Journalistic Curiosity and Some New Powers of the Press

Three different journalistic initiatives all involved a whole country witnessing seriously diverse citizens truly hearing each other and connecting across political divides.  Only one of those initiatives resulted in a shared vision that all the participants felt passionate about.  There are some fascinating principles to understand about both of these outcomes and the relationship between them – and also some profound implications for wise participatory governance.

I see flashes of a new and very healthy impulse developing in journalism:  Leading news media are publicly convening – and then covering – live conversations among diverse citizens.  They wish to demonstrate to our divided populations that adversaries CAN really hear each other and have meaningful, productive dialogue.

This impulse was exemplified by two initiatives earlier this year – one by 60 Minutes and one by TIME magazine – both of which highlighted not only certain hardened positions but also individual participants and the changes they went through as they realized erstwhile “others” were complex people in their own right.

1.  60 Minutes brought 14 intentionally diverse Americans together with Oprah Winfrey to talk about politics in America. They later also convened them for a reunion.  The project was subsequently not only appreciated but also critiqued for highlighting differences without sufficiently helping the participants deepen their conversation.  I’ve excerpted the whole fascinating article about this to less than half its size to encourage you to read it because it is so full of valuable lessons.  While still quite long, it provides a powerful story of what is involved in helping people hear each other – which, it turns out, most of us really want to do, as long as we ourselves can also be heard.  Backed by considerable research, these factors include:

  • being curious (not judgmental) about contradictions and complexity in people’s statements;
  • expanding people’s perspectives to explore larger systemic realities;
  • asking questions that tap into their motivations – their values, interests, needs, etc.;
  • doing reflective listening with authentic curiosity – what the author calls “looping” – in ways that help people feel heard while actively seeking to go deeper with them;
  • helping people connect with individuals who are very different from themselves and to really explore what it’s like to BE those people; and
  • gently challenging everyone’s biases, including one’s own.

Imagine journalism that takes on those challenges in a public way.  Imagine what it could do for democratic cultures….

2.  TIME magazine and Advance Local (a network of 10 local media outlets) brought together 21 intentionally diverse Americans for two days to talk about guns – and later placed them into a month-long 150-person Facebook discussion on the same subject.  (See here for TIME’s short video about the 21 person conversation and here for their published article about the initiative and here for thoughts from the facilitators.)  Although the article about the 60 Minutes dialogue shared critiques that clarified so much about how to do these conversations, TIME’s effort apparently proved more productive in terms of digging deeper – and their conversation spawned similar conversations afterwards.

Significantly, the facilitators in TIME’s conversation invited the gun policy adversaries to begin by asking each other: “Can you tell me a story that will help me understand how you’ve come to the beliefs you have about guns?” This unusual approach to political conversation is a formula for deeper understanding.  A person’s story is what it is – it is not something that invites critique – and it launches the discussion with a deeper understanding more grounded in complex reality.  It is quite similar to the Public Conversation Project’s approach to dialogues between pro-choice and pro-life activists.  (You might enjoy my resources on powerful questions and story sharing.)

(On an intriguing note regarding a totally separate action, an impromptu 90 minute dialogue between Parkland shooting survivor activists and pro-gun demonstrators resulted in their agreement on a number of policy changes and some hugs.)

Twenty-seven years earlier a Canadian initiative attempted what 60 Minutes and TIME did – while adding something else that is critically important:

3.  MACLEAN’S magazine and Canadian TV brought together a dozen intentionally diverse Canadians for a long weekend to develop a shared vision for Canada, which was at that time in its own crisis of division.  Just as the dialogue was about to fall apart, there was a breakthrough – and MACLEAN’S gave the successful effort an unheard-of 40 pages of coverage, significantly featuring bios of all 12 participants and a blow-by-blow account of their interactions over the 2.5 days.  My subsequent research discovered that intense dialogue was triggered across Canada for months afterwards.

I think it is notable that the full set of bulleted process insights noted above were not as available to the MACLEAN’S facilitators.  I suspect if they’d started with a question like the one used by TIME’s facilitators, their breakthrough would have happened much earlier.

What is happening here?

