, and collaborated with numerous organizations such as The Seattle Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, as well BBC and the Danish public Broadcaster.
The idea is to generate actionable insights from the public to create more relevant, representative and original content and services.
The main approach of Hearken is to enable the public to submit questions or vote on questions they would like the media to answer. Various tools are applied so the team can easily get in touch with the public directly, and the public can opt-into newsletters and deeper relationships with the newsroom.

It could be a specially designed platform that helps organizations translate into reality the move from the legacy “inside-out” public engagement approach towards an “outside-in” engagement process, by bringing audience inputs further upstream into content production or service design.

As Summer Fields, who is a Senior engagement manager and growth lead at Hearken explains, often newsrooms ask readers to comment on the bottom of the story, but no one in the newsroom with decision-making power sees them or takes them into account for future stories. newsrooms might also see Facebook posts getting hundreds of likes and shares but again, it’s not taken into account.

Hearken works to engage people and change the traditional approach where journalists say: “Here’s what we think you need to know!” to a public-powered approach asking the questions “What do you not know that we can find out for & with you?”
In 2021, together with the Arena Program based at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, we at the Public Interest Journalism Lab conducted research on why conspiratorial propaganda works and what we can do about it. We looked at audience vulnerabilities and resistance to anti-Western, pro-Kremlin disinformation in Ukraine. The major narratives were identified, and focus groups conducted to better understand why people believe these narratives.

We saw that one of the underlying reasons for conspiratorial thinking was a weak sense of agency, deep distrust to anything and feeling that nothing depends on us, we are not heard. We therefore recommended the Hearken engagement approach as a possible way to promote trust and empower audiences, and to foster people’s belief in the possibility of positive change.
In his 1958 speech Ed Murrow said:
I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard that produces words and pictures. You will forgive me for not telling you that instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated.

It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.
Since then, the ‘vineyard that produces words and pictures’ amplifies voices to the degree that within seconds, it can reach the other side of the world. Yet as we know, any technology could be misused and corrupted. But journalists have no other way but to embrace technology, and use it to “teach, illuminate, inspire, and amplify those best practices.

Putting public interest at heart of journalism could be seen as nothing new. Yet in fact it is. Western Europeans who have a tradition of public broadcasters have reason to be calmer – as their choice is to digitise traditional media hoping it would work. Yet in the case of Central and Eastern Europe, as in the US, we need to reinvent the foundation of how we can work with audiences differently to preserve our democracies.

Through my US research, I spoke with leading institutions at the cutting edge of innovations in this sphere. They are indeed pioniors. There are not too many, yet they produce practical solutions which can be applicable in various contexts. While talking to any of those innovators from Austin and Chicago or San Francisco Bay and raising Ukrainian concerns I always felt heard, understood, supported, and inspired to test these new strategies.

The article was prepared with the support of the Alumni Leadership Action Projects Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.