Journalism across divides?: Searching for insights from Kigali to Kentucky

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A companion piece looking at how political identities—in particular conservativism in the U.S.—shape attitudes toward journalism can be read here.

When a society is riven by social or partisan divisions, can journalism facilitate a democratic means of confronting deep conflicts? Can news institutions succeed in circulating diverse perspectives and vetting factual claims among diverse publics? It seems strange these questions have not been more central to modern journalism in the U.S., though perhaps this is because the still-reigning, if rapidly declining, model of professional journalism reached its peak at a time of monopolistic daily news markets. For much of the last century, restricted competition in news markets suppressed tendencies toward partisan fragmentation. 

Such conditions no longer hold. Today, news organizations must grapple with difficult choices. They can embrace a narrowcasting model of news, which is the direction increasingly supported by economic incentives. Or they must experiment to try to find creative approaches to engaging heterogenous publics amidst a polarized atmosphere. We focus here on this latter path. 

As a complement to our report looking at how political identities—in particular conservativism in the U.S.—shape attitudes toward journalism and political “others,” we offer  a preliminary survey of experiments and models of interventions that grapple with polarization and sectarian division in a range of contexts. We turn to international and U.S.-based efforts to mine for insights into the dynamics, obstacles, and possibilities of this work. We explore how projects are intervening not only in journalism, but also applying other media and communication strategies to attempt to move groups divided by identity-affiliation from destructive forms of conflict to greater social cohesion or mutual care. We look at the methods these projects use, how they define and measure impact, and what lessons they have learned to date.

We offer here an exploratory overview of some types of projects we encountered drawing from a series of interviews with practitioners. In particular we focus on projects that fall under the categories of dialogue projects, message-based media programming, and journalistic skills-building. Several of the cases we share here do work under more than one of these categories. This is by no means a comprehensive survey of the communication and conflict field. There are other types of initiatives out there—for example, truth and reconciliation processes or alternative dispute resolution. Nevertheless, we believe the cases shared here, which focus on popular engagement, may offer insights, particularly for journalists operating in the U.S. context. We present a tentative typology of approaches to this kind of work and trace the links between different approaches and principles and theories of change associated with them. We also discuss some of the successes and challenges practitioners of those approaches have articulated. But in this overview, we are not setting out to offer our own thorough evaluation of these approaches.

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Dialogue projects

In the U.S., a growing number of organizations are dedicated to the idea of using dialogue to foster connection across political divides following the 2016 presidential election. Such efforts, of course, build upon a longer tradition of dialogue projects. This includes numerous U.S. projects focused on dialogue across lines of race and ethnicity. Internationally, initiatives have also sought to encourage intergroup dialogue, particularly in moments of social upheaval and intergroup conflict. 

 

What do these projects do?

The projects we focus on have undertaken a combination of online and face-to-face dialogue initiatives, often in collaboration with media outlets, with the aim of connecting people who hold differing ethnic, political, or religious identities. Overall, their activities center on some combination of group dialogues led by facilitators, unfacilitated dialogues between pairs of participants, and/or workshops and debates. Some examples:

    • Spaceship Media is a U.S.-based organization that convenes “journalism-supported conversation across divides” through projects that often use a combination of facilitated group dialogues, followed by moderated discussion in closed social media groups. Their projects have explored issues including partisan division, gun control, immigration, and education. They are usually conducted in collaboration with journalists and media partners who often publish content about the projects’ conversations, act as moderators, and/or contribute to what they call FactStacks, compendiums of relevant facts and figures that respond to the information needs expressed by project participants.  
    • My Country Talks is a Germany-based organization that collaborates with media outlets and other partners to organize dialogue events to connect across political fault lines ranging from refugee policy to LGBTQ+ rights to responses to climate change in multiple countries. The group provides a platform that allows the public to sign up and be matched to a political “other” based on a brief survey. The events that follow encourage participants to meet up face-to-face or online on a particular date for what is usually an unfacilitated conversation. Partnering media outlets often report on the event and its conversations.  
    • My New Homeland, Your New Homeland is a Germany-based initiative coordinated by a German journalist who organizes facilitated conversations between groups of residents from different backgrounds who live in the same city. In its first project it connected senior citizens who had been displaced during World War II with new refugees. The same group of people then met multiple times to establish relationships and explore challenging issues. Subsequent projects (with different names) have used similar dialogue practices to work with other categories of participants—for example, German women met with women who had recently arrived as refugees.
    • Braver Angels is a U.S.-based organization committed to reducing partisan polarization through programming that includes workshops, debates, dialogue pairings, and media at the national and local level. All of its work is guided by a “Red/Blue rule,” committed to having an equal number of people who identify as Red (conservative) and Blue (progressive) working as organizers or participants. 