All of these initiatives helped diverse people hear each other and actually become friends in the process, some of whom continued to connect for months afterwards.  This remarkable phenomenon is observable in hundreds of cross-the-gap political dialogues being convened across America and around the world.

That the first two initiatives shared that particular goal was understandable, given the growing sense that America’s polarization could be disastrous for its democracy. As expressed by 60 Minutes, their goal was to “encourage Americans to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree.”  Facilitators and moderators noted the need for participants to get beyond flat stereotypes and discover each other’s human complexity.

The TIME initiative apparently succeeded more fully than 60 Minutes in regard to the second half of their shared goal – “to go beyond the clichés and name-calling and excavate richer, deeper truths, at a time of profound division in America.”  Yet neither came close to reaching the level of shared – and shareable – understandings that MACLEAN’S was able to evoke.

While helping citizen adversaries better hear and humanize each other, MACLEAN’S was also calling on participants to produce a shared vision, something that (as one MACLEAN’S editor pointed out) a parliamentary committee, a governmental consultative initiative, and a $27 million Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future had all failed to do, despite involving 400,000 Canadians in focus groups, phone calls and mail-in reporting.

I want to highlight a key dynamic in all this:  Despite lacking some modern facilitation techniques, MACLEAN’S produced intense connections across divides by choosing diverse citizens FOR A PURPOSE beyond simply listening to each other and seriously considering each other’s views.  The participants were charged to come up with a collective statement that would benefit their whole society.  Under such circumstances of high purpose, people almost always rise to the occasion.  And then they discover that IN ORDER TO ACCOMPLISH THEIR MISSION, they HAVE to listen to each other, to understand the stories, feelings and values that underlie each other’s diverse positions.  With the right kind of help, they then evolve into a deep trust which enables them to get creative together articulating something they can all get behind. (That dynamic was also a notable feature in the Lancaster stakeholder conversations I wrote about in the previous post. Although media was not central to that initiative, it is easy to see how it could have been.)

I will conclude by noting that such convenings are not unique.  Literally hundreds of “minipublics” – groups chosen to reflect the diversity of their communities or societies – have used diverse approaches – from deliberation to choice-creating – to help people hear each other, think together, and come up with outcomes they then share with the larger populations from which they were chosen.  In much of my work I feature these, often under the rubric of “citizen deliberative councils” or “citizen consensus councils”.

What IS different in the above examples – something that I am writing this essay to highlight – is that this remarkable capacity can be magnified in a very public way – enabling the broader public to actually witness – through such new forms of journalism – some really powerful interactions among their intensely diverse peers.

The next step beyond that is to do these public exercises over and over again on different issues until the whole population starts to realize that this is a way to generate a coherent, legitimate voice of the whole population, a thoughtful, inclusive “We the People” voice that has simply not existed before in our political life.

And that new reality has profound implications for how we govern ourselves.


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Excerpts from

Complicating the Narratives
What if journalists covered controversial issues differently — based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious?

By Amanda Ripley / Solutions Journalism Network
June 27, 2018

(More than half of the original was cut for this.  See the original for LOTS MORE background, research, and examples.)

Last summer, 60 Minutes brought 14 people — half Republicans, half Democrats — to a converted power plant in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. The goal was to encourage Americans to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree. Oprah Winfrey led the conversation….It was an extraordinary opportunity… a chance for a respected news outlet to go beyond the clichés and name-calling and excavate richer, deeper truths, at a time of profound division in America.

In the end, that was not what happened. …[T]he on-air conversation was strangely dull and superficial….

How could one of the most successful, relatable interviewers in American history create such uninspired television?…

As politicians have become more polarized, we have increasingly allowed ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults instead of exposing their motivations. Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation. Long before the 2016 election, the mainstream news media lost the trust of the public, creating an opening for misinformation and propaganda. If the purpose of journalism is to “see the public into fuller existence,” as Jay Rosen once wrote, it’s hard to conclude that we are succeeding.“Conflict is important. It’s what moves a democracy forward,” says journalist Jeremy Hay, co-founder of Spaceship Media, which helps media outlets engage divided communities. “But as long as journalism is content to let conflict sit like that, journalism is abdicating the power it has to help people find a way through that conflict.”

