Can stories like the Zimmerman trial point to a better journalism?

The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and juror B-37’s interview with CNN reveal what may be the greatest challenge to modern newsrooms on socially divisive issues: how best to get different communities to engage with each other.

Since Trayvon Martin’s death became a flashpoint in early 2012, news organizations have excelled at highlighting poignant, diverse voices offering up their analysis and personal experience. Fabulous writers penned passionate arguments. Social media gave rise to creative commentary. We all participated in the debate — the most committed of us by demonstrating, the rest of us by talking with each other face-to-face and sharing and commenting on social media. Now, the revelations about one juror’s point of view are sparking even more conversations about how our individual experiences inform our views.

And yet, we are as divided as ever. By democratizing publishing, the Internet and social media promised that we could all have a platform. But all those platforms seem to have made us even less likely to listen to those with whom we disagree.

Can journalism do anything to bridge this great divide? As the news media evolve, will newsrooms embrace the tasks of bringing people together and helping them talk things out as a way of distinguishing journalism from other sources of information? The challenge will be to do so in a way that invites diversity, even while our newsrooms are more willing to embrace reporting and writing from a particular point of view.

Pew Research Center tells us that only 26 percent of Americans say they prefer their news from a point of view on a regular basis. Yet that doesn’t seem to hold true for issues as polarizing as the Zimmerman trial. Consumption of information about the trial tracked much higher among black people than white people. Interest peaked after the verdict was announced, with 44 percent of a sample of Americans tracking the coverage on Sunday.

At the same time, the conversation about media has become an unfortunate referendum on whether most newsrooms are liberal and capable of fairness or even basic accuracy. While these are fair questions to ask, it’s overly simplistic to suggest that all newsrooms were inadequate in the Zimmerman trial because a few newsrooms made mistakes both big and small.

Critics suggested that every news organization that made room for a black voice talking about the danger young black men face was guilty of liberal bias. Or even that every newsroom that framed the story as one of race was incapable of fairness.

While there are certainly debates to be had about story frames, today’s flood of opinion is here to stay. On most news sites, articles written from a point of view and personal narratives dominate the lists of most-shared stories — and they’re easier and cheaper to produce for 24-hour cable newsrooms and digital and print outlets alike.

By embracing community as a core guiding principle, newsrooms could use coverage of divisive moments such as Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s trial to create a more robust exchange of ideas, a search for common ground, or some other measurable improvement for a community.

The best articulation of this expression of journalism came during a symposium last October at the Paley Center in New York, where Poynter gathered thought leaders to help shape a new set of Guiding Principles for Journalists.

Here’s how Mónica Guzmán, Seattle Times columnist and GeekWire contributor, described her vision of newsroom evolution:

Forever, the product of journalism has been the article, the photo, the essay, the content. The digital ecosystem today is asking us why can’t the product of journalism be the community? Why can’t that be the space where we do our work? If the mission of journalism is to inform the public for the civic good, but citizens are showing us they can inform themselves with the right tools and the right guidance, then the community should be as much a product of what we do, as much an end, as anything else. The differentiator for other industries is they think of the community as a means to an end. But for journal­ism, the community should be an end.

What would that vision look like? It would be different for every community and every newsroom, but certainly there would be more virtual chats, more moderated conversations, and more live events hosted by journalists.

Maybe it would look more like The Orlando Sentinel’s series In the Shadow of Race, which included a live community forum.

“Rather than think almost exclusively about serving [readers] with content, what else can [newsrooms] be doing to help them become more self-empowered information seekers and sharers?” Guzmán asked by email this week.

Guzmán and many others who have embraced this idea believe that it will be particularly effective and helpful for local newsrooms to go beyond just providing information.

“Innovators must now create tools that will help strengthen geographically bounded communities,” Steven Waldman writes in The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, the book that grew out of last fall’s gathering. Waldman was a founder of Beliefnet, one of the first sites built around the idea that content would help communities interact and grow. In 1999, he notes, getting audiences organized around and involved in content was controversial. Now, it’s a legitimate model for news.

But the next steps in serving communities aren’t as clear or obvious.

“People expect to participate, and media managers must make it easier for readers to interact with each other, the news organization and other institutions in the community,” Waldman writes. “News organizations will become, in effect, community service organizations of a new kind and the process will become truly valuable.”

Just as the rise of opinion has transformed our content, serving communities will transform our newsrooms and ultimately our communities. We see glimpses of this in news start-ups that routinely pull off effective events, such as the Texas Tribune or MinnPost.

But the real experiments with community have yet to begin in earnest. Now is as good a time as any for that experimentation to start. And this issue of race and justice is a topic that cries out for something more than what we have.

The Poynter Institute’s book The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century will be available Aug. 1. This compilation of essays is edited by Poynter’s Kelly McBride and The American Press Institute’s Tom Rosenstiel. The book features a new framework for ethical decision-making among journalists and those who care about democracy. On August 15, McBride will host a News University Webinar about the book.

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  • Robert Knilands

    “By democratizing publishing, the Internet and social media promised that we could all have a platform. But all those platforms seem to have made us even less likely to listen to those with whom we disagree.”
    I am less likely to pay much attention to places that seize upon each of these events to create more divisiveness. Those places include this site.
    Also, I have little interest in finding common ground with major news outlets that alter events or ignore evidence so they can provide pre-conceived ideas of what happened. Those places deserve every bit of the bashing they get.