 

What frameworks and theories of change do they use?

Many dialogue projects draw on elements of intergroup contact theory, the idea that contact between members of different groups can reduce prejudice under appropriate conditions (e.g. cooperating on a common goal over time, not competing). Bridging projects generally do not seek to persuade participants to alter their ideological views, but rather to engage in active listening that builds empathy across lines of difference. 

As these projects juggle a desire to emphasize points of commonality with a need to recognize and respect difference, many of them are also in conversation with several cultural studies and political science concepts. These include the concept of “agonism,” which essentially holds that contentious debate can offer value by “making transparent reasons for resentment and misunderstanding” allowing future encounters to “build on a better foundation.”1 In addition, many projects’ goals resonate with political theorist Danielle Allen’s concept of “political friendship,” which sets as a goal the pursuit of “wholeness” as opposed to “oneness” (p. 19) and suggests that “Friendship begins in the recognition that friends have a shared life—not a ‘common’ nor an identical life—only one with common events, climates, built-environments, fixations of the imagination, and social structures. Each friend will view all these phenomena differently, but they are not the less shared for that.”2 

Reflecting on their initiatives’ theories of change, representatives of the projects above connected to a number of these concepts to varying degrees. For example, connecting with intergroup contact theory, the founder of My New Homeland spoke of her work as “a process to reduce prejudices” as she described facilitating multiple discussions among the same group of long-residing seniors and recent refugee residents, taking care to create “a good atmosphere” by providing food, flowers, and music, and by setting ground rules for discussion. While she required that participants respect each other’s human rights, “I try to give the people a lot of room to voice their feelings, to voice conflicts.” She also undertook it as her role to provide participants with the facts they needed to have more informed discussions. 

Spaceship Media also facilitated repeated opportunities for contact between participants over multiple meetings and engagements. The co-founder of Spaceship Media reflected on how she sought to support a process that built relationships of trust between participants to set the stage for more difficult conversations: “Without relationships, facts don’t matter. Or sometimes I say, relationships precede trust, and then you can have facts.” She explained that Spaceship’s process invited participants to reflect on both systemic and personal change through self-questioning and empathetic listening:

What are the habits of communication you have? What are the negative assumptions you carry? What are the kinds of aggressive or destructive or problematic ways do you talk to the other side? How can we change? How can we invite awareness around those and then support change? How can we teach people to ask curious questions, not I-got-you questions?

While these projects emphasized repeated meetings with participants, others like My Country Talks convened one-off dialogues, suggesting that participants could follow up on their own initiative (and noting that in several cases they did). Braver Angels, meanwhile, held a number of stand-alone activities, but also encouraged participants to think of themselves as part of a larger movement and to participate in multiple activities. They similarly drew on elements of the contact hypothesis. A representative of Braver Angels said that their pre- and post-workshop surveys suggested participants left with a higher opinion of people on the “other side” based on their experiences of contact: “If you have people sit, kumbaya, and talk about their feelings for a couple hours, then of course they’re going to feel better about each other if you do it right.” For Braver Angels, doing it right meant drawing on different methods for different types of activities. For their Red/Blue workshops, they used the “fishbowl” facilitation method, inviting participants to talk with their in-group (e.g. Reds) with their outgroup (e.g. Blues) observing, and then switching. The representative explained that this was followed by an opportunity to ask clarifying questions, and similar to Spaceship Media, underlined that these were different than questions “to prove a point”:

Doing that and opening the room for there to be curiosity on that front, even if you think whatever the people on the other side are saying is absolute rubbish, but opening up the room for curiosity and opening up the room for people to say what they actually think … without putting the pressure on, “Well, I’m asking you a gotcha question on this, and if you answer the wrong thing, we’re going to cancel you.”