But what else can we do with conflict, besides letting it sit? We’re not advocates, and we shouldn’t be in the business of making people feel better. Our mission is not a diplomatic one. So what options does that leave?

To find out, I spent the past three months interviewing people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it. I met psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths. They do it every day — with livid spouses, feuding business partners, spiteful neighbors. They have learned how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years, writing books and articles for Time, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and all kinds of places, and I did not know these lessons. After spending more than 50 hours in training for various forms of dispute resolution, I realized that I’ve overestimated my ability to quickly understand what drives people to do what they do. I have overvalued reasoning in myself and others and undervalued pride, fear and the need to belong….

We [journalists] like to think of ourselves as objective seekers of truth. …But it’s becoming clear that “Anyone who values truth,” [as] social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind, “should stop worshipping reason.”

We need to find ways to help our audiences leave their foxholes and consider new ideas. So we have a responsibility to use all the tools we can find — including the lessons of psychology…. [T]he kind of divide America is currently experiencing…. is an “intractable conflict,” [in which] people’s encounters with the other tribe (political, religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise) become more and more charged. And the brain behaves differently in charged interactions. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.

In this hypervigilant state, we feel an involuntary need to defend our side and attack the other. That anxiety renders us immune to new information. In other words: no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what.

Intractable conflicts feed upon themselves. The more we try to stop the conflict, the worse it gets. These feuds “seem to have a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving people and groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their ruin.”… Once we get drawn in, the conflict takes control. Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room. “Over time, people grow increasingly certain of the obvious rightness of their views and increasingly baffled by what seems like unreasonable, malicious, extreme or crazy beliefs and actions of others,” according to training literature from Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people talk across profound differences in the Middle East and the U.S.

The cost of intractable conflict is also predictable. “[E]veryone loses,” writes Resetting the Table’s co-founder Eyal Rabinovitch. “Such conflicts undermine the dignity and integrity of all involved and stand as obstacles to creative thinking and wise solutions.”

There are ways to disrupt an intractable conflict…. [T]he goal is not to wash away the conflict; it’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact. Americans will continue to disagree, always; but with well-timed nudges, we can help people regain their peripheral vision at the same time. Otherwise, we can be certain of at least one thing: we will all miss things that matter….

Over the past decade, [Columbia University’s] Difficult Conversations Lab and its sister labs around the world have hosted and recorded close to 500 contentious encounters. They intentionally generate the kind of discomfort that most people spend all of Thanksgiving trying to avoid. ….

Over time, the researchers noticed a key difference between the terrible and non-terrible conversations: The better conversations looked like a constellation of feelings and points, rather than a tug of war. They were more complex….

But could that complexity be artificially induced? Was there a way to cultivate better conversations? To find out, the researchers started giving the participants something to read before they met — a short article on another polarizing issue. One version of the article laid out both sides of a given controversy, similar to a traditional news story — arguing the case in favor of gun rights, for example, followed by the case for gun control.

The alternate version contained all the same information — written in a different way. That article emphasized the complexity of the gun debate, rather than describing it as a binary issue. So the author explained many different points of view, with more nuance and compassion. It read less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes….

[I]n the difficult conversations that followed, people who had read the more simplistic article tended to get stuck in negativity. But those who had read the more complex articles did not. They asked more questions, proposed higher quality ideas and left the lab more satisfied with their conversations….

The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.

There are many ways to complicate the narrative, as described in detail under the six strategies below. But the main idea is to feature nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. This does not mean calling advocates for both sides and quoting both; that is simplicity, and it usually backfires in the midst of conflict. “Just providing the other side will only move people further away,” [social psychologist Peter T.] Coleman says. Nor does it mean creating a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and their opponents. That is just simplicity in a cheap suit. Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don’t fit the narrative — on purpose.

The idea is to revive complexity in a time of false simplicity. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her mesmerizing TED Talk “A Single Story.” “[I]t’s impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”

Usually, reporters do the opposite. We cut the quotes that don’t fit our narrative. Or our editor cuts them for us. We look for coherence, which is tidy — and natural. The problem is that, in a time of high conflict, coherence is bad journalism, bordering on malpractice.

