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
Amanda attended our Self Reflection in Action training in February 2018 during her research for her work on changing journalism, particularly focusing on the question of how to address conflict. Amanda is a thoughtful writer who inspires journalists to bring new skills and direction to their work for the benefit of all of us. We highly recommend her article. Here is the beginning of her article at Solutions Journalism with a link to read the rest.
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, her debut as a 60 Minutes Special Correspondent — and her return to TV news, where she’d started her career as a Baltimore anchor four decades earlier.
It was an extraordinary opportunity. For three hours, nine cameras captured the group’s conversation about Twitter, President Trump, health care and the prospect of a new civil war. The crew even built a special table, just for the occasion. The edited 16-minute segment would represent the first of a series of planned 60 Minutes shows focused on a divided America. It was 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. The episode drew nearly 15 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched TV show of the week, according to Nielsen ratings. But the on-air conversation was strangely dull and superficial.
First, a heavyset man named Tom said he loved Trump more every day; next, a blonde woman named Jennifer said Trump made her feel sick to her stomach. Later, Winfrey went around the table asking each person for one word to describe the typical Trump voter, then repeating their answers. “Frustrated,” said Tom. “Frustrated,” said Winfrey.
What went wrong? How could one of the most successful, relatable interviewers in American history create such uninspired television?
Deep in their bones, talk-show hosts (like journalists generally) understand certain things about human psychology: we know how to grab the brain’s attention and stimulate fear, sadness or anger. We can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories require conflict, characters and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations.
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.
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