Existentist/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Grassroots action aimed at fostering a more civic and less confrontational national discourse could play a significant role in breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of political polarization.

Considering the media’s tremendous impact on public opinion and its role in shaping the American political landscape, bottom-up initiatives like the Media Roundtable aim to change its business incentives that contribute to dangerous processes like political polarization. 

The Media Roundtable is a not-for-profit organization consisting of leaders in media and business dedicated to fighting back against America's “Outrage Industrial Complex.” It was launched in March by Dan Granger, CEO of Oxford Road, a leading audio ad agency, in collaboration with Ad Fontes Media, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and the Cambridge Negotiation Institute. 

The Media Roundtable wants the media to return to the original pillars of journalism which were undermined by the rise of social media. These include clarity (avoid mixing news and opinion), truth (non-partisan validation of facts), de-escalation (stop capitalizing on partisan differences to increase engagement), fairness (providing balanced coverage), respect (making arguments on the basis of ideas rather than ad hominem attacks), and tolerance (trying to cooperate and understand the other side and address conflicts.) 

Nowadays, the American media divides rather than informs, catering to citizens’ partisan feelings instead of providing balanced and impartial coverage, and rewarding outrage instead of truth. The current state of the news media and opinion journalism is one of the key contributors to the vicious cycle of political polarization: the prevalence of polarizing content worsens polarization, and polarizing content often economically thrives in this current media landscape. 

Media Roundtable is one of the new initiatives trying to alter the business incentives in media by equipping companies with tools to make it possible for them to direct their ad dollars towards media sources that abide by core journalistic values — at least for podcasts — in order to tackle the roots of political polarization in America.

Media Roundtable wants to advance traditions of truth and civility in modern media by getting advertisers to support content following these journalistic values, in particular, in the rapidly-growing podcast industry. Media Roundtable pledges “to replace the vicious cycle of media with a virtuous one” by shifting the media’s “incentive structure away from supporting outrage, accusation, and vilification” through “proactive, direct, and collaborative engagement between brands, creators, networks, and platforms” in order to facilitate a more reasoned, civil, and productive discourse and, by extension, the well-being of the wider community. 

Therefore, Media Roundtable, in collaboration with Ad Fontes Media (creator of the famous media bias chart) and Oxford Road, a podcast-focused ad agency, launched the first Podcast Bias Chart, which rates podcasts according to their political inclination. The organization also has its own podcast hosted by CEO of Oxford Road Dan Graner, where he talks with figures in media and industry to “crack the code to restoring truth and civility to News Media and Opinion Journalism.” The 2020 season (The Divided States of Media) featured conversations with figures in media, business, and politics from all sides of the political spectrum, such as Newt Gingrich and Matthew Yglesias.

“Oftentimes, the best performing programs for an advertiser are the ones that have the strongest opinions and often can be very polarizing. It’s very alluring. There are a lot of businesses that have built their companies on the back of polarizing personalities,” says Dan Granger. “All we need to do is reward better behavior in the media through an increased opportunity for ad dollars,” he says.

Changing the direction and substance of the current national conversation in America is essential to the normal functioning of the democracy. The Media Roundtable’s initiative may not as of yet have been significant, but it is a crucial step in the right direction and offers an example to follow in the future. 

Sukhayl Niyazov is an independent author and volunteer at Braver Angels. His work has been published in The National Interest, Human Events, Global Policy, Areo, Towards Data Science, and other publications. Sukhayl has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by AllSides.com Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).