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Sense of community in times of polarisation: how journalists can counter the “us versus them”

How sense of community impacts people's feelings and actions — and journalistic tools for a less polarising reporting: Part 3 of the article series "Psychology for Journalists"

By Margarida Alpuim and Katja Ehrenberg

Diverse Wesen in einer Gruppe


I am because we are

(Ubuntu philosophy)

In the summer of 2017, the Public Prosecution in Portugal charged 18 police officers with crimes involving torture and physical injury against six Black men. Police in a neighbourhood in Greater Lisbon claimed that one man threw stones at a police truck and resisted arrest. After his detention, police say the other men came to the police station to protest his arrest, were aggressive, and had to be detained. The men say they were beaten with clubs, while the police threatened them with racial epithets. According to the Prosecutor General, the police records were not credible, based on witness testimony and other evidence (1). The incident took place in a low-income neighbourhood, which has a history of tensions between residents — many of whom are people of colour — and the police. Extremely polarised opinions about the Prosecutor General decision were published in the newspapers and on social media.

How can conflicts be prevented from escalating? Mistrust usually doesn't develop overnight. As in this example, some tensions develop and harden over time. How can journalism contribute not only to clarifying the facts, but also to sparking dialogue and cultivating trust?

As part of research for an online article, I (Margarida) interviewed residents and police officers separately and asked them about the other group: "What would you need to have to trust them more?" Both groups said the same thing: better relationships between the community and the police (community policing) and more constructive dialogue. By expressing these ideas, police officers and residents were tapping into two principles of sense of community: “shared emotional connection” and “mutual influence” — we'll talk more about what is behind these principles below.

This is an example of how even when reporting on conflicts, we can try to focus on what connects people and supports social cohesion.

Not just a good theory: the case of Cincinnati’s Collaborative Agreement

During the 2001 riots in Cincinnati, Ohio, tensions between the local police force and the Black community escalated. To address the conflict, a Collaborative Agreement was signed under the supervision of the local court. For six years, Black community groups, the city’s police and other stakeholders were monitored while working together in reforms that would improve policing practices. After that period, the court monitoring ended, but the positive results motivated the community to keep the Agreement alive. Multiple news stories have been written about this solution.

This article in our “Psychology for Journalists” series shows how understanding the concept and impact of "sense of community" can help you…

  • …better understand the feelings and behaviours of those you are reporting about.

  • …when reporting on traditionally polarising issues, to focus not only on what divides groups, but what they have in common.

  • …keep in mind the importance of not oversimplifying groups’ perspectives.

  • …foster social accountability in the audience.

The four elements of sense of community

In a nutshell

Sense of community is the feeling that people belong to a larger group and that members of that group matter to one another. It gives people structure, an emotional foundation, and support in practical issues in life.

Sense of community is found in families and groups of friends, in the neighbourhood and at work, among sports and other fan groups, in religious organisations and social movements.

In a quite poetical, still scientific, description suggested by one of the two authors of the framework we explore in this article, sense of community is “a spirit of belonging together, a feeling that there is an authority structure that can be trusted, an awareness that trade and mutual benefit come from being together, and a spirit that comes from shared experiences that are preserved as art” (2).

In 1986, two experts in community psychology created a framework to explain how a sense of community affects people’s lives. They proposed four principles for sense of community: 1. membership, 2. influence, 3. integration and fulfilment of needs, and 4. shared emotional connection (3). In short, people have a sense of community when…

…they are part of a group and feel accepted by its members.

  • Membership also comes with boundaries, which provide emotional safety to expose feelings and develop intimacy.

  • At the same time, boundaries mean that there are people who belong to the group and people who don’t. More about that later.

…there’s a sense of mattering, of being significant, of mutual influence — the group has influence on its members, individual members influence the group, and members influence each other.

...they reap benefits from being part of the group — such as status and support in solving problems.

...they share history, meaningful experiences, symbols.

