In a piece published by Fortune.com, Common Ground Committee Co-Founder Bruce Bond and Tom Fishman, CEO of Starts With Us, discuss the media’s role in polarization and signs that Americans may be ready for change.
Two of the news media’s most controversial figures are now without a job. Following its $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, Fox News parted ways with Tucker Carlson on Monday. On the same day, CNN fired Don Lemon, whose time at the network was marred by controversy both on and off camera.
These two hosts differ in many ways, from ideology to their relationships with the facts. But taken together, in light of their shared fates, they represent a microcosm of a media landscape that thrives on division and outrage. Carlson was the top-rated prime-time news host and CNN This Morning saw a ratings increase following Lemon’s return to co-hosting duties. News outlets must satisfy ratings–and nothing drives clicks more than conflict. Today, many would agree that the tenor of news has shifted too far towards sensationalism and partisanship–and it appears the networks themselves might be on the precipice of an introspective moment.
Our latest research found that, in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, the most hyper-partisan politicians received more than four times as much media coverage as the most bipartisan politicians. The study by the nonpartisan organization Starts With Us (SWU) used the Common Ground Scorecard–a tool from Common Ground Committee that measures how likely an elected official is to work across the aisle. This discrepancy shows that bipartisan problem-solvers are too often left in the dust while America’s top news outlets give undivided attention to the loudest voices.
As former tech and media executives who are now working to reduce polarization in our country, we believe this is a critical moment to shift what gets covered and who covers it. With two prominent conflict entrepreneurs out of the picture, CNN and Fox can either maintain the status quo and bring in carbon copies who will continue stoking anger and division, or they can chart a new course that not only turns down the temperature but also stands to capture a sizable market. We know this market exists because every day, we come across people who are exhausted by the rancor that today’s media environment promulgates.
The networks aren’t the only ones with a role to play in making change. Now that there are two empty seats at America’s largest cable networks, citizens must tap into their power and help decide who comes next.
Sensationalist news is like junk food. It is fun to consume and cheaply satisfying. That is why hosts like Carlson and Lemon have historically been a boon to ratings–and it’s why 10 times more Americans have heard of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene than Rep. Don Bacon, according to the SWU study. But just because we like eating candy, it does not mean that is all we want. In fact, there is ample evidence that shows people want more balanced, solutions-oriented news coverage.
A new study from More in Common found that 63% of Americans believe the media should report on solutions as much as problems–and 88% want to celebrate what is right rather than criticize what is wrong. The same organization’s research discovered that two-thirds of Americans are part of an “exhausted majority” who have effectively tuned out politics.
The two nonprofits we lead are part of a larger bridge-building movement that seeks to engage this demographic. What started out as less than 10 organizations prior to the 2016 election has skyrocketed to more than 500 today.
There are signs that some outlets sense Americans’ desire for a change and are producing content that focuses more on where we agree than disagree. Even Bret Baier’s nightly Fox News show has a weekly segment and podcast called Common Ground. The existence of such a segment, which encourages two guests to find areas of agreement, would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Turning to the debt ceiling debate, multiple outlets highlighted the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus’ proposal. Finally, a Reuters Institute survey of international leaders indicated that three-quarters are planning a greater focus on solutions journalism.
CNN, Fox, and the entire industry should move quickly to capture this growing interest in solutions over conflict. If they choose to ignore the opportunity, citizens can help change their minds.
Every time we click on a salacious headline or watch even a minute of a divisive news program, we cast a vote in favor of that type of content. What if we encourage our friends and families to consume more stories featuring bipartisan leadership groups or about people with differing beliefs who find common ground? We must step into the power of our collective attention to create momentum for more balanced content that refuses to be defined by division.
If enough of us get on board, we can drive a profound change in our media landscape. As dark as things look, we believe the seeds of change are being sown, and we all have it in us to help them grow.
Bruce Bond is the co-founder and CEO of Common Ground Committee, and is a former group executive of industry research at Gartner. Tom Fishman is the CEO of Starts With Us and a former senior VP of MTV Digital and a former product strategist at Facebook.
Originally published on Fortune.com on April 27, 2023.