He suggested participants appreciated that this process allowed them “to feel seen by people who they know disagree with them strongly and who they know in other contexts they might be butting heads with.” He suggested Braver Angels was “not trying to change anybody’s minds, not trying to change any particular opinions, but trying to get people to be able to see each other as human beings somewhat outside politics, and still be able to engage politics with that,” a goal that resonates with Allen’s concept of political friendship referenced above. Interestingly, he noted that while the Braver Angels’ Red/Blue workshops used a reconciliation-based framework, their debate series, which used parliamentary-style discussions, had more success at attracting participants who identified as Reds. By directly exploring the “sharp issues of polarization,” debates were more aligned with the concept of agonism. 

 

Lessons Learned and Critiques

Conversations with organizers of such dialogue projects revealed some cross-cutting challenges and considerations that most groups grappled with at some point. These included participant and partnership recruitment challenges, and tension between bridging frameworks and empowerment frameworks. 

A common critique of dialogue projects is that they tend to recruit a limited spectrum of participants already “converted” to principles of bridging, rather than a wider ideological or demographic range. The Braver Angels representative conceded that certain stereotypes had an element of truth:

The average person attracted to bridge-building work is a Blue, either retired or about to retire, relatively well-educated, middle-class or upper-middle-class kind of individual in a suburban area or in a small town. And they go to Rotary, and they go to their church, which is not a deeply conservative church, but it is a church that they’ve gone to for some time. And they went to college out of state. And while they’ve been in their career for the last 15 or 20 years, they volunteered with Boy Scouting and the Lions and the local clubs and all that kind of thing.

Braver Angels’ Red-Blue rule meant they had to push beyond such usual suspects to find participants. The representative, who self-identified as a Red (conservative), shared strategies they pursued. The first strategy was snowball recruitment of participants: 

When people come in, we always ask them to bring their friends. And at a recruiting level, I think we’ve done a very good job at trying to recruit not just individuals, but communities, trying to work with people to bring various, like their crazy uncle, or their random neighbors to these kinds of events.

In addition to this individual-level outreach, Braver Angels also collaborated with organizations, including conservative scholarly organizations, to recruit participants from their constituencies. They also adjusted the messaging of their recruitment pitches to appeal to different categories of participants even within the category of Red—and how messages that would appeal to a conservative intellectual in D.C. needed to be adapted to be compelling to someone from a rural area of a Red state, for example:

There are different ways to talk to people. There are different tones and codewords, and almost different political languages. And as you try to recruit Reds into this work, you realize, holy cow, this is one of the reasons why polarization is as hard as it is, is because there really are different languages emanating from both different structures, but also different worldviews and different lived experiences.

He explained that on any given issue, for example on “the role of misinformation,” there were ways to frame calls for participation that would appeal more to people who identified as Blue or Red. Braver Angels’ challenge was “how to do it in a way that both is honest to our mission, but also is something that can bring more people into our mission.”

Other initiatives attempted to structurally address the challenge of recruitment through partnerships with various organizations. For Spaceship Media and My Country Talks, this included media organizations that could be implicitly or explicitly associated with a political perspective. The representative of My Country Talks explained that for their initiatives in Germany they partnered with a center-right and a center-left newspaper—and internationally they encouraged all of their projects to work with multiple media partners, as well as with other kinds of organizations who share a bridging mission. Spaceship Media similarly did the bulk of their recruitment through newsroom partners, and offered examples of how media partners in turn drew from their own networks of community organizations to ensure demographic diversity, such as in a project where Minnesota Public Radio helped them recruit farmers:

The first call-out just got all white men. And then they did a huge amount of groundwork with community groups and different organizations to find female farmers and farmers of color and young farmers and all of that. And so that’s always been a piece of this, let’s build a conversation that’s more diverse.