In the midst of conflict, our audiences are profoundly uncomfortable, and they want to feel better. “The natural human tendency is to reduce that tension,” Coleman writes, “by seeking coherence through simplification.” Tidy narratives succumb to this urge to simplify, gently warping reality until one side looks good and the other looks evil. We soothe ourselves with the knowledge that all Republicans are racist rednecks — or all Democrats are precious snowflakes who hate America.

Complexity counters this craving, restoring the cracks and inconsistencies that had been air-brushed out of the picture. It’s less comforting, yes. But it’s also more interesting — and true….

There is a business case for complexity, too…. Many Americans have tuned out of the news, demoralized by the sniping, depressed by the hopelessness. What would happen if they one day stumbled upon a different kind of story — one that intrigued them instead of terrifying them?… Indignation will always be the easiest way to lure readers, but by itself, it’s not enough to make people pay for the privilege of coming back day after day.

[Here are six ways journalists can communicate complexity.]

1. Amplify Contradictions

[T]wo veteran conflict mediators [who watched] Winfrey’s 60 Minutes conversation with Michigan voters… questioned Winfrey’s tactics. Her opening question — how President Trump is doing in his job so far — got low marks. “It’s a relatively closed question,” [Sara] Cobb said. A better opener might be, “What is dividing us?” That way, “the conversation becomes about the division, and Trump doesn’t become the black hole where all this complexity is going to get dumped.”

Then came the first answer Winfrey got — from [a participant named] Tom:

“Every day I love him [Trump] more and more. Every single day. I still don’t like his attacks, his Twitter attacks, if you will, on other politicians. I don’t think that’s appropriate. But, at the same time, his actions speak louder than words. And I love what he’s doing to this country. Love it.”

Hearing this, Winfrey turned, without comment, to the woman next to Tom to solicit her (polar opposite) opinion.

Both mediators jumped all over Winfrey for failing to respond to Tom. It was a perfect opportunity, said Cobb. “I would have said, ‘Gosh Tom, I didn’t know from out of the gate that we were going to have this kind of complexity in the room, and I compliment you because it’s so easy to say Yes or No, but you’ve actually said two things at the same time.”

In the first minute, Winfrey could have set a tone for complexity. Which would have been more accurate and more interesting. Most of us have more than one story, and so did Tom. Winfrey could have drawn out this complexity… by asking something like: “‘So on the one hand, you love him more and more, and on the other hand, you don’t like some things he’s doing. Tell me what you don’t like about his attacks.’”

There are many things that journalists cannot do. But we can destabilize the narrative. ….

2. Widen the Lens

In early 2015, a classic dispute arose in the city of Gloucester, a coastal community on Massachusetts’ North Shore. City Council officials announced that a 25-foot high steel sculpture would be installed at a public park near the town’s waterfront. [Soon it] was shaping up to be an old-fashioned NIMBY battle of the most predictable kind: art work, love it or hate it.

Then something unexpected happened. City officials turned for advice to a group called Gloucester Conversations… [who] (with help from the nonprofit Essential Partners)… widened the lens on the dispute. They intentionally took the opportunity to start a bigger conversation — about what Gloucester wanted from its public art and how these decisions should be made.

First, they invited all the local arts and culture leaders in the community together and asked them blue-sky questions: What is public art? What is included? How should we decide? Then the group held a public meeting at the City Hall to ask the same wide-open questions. Nearly 100 people showed up. After that, organizers went out into the neighborhoods and held still more conversations. Residents covered a huge map of Gloucester with sticky notes, marking old buildings that should be renovated; statues that had been forgotten; and locations where new works might go.

Interestingly, it wasn’t hard to broaden people’s imagination. …  [They] were so responsive [and] wanted to be part of a conversation that was bigger than themselves. “Generally,… it’s a relief to people to be pulled out of deadlock.”