In journalism, you can try to recognise these aspects of sense of community in people's discourse. Sometimes it is possible to identify why someone belongs to a certain group by listening to how they describe the need the group fulfils in their lives. For example, former followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory explained to Politico (4) in their own words how they were drawn in — and how they got out. In the first article, interviewee Megan recalled how she had become isolated during Covid-19 lockdowns, and that after finding QAnon "the world felt safe and I felt energised, confident, creative and brimming with love”.

Inquiring about needs or even (justified) interests behind viewpoints and a sense of belonging to certain groups helps journalistic work. In the case of conflicts between people or groups, such insights help to understand them better. What exactly divides them? And where are there commonalities, despite all the differences? This in turn can help journalists be more nuanced in their reporting about people, events, and even conflicts — and to develop a perspective that allows for possible solutions.

Some relevant impacts

Decades of research have consistently shown that a sense of community is beneficial to society in various aspects of life. Sense of community seems to be linked to:

Higher levels of life satisfaction and physical and mental well-being (5, 6):

  • For example, during COVID-19 lockdown (7), sense of community was an important factor to lower the levels of anxiety and stress caused by uncertainty. In many places, volunteer groups coordinated outreach and aid to the elderly and other vulnerable groups to help them with shopping and other basic needs. Moreover, just knowing that other people were also going through lockdown or quarantine helped isolated individuals maintain a feeling of connectedness and mutual understanding.

Greater sense of purpose and perceived control, and more political participation:

  • People feel there is something they can do for their community; their behaviour can contribute to change (8);

  • There are higher rates of people voting, contacting elected officials, working on public issues (9).

More participation in community life and greater social cohesion:

  • Community participation relates to activities such as: volunteer work, involvement in local associations, engagement in religious, sports and cultural activities, recreational events (10);

  • High cohesion within a group brings many advantages. At the same time, it is often accompanied by high pressure to conform and thus may reduce personal freedom and autonomy for its individual members (3).

Sense of community in a TV series about football

“Sunderland 'Til I Die”, on Netflix, is much more than a documentary series about an English football club, Sunderland AFC. It demonstrates how a football club can play an extraordinary unifying role in a community’s identity. The city of Sunderland struggled after losing its industrial activity as an important shipbuilding city. In the series, the relevance of the football team is powerfully illustrated by real footage of a priest praying in the local church: “Dear Lord, help Sunderland, because the success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city. Amen.”

The good outcomes that arise from fostering a sense of community have been inspiring to the design of large-scale public policies.

  • For example, in 2018, the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first Minister for Loneliness (11), who was in charge of a national program based, among other resources, on sense of community strategies to address the serious public health problem of loneliness.

Journalists can play an important role not only in disseminating solutions about community building, but also in promoting initiatives that foster a sense of community among their audiences.

  • Telling stories of communities that implemented innovative strategies is a good example of the first option. The New York Times, for instance, published an article, in December of 2021, about the case of Frome, a small town in the UK, which created Talking Cafes, “where strangers can get together”, and Talking Benches, where health professionals “talk to anyone who just wants to chat” (12).

  • Journalists can also consider projects that bring their audiences together, in order to have constructive conversations and to prevent the dehumanisation of those who have different ideas and beliefs. Take, for example, the case of the “Melting Mountains” project, developed after the 2016 US presidential election by the Evergrey newsletter team. The initiative consisted of bringing a “busload of readers, mainly Hillary Clinton supporters from urban Seattle, […] to meet mainly Trump supporters in rural Oregon”, as we can read in a description of the project. The trip resulted in a greater understanding of each other’s life conditions and in continuing conversations after the meeting. This is one of the many best practices you can find in the booklet by the Constructive Institute "Listen Louder: How journalists can counter polarization" (13).


Sense of community can also be tricky

Belonging to a group sometimes leads to an “us vs them” attitude, contributing to more polarisation and separation (2). Why is that? Because people tend to build and maintain a positive social identity through their membership in a group. This is achieved, among others, by positively distinguishing the ingroup to which one belongs from other groups, the so-called outgroups.

