Examining Fault Lines in a Time of Political Earthquakes

As journalists continue their post-election coverage review and plot strategies for the first 100 days of the Trump administration they should consider adopting a plan built around covering the nation’s Fault Lines, rather than continuing to obsess on day-to-day conflict.

The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 inspired the late Robert Maynard to suggest much like geological fault lines, the social Fault Lines of class, gender, generation, geography, and race crisscross the U.S. His work is the basis of the Maynard Institute’s Fault Lines diversity workshops.

The metaphor was doubly appropriate because most of the 63 deaths were attributed to the collapse of the Cypress Street Viaduct (Nimitz Freeway), which hadn’t been structurally reinforced.

Maynard envisioned a media landscape where journalists reinforced society by examining and explaining its Fault Lines in an effort to alleviate tensions that could eventually rupture along those lines. Unfortunately, modern American journalism is built around the conflict model and pseudo events. This flawed approach relies on tension between groups or events meant to garner attention to drive coverage. Following conflict and social media can result in stories that are likely to spark sharp debate, but this displaces other topics.

The conflict model tends to give weight to the loudest point of view, hence the use of social media as a justification for a story. Social media creates pseudo events as posts and tweets are used as counterbalance in coverage, or to suggest a widely held point of view.

However, there is evidence that with the exception of Facebook the media might be giving too much legitimacy to social media. The Pew 2016 Social Media Update estimates that 24 percent of American adults are active in Twitter. Twitter is the least popular platform, edged out by LinkedIn and Pinterest. While Facebook is used by about 79 percent of online adults, no other platform can claim half of that reach.

The conflict model can also lead to stories laden with false equivalence as journalists attempt to give equal weight to both sides in attempt to show objectivity. Consequently, climate change has been covered as if it were in dispute, rather than as fact.

In the days following the election, journalists and much of the public seemed taken aback at the social ruptures the results revealed. The divisions around class, gender and geography in particular were eclipsed by coverage that focused on Hillary Clinton’s emails and Benghazi, as well Donald Trump’s tweets. Race and gender were framed from narrow points of view and around conflict. In its look at the election, Pew’s postmortem cited divisions around race, class and gender. Pew’s analysis pulled back the curtain on a discontent that failed to draw much attention during the election and which still needs to be explored.

Fault Lines gives journalists a framework for developing ideas and content beyond conflict. The key is identifying and understanding how Fault Lines influence individual journalists, as well as the public.

Journalists need to be aware of their Fault Lines so they can consider blind spots in coverage.

For example, much of the coverage during the campaign that was focused around class considered the cost of college and student debt. The emphasis of this issue, especially as a key issue for young people belies the fact that only 32 percent of Americans 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree; 42 percent hold an associate’s degree or more.

What are the issues resonating with the majority of Americans who don’t hold a bachelor’s degree?

Looking at this through the Fault Line of class provides story ideas which can drive coverage beyond conflict. Consider: a look at the steady loss of factory jobs through a family where a child can’t get the factory job that enabled the family to attain middle class status; a look at long-term income growth through minimum wage increases; what are the options as factory jobs dwindle? What does economic mobility – a hallmark of American society – look like?

Relying on the conflict model meant much of coverage of the campaign was prompted by the candidates. Put another way, it was driven by the people running for office rather than by the electorate.

In the coming weeks, this column will consider how issues in the news can be examined through Fault Lines.

Jean Marie Brown is an Assistant Professor of Professional Practice and Director Student Media in the journalism department of the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Prior to teaching she was a senior editor for McClatchy and Knight Ridder newspaper.

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