Of course, the ideological spectrum of possible outreach in such cases was constrained by the range of participating organizations. Multiple projects working in the U.S. mentioned difficulties in recruiting Fox News as a media partner, for example.

Another critique dialogue projects encounter is that the emphasis on bridging differences can place a burden on marginalized groups. This resonates with scholarly critiques, for example as levied by Sarah Ahmed against what she calls “happy multiculturalism.” She argues that it should not be the responsibility of groups with less power, like migrants, to interact with a dominant majority: “Integration becomes what promises happiness (if only we mixed, we would be happy), by converting bad feelings (read: unintegrated migrants) into good feelings (read: integrated migrants).”3 Furthermore, she emphasizes, such interactions must account for the histories and feelings of alienation or entitlement residents may bring to their encounters in multiethnic spaces.

Some practitioners likewise argue that resources spent on bridging may be better spent on efforts to empower marginalized groups. One international media consultant who often did evaluations of media projects suggested, “Bridge building could work in some areas, and some areas it’s just like, ‘What are you even talking about?’ These people are just flat-out unreasonable.” He argued that in such instances it would be more strategically sound to consider supporting social movements—using an “empowerment frame rather than a bridge-building frame.” He suggested these two strategies were not exclusive, but “they often get treated as exclusive through project designs.”

At the same time, proponents of dialogue efforts such as the co-founder of Spaceship Media argued that there should not be a tension between pushing for social change through social movements and connecting through dialogue. She emphasized that dialogue projects like hers focused on the work of “repair” and to address the psychology of “how we function as tribes”:

There’s lots of ways to drive change, but the part that we’re working on is how can we soften? How can we come together? How can we be less judgmental? And I don’t think that work is at odds with activism. We can be fierce advocates for things and not giant assholes.

 


Message-based media programming

There is a rich tradition of media messaging interventions to address identity-based conflict, particularly in the international field of media for social change. Here, unlike most dialogue projects, initiatives often attempt to change the knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and/or behaviors of participants. Approaches use a range of mediums and are at times undertaken by the same international media development organizations that also conduct dialogue or journalism training projects. 

 

What do these projects do?

The projects we focus on have undertaken a combination of factual and educational media programming, dramas, media campaigns, and video games. Most of these organizations have decades of experience and work in multiple countries. Examples include:

  • Search for Common Ground is a U.S.-based organization dedicated to peacebuilding that uses combinations of media, dialogue and engagement, journalism training, and other strategies in projects in 31 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. 
  • Radio la Benevolencija is a Dutch organization that seeks to prevent identity-based violence by empowering vulnerable groups and encouraging active bystandership. While it uses a variety of media and engagement strategies, it is best known for its “edutainment” work in the African Great Lakes region, particularly in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. More recently Radio La Benevolencija has begun work in Europe exploring deradicalization strategies in video gaming spaces. 
  • BBC Media Action is a U.K.-based organization supporting media projects in 24 countries, including factual programs, dramas, debates, dialogue and engagement activities, and journalism training. Its work focuses on a range of issues but includes governance and conflict resolution. 
  • More in Common is an international organization working in Europe and the U.S. to support democratic societies grappling with polarization and identity-based divisions. It conducts research studies and works with partner organizations to test and pilot interventions including messaging campaigns. 

 

What frameworks and theories of change do they use?

