Media can battle polarization by telling personal stories


RIVERSIDE, CA – JANUARY 18: Reporters set up microphones at the podium before Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin announces charges filed against a couple accused of holding their 13 children captive on January 18, 2018 in Riverside, California. According to Riverside County Sheriffs, David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, held 13 malnourished children ranging in age from 2 to 29 captive in their Perris, California home. Deputies were alerted after a 17-year-old daughter escaped by jumping through a window shortly before dawn on Sunday morning, carrying a de-activated mobile phone from which she was able to call 911 for help. Responding deputies described conditions in the home as foul-smelling with some kids chained to a bed and suffering injuries as a result. Adult children appeared at first to be minors because of their malnourished state. The Turpins were arrested on charges of torture and child endangerment. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — People on opposing political sides often go beyond disagreeing with each other and instead actively dehumanize people in the other camp — meaning they think about them as less human than those on their side, and the problem can be compounded in the media.

Individuals may think that the person on the other side lacks self-restraint, almost like an animal. Dehumanization is often tied to harmful behavior. Sometimes, dehumanization can even lead us to commit violence against other people who we view as less than human.

Dehumanization is all over political media. Partisan news outlets often highlight the most extreme members of the other party and promote animosity toward people with whom their audiences disagree.

That’s a problem researcher Emily Kubin wants to tackle. She recently performed a study published in the journal Political Psychology that looked into how we can instead use media as a tool to reduce dehumanization.

In her study, participants were first sorted into different sides based on their points of view about a controversial issue.

“So, for example, gun policy. Are you pro-gun or are you anti-gun? So they kind of had to pick a side,” Kubin said.

The participants were then given articles or social media posts to read that featured someone who disagreed with them about the issue. The reading might feature a personal anecdote, facts or both.

Back to the gun policy example, if a survey participant was in the anti-gun camp, they might be presented with a political opponent who would explain they support gun rights because they had to use a gun for self-defense in the past.

They could also cite facts about how often guns are used in self-defense in the United States; they could also share both facts and personal experiences.

“And then participants had an opportunity to tell us what they thought about that political opponent,” Kubin said. “So, how tolerant were they? So, how tolerant were they of that person? How human did that person seem? How willing were they to dehumanize that individual?”

What Kubin found was that sharing personal experiences and pairing them with facts reduces political dehumanization and increases political tolerance more than just sharing facts alone.

Kubin argued that the study may have implications for how the media presents contentious issues. To help reduce polarization, the media could do more to highlight personal experiences of people who hold certain positions and then provide context for those experiences with facts.

“You’re sharing a harmful experience that somebody had and then situating it within the statistics of how often that really is happening to make their opponents recognize, OK, the other side has valid reasons for why they hold their views,” she said.

Left out of the research was whether the experiment changed people’s minds, Kubin said.

“(It) doesn’t mean that I’m going to believe your fact and have it change my mind on this issue,” Kubin said.

The experiment only looked at the short-term, so it’s unknown how long-lasting the effect of exposing people to personal experiences and facts could be. But Kubin argued this may be one reason for institutions like the news media to build this into their regular practice.

“If we’re continuously showing people the other side’s experiences for why they hold their opposing views, whether it be about immigration or education or health care, whatever the issues are — if you consistently are seeing this on a regular basis as you’re engaging with media, I think that this can lead to more long-lasting larger effects in terms of your overall views towards political opponents,” she said.

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