So the feud became an inquiry — in a way that made the story more interesting, not less…. Decades of research have shown that when journalists widen the lens…, the public reacts differently…. [In one study] people who watched the narrow-lens stories on the welfare mother were more likely to blame individuals for poverty afterwards — even if the story of the welfare mother was compassionately rendered. By contrast, people who saw the wider-lens stories were more likely to blame government and society for the problems of poverty. The wider the lens, the wider the blame, in other words….

Great storytelling always zooms in on individual people or incidents; I don’t know many other ways to bring a complicated problem to life in ways that people will remember. But if journalists don’t then zoom out again — connecting the welfare mother or, say, the controversial sculpture to a larger problem — then the news media just feeds into a human bias. If we’re all focused on whatever small threat is right in front of us, it’s easy to miss the big catastrophe unfolding around us.

3. Ask Questions that Get to People’s Motivations

Sandra McCulloch was a veteran reporter for the Victoria Times Colonist in Victoria, Canada …[who] signed up for a short, introductory course in conflict mediation, just to see what she could learn.

“It was the most powerful thing I think I’d ever done,” she says…. The most useful tool was the questions she asked, as it turned out. She’d always asked questions [as a journalist], but now [as a mediator] she asked different ones in different ways. She tried to use questions as a spade — to get beyond the usual script…. McCulloch says [most journalists] just buzz around conflict, never getting to the heart of the matter. Our questions stay on the surface, stoking conflict like a rake but never getting to the richer soil below.

Mediators spend a lot of their energy on this idea of digging underneath the conflict. They have dozens of tricks to get people to stop talking about their usual gripes, which they call “positions” — and start talking about the story underneath that story, also known as “interests” or “values.” [Or, in the case of Nonviolent Communication, “needs”.] … [T]hese deeper motivations matter far more to the debate than the facts of the conflict (and also happen to be more interesting).

People are driven by their gut and heart, not their reasoning, as New York University social psychologist Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, citing research going back decades. In fact, superficial self-interest has never been a good predictor of political behavior. (Note to journalists: it might be time to stop doing stories on how Trump voters in the Rust Belt voted against their economic interests; that’s about as insightful as a story revealing that beach-goers don’t wear sunscreen.)

Instead, Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition. Liberals (and liberal members of the media) tend to be very conscious of three of these foundations: care, fairness and liberty. Conservatives are especially attuned to loyalty, authority and sanctity, but they care about all six. And conservative politicians reliably play all six notes, Haidt argues.

Conservatives (and conservative media, I’d add) have a systemic advantage as a result. They can motivate more people more often because they hit more notes. (Notice how Democratic leaders still do not talk very often about Trump’s disloyalty to America, his cabinet members and his wives, in those terms, despite being bombarded with evidence of such disloyalty. They complain more often about injustice, indecency and unkindness, because those are the notes they most like to play.)

If journalists want to broaden their audiences, they need to speak to all six moral foundations. If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots — just like mediators. “People tend to keep describing their stories in the same way,” McCulloch says. “In mediation, you try to flip that over and say, ‘How did you come to that? Why is this story important to you? How do you feel when you tell it to me?’” Those questions may seem touchy feely, but it’s surprising how rarely people get asked them. “You see people kind of blink and go, ‘I never thought of it that way.’”

These kinds of questions reveal deeper motivations, beyond the immediate conflict. Sometimes, the entire conflict disappears when this happens — because people suddenly realize they agree on what matters most. More often, the questions reveal that the dispute is about something other than what everyone thought…..

Here are some specific questions that …. mediators I interviewed suggested that reporters (or anyone) could ask to get underneath the usual talking points:

• What is oversimplified about this issue?
• How has this conflict affected your life?
• What do you think the other side wants?
• What’s the question nobody is asking?
• What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?….

4. Listen more, and better

Americans’ trust in mass media… is at its lowest level in Gallup polling history, dating back to 1972….

Everyone I spoke to said that one powerful way to build trust is by listening better — in ways people can see. Reporters rarely get trained in how to do this; we get a lot of feedback about our stories from editors and readers but very little about our methods.

I’ve come to realize that this is nuts. In many other professions that involve delicate conversations, people get trained in the art of asking questions and listening. They approach interviewing like an art, one they never stop learning. Why don’t journalists? No one has listened to my interviews for a print article and given me feedback — ever. I learn by trial and error, which is like studying a language by yourself. You can get better, but it will take you forever….

