Increasing Understanding in Journalism

By Catherine Conner

Emma Gilchrist is co-founder and editor in chief at The Narwhal, a one-year-old independent online magazine in Canada that covers Canada’s natural world and people’s relationship to it through in depth and investigative coverage.  Emma attended two of our trainings in the last year on how journalists can use conflict resolution concepts and techniques in their work.  She talked to me about what impact the trainings have had on her work:

Why were you interested in learning more about complicating the narrative and how conflict professionals work through conflict?

We were looking for this answer but didn’t know exactly what the question was. We had been feeling for a long time that journalism oftentimes doesn’t help solve problems and in fact might make it worse by further polarizing people. Reading Amanda Ripley’s article on Complicating the Narrative and then learning more about it emboldened us.  It gave us a vocabulary to talk about things we had been feeling but hadn’t been able to put words to.  It provided the evidence and backing that telling more complex stories actually helps reach more people and helps people understand each other more, which can move issues forward.  I don’t think a case for that had really been made before, so it gave a solid backing to this being a legitimate approach.

With new vocabulary and techniques, we were emboldened to tell stories differently and have been able to share more diverse perspectives in our stories without feeling like we were falling prey to false balance.  False balance is a term used a lot in the journalism world, when there might be two opposing sides of an argument but they are not equal. Traditionally journalism says this person says this and this person says that, which doesn’t help you make sense of what any of that means.  Those two viewpoints might not be equal at all, such as in the case of a climate change denier and a climate change expert, when they don’t have the same expertise. So this helped us through the really tricky subject of how to tell stories about Canada’s natural world in a way that includes more of the voices of people who are working in natural resources industry.

What have you learned that has been helpful in journalism?

 A huge part of complicating the narrative journalism is the types of stories you choose and the types of people you choose to speak to. The looping technique is really helpful in journalism by just letting someone tell their story, having them feel heard, and then they allow you into their world. We have come to feel less like we need to package a story up with a bow and have all of the answers.  Sometimes it’s just as impactful to share the perspective of people you don’t normally hear from in the news.  One example is our story called Life after coal that featured several coal miners in Alberta who were about to lose their jobs because of the coal power phase out in Alberta. Alberta is the heartland of oil industry and extremely polarized, so how do you report on environmental issues in a place that is extremely reliant on the oil industry?  This training and its line of thinking has been really useful in the thorniest of situations like this. That story was especially surprising for people to read on The Narwhal as we are seen as an environmental news outlet.  But realistically no news outlet was sharing the voices of the people who are most impacted by that policy change.  So we are now emboldened to tell stories like that.  When you allow for that complexity, it cuts to the core of the issue more.  The perspectives of those coal miners were really intriguing and surprising. The Life After Coal piece was a finalist for an award from the Canadian Association of Journalists Association for the best labor reporting in Canada.

Another thing we found really helpful is the list of questions that complicate the narrative. Questions like “what do you wish people on the other side of this debate knew about you?” The whole approach is about increasing understanding. I’m not sure that traditional journalism holds that at the center. So if you are literally trying to understand someone and their perspective, it shifts everything you do a little bit.  People in the natural resource industries often feel vilified right now in a world that is trying to move off fossil fuels. Being able to talk to them about that and how they feel about some of those environmental issues is really fascinating and way more interesting than a typical story from environmentalists about those things. 

We have done a few other stories in the same vein since then.  In our story about fishermen and the crashing salmon stocks, we wanted to tell the story through the lens of the fishermen who are no longer able to catch those salmon. A lot of the people in the small fishing community were then sharing that story and talking about the story in a way that they wouldn’t have if we had just written the more typical “talking heads” story about that type of thing.  The story was picked up by the local newspaper in Victoria and ran as a weekend feature. 

How have your conversations with sources changed since you started this new approach?

The roleplaying we did in the trainings was so helpful to play out how one of these conversations might go.  These are difficult conversations so just having a few tools such as looping, keeping asking those questions, and asking questions to deepen understanding.  More often now, we want to make sure sources feel heard in a different way than we would have previously.  Typically a reporter is kind of curt with people, going mmm, mmmm.  I now have the confidence to go in and have these difficult conversations in a new way where we will be able to reflect the viewpoints of those people in our work.  And we believe there is truly value in that.  When we do this, it can be kind of disarming.  People may come to a conversation with a reporter with their backs up a bit, especially if it’s a controversial topic.  And they might have ideas about who we are at The Narwhal.  So using these techniques helps put people at ease because they realize that we truly want to understand them and the issues better and that is our bottom line.  They may be willing to say things they wouldn’t have said if they felt guarded and needed to be protective of themselves.

What has been the response to your stories from your readers/listeners?

We did a six-episode podcast about how one bear ended up dying that reflected a more complicated view of the situation. People just absolutely loved it, giving rave reviews about us getting into the nitty gritty of it.  There is a misunderstanding right now that online readers just want short, clickbait type stories.  Some people do but on the whole people want meaningful journalism that helps them makes sense of the world.  These techniques of complicating the narrative help us as journalists to make sense of the world, which in turn helps our readers make sense of the world.

What is next for The Narwhal?

We have ideas about the future and how we can continue to complicate the narrative. After a little bit of conflict mediation training, we are looking at all of our work through that lens. We often write about trophy hunting, which is a very controversial thing here.  Recently, I have had trophy hunters reaching out to me saying we love The Narwhal, we read it, we believe in protecting the natural world and we are curious if you would come to coffee with us and hear us out.  I would love that and hope to truly learn more.  We are still looking at how to do this.  It might be a Q&A with a trophy hunter.  Or we might get in a conflict mediator and have a conversation between the differing sides of that issue. We have also talked about another podcast focusing on complicated conversations, which we think would be very interesting.  And perhaps a monthly feature on complicating the narrative.  We are really jazzed as a team, looking at ways to embrace conflict.