Unlike many dialogue or journalism projects, as the name implies, media messaging projects advocate for a particular perspective—even if that message is as broad as social cohesion and pluralism are a good that should be supported. While some of these projects do draw on intergroup contact theory, like many dialogue projects, many also integrate persuasion-based communication theories shared with fields such as health communication. For example, through projects like soap operas modeling conflict resolution and other prosocial behaviors, a number of interventions use principles of entertainment-education, social learning theory, narrative transportation, and positive deviance. Many of these projects are research-based, and some are supported by researchers who collaborate on the design of project methodologies and the tracking of impact. 

BBC Media Action, for example, has an entire team dedicated to research to inform both specific projects and larger organizational strategies and best practices. It has a long history of radio soap operas and other entertainment education projects in countries including Afghanistan,4 Myanmar, and South Sudan. In Afghanistan, the Afghan partner organization that produced New Home, New Life, a radio soap opera running continuously in Dari and Pashto since 1993, used participatory rural appraisal (PRA) methods to assess the needs of communities as well as local solutions to challenges including conflict resolution. Perspectives gathered from focus groups and interviews conducted in mostly rural villages informed the development of radio drama storylines and complementary factual programs. In addition to drawing on entertainment education and social learning theory, projects that centered on marginalized groups (for example, focusing on the role of women in community peacebuilding) also referenced a model of psychological empowerment5 that focused on awareness, beliefs, and actions at the intrapersonal, interactional, and behavioral levels. Some projects also incorporated a communication ecology approach where individuals could potentially access messages from multiple sources like radio broadcasts, participatory theater performances, and discussion groups. A former project director recalled how they would often seek out cases of positive deviance to showcase how some communities were able to resolve conflicts and maintain social cohesion. The project’s research team also measured the impact of their work using PRA methods as well as surveys. They cited a number of examples of listeners reporting modeling the prosocial behaviors of characters in the radio programs, and of village elders and religious leaders who had become regular listeners passing on messages from the programs. 

Radio La Benevolencija is a smaller organization that has focused its work primarily on the African Great Lakes region in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (a genocide in which hate media played a notorious role). Its entertainment education programs and engagement projects have similarly been based on research and theory—drawing primarily from social psychologist Ervin Staub’s concept of a “continuum of violence” that seeks to explain the incremental steps that may lead to genocide, and outlines, among other things, how crisis and insecurity can affect identity and processes of in-grouping and scapegoating. As the organization’s founder explained, “The magic bullet that we try to show in our radio dramas is the active bystander.” Through their work they try to “inoculate” people and show them that they can take simple actions as bystanders that will not endanger them. The founder explained why the programs take an indirect approach to avoid reactance:

Reactance is I smoke cigarettes because people tell me not to smoke. So I’m amazed when I see other people campaigning and they’re all frontal. They’re all in your face. “I want this from you.” They’re all, “Do this.” This causes reactance and of course is not effective.

To avoid reactance, and to function in sensitive political contexts like Rwanda, where direct discussion of ethnic groups and the nature of conflict in Congo has been restricted, Radio la Benevolencija’s media and face-to-face projects at times would discuss conflict elsewhere such as in Israel and Palestine or Côte d’Ivoire, allowing participants to organically make their own connections to local realities. The organization has also worked with researchers, including one who studied their influence on social norms, though the founder explained, they faced challenges tracking cumulative impact over time when the nature of project funding generally only supported the evaluation of specific shorter-term projects. In an interesting development, Radio la Benevolencija has more recently been adapting lessons learned from the African Great Lakes region to European contexts, working on efforts to deradicalize far-right and Islamic extremists, including through online games and gaming chat rooms. 

Search for Common Ground (SFCG) is also well known for using dramas as part of its work to oppose violent conflict, though it takes a multilevel approach by combining media programs and engagement with key influencers. As one of its vice presidents explained, across its work, SFCG draws on conflict theory and uses “some degree of a ‘key people, more people’ approach.” For example, they may combine a dialogue with community leaders with a larger gathering and media. By doing this, they acknowledge that “public attitudes and perceptions of conflict can either create or eliminate opportunities for leaders and vice versa.” SFCG also conducted a research study across 22 projects to explore a social cohesion framework—and to offer a positive alternative to what can take the place of polarization. While they acknowledged challenges of measuring social cohesion, they looked at awareness, attitudes, and perceptions regarding components including agency, horizontal cohesion, and vertical cohesion. Their study offered lessons learned regarding particular projects as well as cross-cutting recommendations regarding empowering individuals to shape communities, focusing on long-term investments over short-term projects, and supporting spin-off initiatives that may yield unintended positive outcomes.