In conversations across profound divides, [one initiative] trains people to listen for specific clues or “signposts,” which are usually symptoms of deeper, hidden meaning. Signposts include words like “always” or “never,” any sign of emotion, the use of metaphors, statements of identity, words that get repeated or any signs of confusion or ambiguity. When you hear one of these clues, identify it explicitly and ask for more…. [For example, p]eople often use metaphors when they feel emotion; investigating those metaphors can help reveal a deeper, more compelling truth….

Another related and very common strategy for building trust is to double check — to give the person a distillation of what you thought they meant and see what they say. Gary Friedman, one of the godfathers of mediation, calls this “looping for understanding,” and he suggests doing it every time you feel you’ve heard someone say one thing that is important to him or her.

Our brains make rapid assumptions that we aren’t even aware we’re making. We are wrong more often than we think. To understand what someone really means requires a lot of double-checking. It’s a simple tactic that sounds something like this: “So you were disappointed by the Mayor’s actions because you care deeply about what happens to the kids in this school system. Is that right?”

It seems obvious and maybe a bit contrived, but it works like magic. In training with Friedman and a dozen other mediators in February, I practiced looping and being looped, over and over again. I was amazed at how often I thought I’d understood the person — but had missed some important nuance. (“No, I wasn’t disappointed by the Mayor’s actions; I was heartbroken.” There is a difference.) It was equally surprising how reassuring it felt when other people looped me correctly. It felt like a tiny victory: even if the other person didn’t agree, she’d truly heard and digested my point…. Having someone articulate your most important message proves that you’ve been understood, which is all most of us want.

“When people feel heard and seen as they wish to be heard and seen, they relax their guard,” says Melissa Weintraub, a rabbi and the co-founder of Resetting the Table. “It’s both very simple and very hard to accomplish. We have to give them the most powerful and eloquent articulation of their own thinking.” Then and only then will people even begin to consider information that does not fit their usual narratives. In fact, this is one of the only ways to get people to listen when they are emotional or entrenched in a particular worldview. Humans need to be heard before they will listen….

Curiosity should be natural for journalists — and it is, with some stories. But over time, as we start to hear the same arguments and story lines over and over, our curiosity fades. It’s a human tendency, but one that our sources notice….

One way that journalists can do better is to let go — by ceding some control to our audiences (who are usually less jaded than we are). Companies like Hearken help newsrooms partner with the public throughout the reporting process — soliciting ideas, asking people to vote for their favorite ones and then reporting them out….

Trust is mutual, in other words. It’s easier to get trust if you give it.

5. Expose People to the Other Tribe

The most powerful way to get people to stop demonizing each other, as decades of research into racial prejudice have shown, is to introduce them to one another. The technical term is “contact theory,” but it just means that once people have met and kind of liked each other, they have a harder time caricaturing one another.

Genuine human connections permanently complicate our narratives.… Journalists can introduce people in at least two ways: vicariously, through good storytelling, or literally, by bringing communities together in live or virtual events. But doing this right is harder than it sounds. And it’s possible to make things worse if certain conditions are not in place.

Vicarious storytelling can unintentionally narrow the lens, as previously discussed, by focusing on individual accountability instead of systemic ills. It is important to widen the lens and connect a particular representative of the “other” tribe to a larger history and story — or the story can end up just confirming the audience’s biases.

Literal convenings, meanwhile, are happening more often as more media outlets look to subscribers to support their work over the long term — instead of depending on drive-by clicks. But here again, the execution makes all the difference. It’s important, for example, that everyone invited to a community gathering feels like they are on equal footing. The situation needs to be nonthreatening and fair (so you wouldn’t want to host a conversation about race in the whitest neighborhood in town, for example).

There should be moments of levity and shared history or purpose, too. And ideally food. People still bond when they break bread, just as they always have. These details matter a lot — just as much as the substance of the conversation….

The best conversations across differences usually start with personal questions like, “Which of your life experiences have shaped your political views?” When we tell our own story, we tend to speak with more nuance, because real life is not a bumper sticker.