This psychological process is so quick and strong that it even works with artificial, “minimal” groups that have no social meaning, shared history or purpose whatsoever: If a bunch of participants in a study are divided in two groups, on an arbitrary or even random base, they still tend to rate and treat their own group higher than the outgroup – regardless of not having any personal advantage from doing so (14). Social Identity Theory (SIT) systematically addresses these phenomena and their consequences and represents one of the central framework models in social psychology. Its implications are applied to fields ranging from international relations to sports, teambuilding, local politics and personal connections.

As useful and helpful as it can be to create team spirit and a good sense of community within a group via a label alone, the consequences for the relationship between different groups can also be counterproductive:

  • Ingroup favouritism — “we are better than them”.
    People have more trust and empathy for those in their own group. At the same time, there is devaluation and lack of trust towards the outgroup. In more extreme cases, outgroup derogation can lead to prejudice, oppressing attitudes and discriminatory behaviour (3, 15). We will elaborate further on this aspect in a later article of this series.
  • Outgroup homogeneity effect — “they are all the same”.
    Categorising people is a natural mental shortcut to organise and make sense of the world. Everyone does it, oftentimes unintentionally, very quickly and outside of conscious awareness (16). The homogeneity effect is true to all groups — the ones people belong to and those they don’t. However, people tend to perceive individuals from other groups as more alike than those in their own group (17) — for example, Europeans tend to perceive Asian people as looking similar, just as Asians perceive Europeans as seeming identical. Research on these effects goes beyond the perception of physical similarities; it is important to understand how it impacts social processes, such as impression formation, prejudice and discrimination.

However, such effects can be counteracted. The renowned “contact hypothesis” (18) claims: The more people interact with people from other groups, the more they realise that “they are not all the same”, the more they know about each other, the less afraid they are, and the more empathy and more positive attitudes they develop toward each other. Such processes contribute to scaling down ingroup favouritism and discrimination, and to fostering a greater sense of shared humanity.

When people get to know each other, they start to see the other person in a less negative light, and polarisation and prejudice seems to be reduced. This was demonstrated in a project launched by the German media outlet Zeit Online GmbH. In their 2017 initiative "Deutschland spricht" (Germany Talks) they paired up 12,000 people with opposing political views for one-on-one talks. In 2018, together with other organisations, they repeated the experiment with 28,000 people, and it was the subject of a scientific study by behavioural economist Armin Falk. He found that “even just a two-hour conversation between people with completely different political views is enough to weaken polarisation” (19). The project has since been expanded — in 2022, "My Country Talks" says they held nine events in five countries with 15,000 participants.

Promoting close contact with people from different backgrounds also applies to journalists themselves in the newsroom. The more heterogeneous the team, the smaller the risk of missing blind spots and of delivering a shortsighted narrative — in which, most likely, many people in the audience won’t feel represented. This can be done even in deeply polarised settings, such as the context of Israel/Palestine. In 2021, Haaretz, an important liberal Israeli newspaper, recruited and trained Palestinians journalists with Israeli citizenship, in order to add new perspectives on local issues, and to allow for more nuanced descriptions of events (13).

“Sense of community is not a static feeling” and “it is affected by, [among other factors], the media”, as McMillan and Chavis, the two authors of the concept’s framework, stress in their paper (3). That means journalism can be part of the solution if it utilises strategies that counteract ingroup-outgroup tension and its negative consequences, for example by breaking through filter bubbles like on "My Country Talks" or redrawing groups’ boundaries. When an umbrella category is used, those who were members of different groups start sharing the same group identity (20). For instance: the fans of two local teams within one country come together as supporters of the national team.

In the next section, you’ll find more strategies to mitigate the impact that the “us vs. them” phenomenon has on you (as a journalist) and on your reporting.

Tools and tips

Knowing about sense of community can help improve journalism. In this section, we present how this can work in daily practice.

Before beginning reporting, ask yourself…

  • How can I find the best angle for the story?
    • Don't just look at what divides people or groups, but also what they have in common.

    • Take a more individual/personal approach: tell the story of what a community means to someone’s life. Check out two examples in the box;

    • Do a new kind of “unboxing”: try to find divergent thoughts within a group or talk to someone who you’d consider to be an unlikely member of a group.

  • In this story, do I consider myself as being part of any of the groups I’ll be reporting about?

