The Problem of Polarisation and Journalism’s Responses to It


Social polarisation has become a topic of concern all over the world. It is discussed as a threat to democracy and the stability of societies: as citizens divide into groups that heavily oppose each other’s world views and interests, their willingness to co-operate and their trust in the democratic system erodes. (E.g. Carothers & O’Donohue 2019.) A key factor in this erosion of social trust is that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain public discourses that large national publics would regard as shared and legitimate – a task that has traditionally been appointed to journalism (e.g. Müller 2013).

From this angle, polarisation is a circumstance that affects the public realm of media in general, and journalism in particular, making it hard for journalism to carry out its democratic functions. However, journalism also participates in the process of polarisation, often unintentionally, by circulating the polarising discourses and repeating the idea of opposing camps or social bubbles. Journalistic routines, practices and ideals that value multi-voiced deliberative debate may end up portraying political conflicts as issues of identity, even when seeking to resist polarisation (e.g. Brandsma 2017).

Journalists – and researchers and teachers of journalism – across the world have recognised these challenges that social polarisation has produced to their profession. There are several research projects, consultative institutions, special programmes within media companies, online platforms and other forms of professional co-operation that address polarisation (and related issues of the so-called ”post-truth age”) by providing a variety of tools and guidelines for making better journalism in polarised circumstances (for example, constructive/solutions/dialogue journalism; BBC's 'Crossing Divides'; Ett Stockholm etc.). Also, the authors of this paper can be seen as part of this movement with their action-research project developing ’conciliatory journalism’ (Hautakangas & Ahva 2018).

But how exactly is the problem of polarisation articulated by these different projects? What kind of understandings about the democratic public sphere, and the current problems with it, can be traced in their discourses? What kind of journalistic practices and ideals are recognised as problematic in the current crisis of public trust, and what is offered as a solution? How does the idea of journalism as a depolarising force relate to the tensions inherent in journalism’s ideals of supporting participatory and deliberative processes in society? (E.g. Farkas & Schou 2019, Waisbord 2018, Mutz 2006.)

This paper analyses (self-)critically how the relationship between journalism and social polarisation is conceptualised and circulated in the journalism reform movements, both current and past. This analysis is based on the authors’ previous research with the conciliatory journalism project and their subsequent book project on journalism and polarisation.