When Spaceship Media works with a newsroom to engage a divided community, they usually start by asking four questions (often through Facebook):
• What do you think the other community thinks of you?
• What do you think of the other community?
• What do you want the other community to know about you?
• What do you want to know about the other community?
Notice none of those questions are about President Trump, unlike the 60 Minutes segment. Each question requires some amount of reflection, which leads to a more curious, less charged mindset.

Then the journalists get to work — trying to get the answers to the questions people asked about their counterparts. They do this with unusual levels of transparency, frequently sharing what they are finding and from where — and asking readers for feedback and suggestions…. Over time, the participants on both sides started asking for more reporting. They started to trust the reporters, who had trusted them.

6. Counter Confirmation Bias (Carefully)

One of the most well-studied biases in the human portfolio is confirmation bias — our nasty habit of believing news that confirms our pre-existing narratives and dismissing everything else.

Worse yet, people exposed to information that challenges their views can actually end up more convinced that they are right…. [Thus] confirmation bias is the Kryptonite of traditional journalism; it renders all of our most brilliant and meticulous work utterly impotent.

That’s because people don’t decide to believe something based on its statistical validity. That’s just not how our brains have evolved to work. We judge information based on its source and its harmony with our other beliefs. …. [These factors produce] a sense of cognitive ease.

So one way to gently counter confirmation bias is to create a little cognitive ease first: for example, use sources from a wide range of tribes…. Another tactic is to use graphics instead of text…. Cognitive ease also comes from a feeling of hope. Uncomfortable information that could generate fear…. is more palatable to people if it comes with a side of specific actions that people can take in response…
[F]ear without a sense of agency backfires — leading people to respond with denial, avoidance and disgust. The vast majority of news stories function precisely this way, which should give us pause. Generating denial, avoidance and disgust cannot be a good business model. But when people are reminded that a problem has possible solutions (some of which they agree with and can act on in the near future) they are more open to considering the warning.

Finally, … it’s important not to repeat a false belief in an effort to correct it…. If people are told Barack Obama is not Muslim, many will remember that he is Muslim. The negative simply vanishes from their minds, because it doesn’t fit with their pre-existing biases. The best way to counter this disturbing tendency is to just state that Obama is Christian — and avoid ringing any false notes altogether.

Breaking the Narrative

In early 2018, 60 Minutes held a reunion for the Democrats and Republicans they’d gathered together in Michigan. Oprah Winfrey was there, too…. Some of the group members had stayed in touch over the past six months… Despite the superficial bickering, they still wanted to see each other as human. And that reveals another human bias, one that is way undervalued. “People don’t want to be at each other’s throats,” says [John] Sarrouf, who convenes conversations about gun rights and other divisive issues…. “People don’t want to be seen as callous. They want to be understood deeply.”

Humans share a tendency to simplify and demonize, it’s true; but we also share a desire for understanding. Encouragingly, perhaps, we are starting to see sporadic examples of high-profile journalists trying to break through the tribalism….

Talking to people in high conflict is a piece of our clinical [journalism] training that wasn’t properly handled, and now we are dangerous. The result is not just boring TV; we are adding to the toxicity when we don’t intend to. …

Journalists need to learn to amplify contradictions and widen the lens on paralyzing debates. We need to ask questions that uncover people’s motivations. All of us, journalists and non-journalists, could learn to listen better. As researchers have established in hundreds of experiments over the past half-century, the way to counter the kind of tribal prejudice we are seeing is to expose people to the other tribe or new information in ways they can accept. When conflict is cliché, complexity is breaking news.

Amanda Ripley is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective.

Solutions Journalism:  Our mission is to spread the practice of solutions journalism: rigorous reporting about how people are responding to social problems.


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Until I started following Tom’s work, most of my sources were mainstream. He opened my eyes to a much wider range of view points. Not only does he continually keep me aware of diverse perspectives on critical issues, he has also expanded my thinking about the nature of democracy and what’s possible.

— Peggy Holman
co-founder of Journalism that Matters and author of
Engaging Emergence 

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