  • What can I do to counterbalance my (unintended) bias towards one group or the other? Consider, for example, teaming up with a journalist that comes from a different background. Again, diversity in the newsroom is key for this.

In Japan, the show “Minna de Hikikomori Radio” opens up a dialogue with young people who live totally isolated in their bedrooms (the phenomenon is called “hikikomori”). This show is an opportunity for these listeners to interact with the outside world — they can participate by sending messages — and feel they are part of a larger community; at the same time it allows their families to have a better understanding of how their children, siblings, etc., feel and think.

In the podcast “First Person”, from the New York Times, host Lulu Garcia-Navarro shares “stories of people living through the headlines”. The goal is to understand “where people’s opinions come from. How they came to believe what they believe.”


Ask questions that facilitate a constructive dialogue with multiple stakeholders or between conflicting parties. Here are a few examples — selected from an overview that the Solutions Journalism Network has developed (“22 questions to complicate the narrative”) and from a list created by the Bonn Institute.

  • What do you appreciate about each other despite all your differences?

  • Is there any part of the [alternative] position that makes sense to you?

  • What do you want the other side to understand about you?; What do you want to understand about the other side?

  • Suppose you were to settle your conflict and find a real consensus that would benefit everyone. What would be an important aspect in such a consensus?

  • How has this conflict affected your life?

Editing the story

Ask yourself:

  • Am I giving context to why each group thinks and acts the way it does and what made people come together?

  • Is the piece based on a “black or white” account of reality? Am I portraying groups as monoliths? Or am I including nuances that enrich people’s knowledge of the various communities?

  • Am I providing information on common ground? Or am I reinforcing polarising forces?

  • Does my story leave people with a feeling of shared humanity?

There’s also other ways newsrooms can promote sense of community, for example by exploring innovative formats:

  • News performed in front of a live audience in the format of live tapings of interviews, podcasts, or even theatrical plays and musical shows based on news.

  • If you’re interested in knowing more about these formats and other innovative projects, check out: Pop-Up Magazine (USA), Live Magazine (France) and Zetland Live (Denmark). Research suggests that these performances enhance trust in journalists and foster a sense of community between attendees, “due to physical proximity and shared reactions” (21).

  • Creating safe spaces for difficult conversations about polarising topics among the audience. This can be done in various ways, such as the “My Country Talks” and “Melting Mountains” projects already mentioned in this article.

  • Another example is BBC’s “Crossing Divides”. The initiative brought young people from 119 countries together for a training in deep listening and constructive conversations. “I hadn’t really ever seen such contrasting opinions peacefully and happily coexist in the same room before”, shares one of the participants at the end of the project.

Fields from conflict resolution to architecture apply the tenets of sense of community to develop projects. We suggest three stimulating approaches to the topic:

“A person is a person through other persons”, quote by Desmond Tutu (“On the nature of human community”, in God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, 2011). In this collection of speeches, the South African Anglican archbishop, who was also Nobel Peace Prize and head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid, talks about “ubuntu”, a Bantu term that roughly translates to “I am because we are”. Tutu called it the African philosophy of life, a compass for living in society: “Ubuntu is the essence of being human. […] I can be me only if you are fully you.”

Diébédo Francis Kéré is an award-winning architect whose work is grounded in the values of sense of community. Originally from Burkina Faso, Francis Kéré was the 2022 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize (an annual global architecture award). Kéré, now based in Berlin, was recognised for transforming communities by using local materials and engaging local people during his design and building processes.

“The expulsion of the other: Society, Perception and Communication Today”, by Byung-Chul Han (original title: “Die Austreibung des Anderen: Gesellschaft, Wahrnehmung und Kommunikation heute”, 2016). In this essay, the South Korean philosopher and professor at the University of the Arts in Berlin argues, among other ideas, that the massification of social processes are harmfully eliminating the idea of the Other: “It is only by returning to a society of listeners and lovers, by acknowledging and desiring the Other, that we can seek to overcome the isolation and suffering caused by this crushing process of total assimilation”.

You can find more articles on the series "Psychology for Journalists" on this page.


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