More in Common is a post-2016 entrant to the space of social cohesion messaging and research. Its work began by examining why debates over migration were cascading into “us-versus-them” identity conflicts. As the director of U.S. operations explained, they focus on a central big question:

How do you have genuinely equal and inclusive and participatory democracies that are multiethnic, that are diverse, that are committed to pluralism? And where engagement or interactions happen, if not predominantly online, significantly online? And where, in many cases, our only perceptions or interactions with people who are different from us happen online?

More in Common seeks to address this larger challenge through media and communication spaces in collaboration with a range of participants. The director explained that their theory of change is to work with institutions to reach directly, or through intermediaries, what they call “passive liberals, politically disengaged, or groups that we refer to as either the exhausted majority, the invisibles in Europe.” They saw these groups as critical to building a commitment to pluralism. To reach these groups they worked with institutions to create “messaging that speaks to a common shared identity, which leads with values that are shared across the population.” He explained that they don’t ignore points of conflict, but that they try to center and affirm shared values and identity. Another strategy they use is to center on nonpolitical content like content about mental health or public health while also centering shared identities, like being a good parent:

A lot of what we frame as civic engagement can be reframed as being a good insert-your-family-role. We’re trying to just have a different dialogue. We think we have to connect it back to the issues which are dividing us, because at some level, they’re going to seep in. But, we just don’t want to have everything be left or right or political identities. And so it’s talking to people at the level of, like, “Oh, you highly prioritize your identity as a sister or a father, et cetera,” and leaning into messaging that engages that.

Many More in Common projects have involved messaging campaigns including videos in collaboration with other institutions and organizations. The director explained that they’d had some success with these, but given the polarized climate, they had to constantly monitor to ensure that they were leading with messages that were seen as values-based and not political:

We’re in a state where people start to see what they think is political content, they just shut down. And what constitutes political content seems to be growing. So, we have to be very cognizant of, in 2019, we might’ve thought this message is totally benign. … It’s a values-based message. It has now been polarized through whatever means, so when someone sees it, they think, oh, that’s out of the left and the right.

 

Lessons Learned and Critiques

At first glance it may not be clear what lessons messaging-based initiatives, particularly ones in conflict zones outside the U.S., can offer in terms of insights for journalists operating in a U.S. context. Putting to the side broader questions about whether it is ethical or effective to use persuasion-based frameworks to sustainably change knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, such frameworks seem to be incompatible with the notion of an objective journalist presenting multiple perspectives, often foregrounding conflict, and allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions. Despite this, there are a number of elements of these projects that may have relevance. 

First, if one entertains critiques of dominant interpretations of distanced objectivity norms in journalism (i.e. that it has never been possible, and that it has largely been interpreted in a way that reinforces white patriarchal power structures), it becomes possible to consider that journalists can reimagine the norms influencing their work by instead centering values such as democracy, equity, or inclusion. While partisan messaging may be antithetical to the values guiding most journalists, promoting inclusive dialogue or access to critical information (like public health information) is aligned with how many journalists are rethinking notions of service journalism and engagement. Indeed, many practitioners of what is now considered “engaged journalism” have drawn inspiration from lessons learned from the spheres of media development and media for social change.

For this reason, there may be value in exploring some of these projects’ best practices—for example, integrating the research of community information needs and community-based solutions into a production cycle of content. Afghan Education Production Organization (AEPO), the now independent Afghan organization that was previously affiliated with BBC Media Action, sought input from community members to inform programming ideas as well as to get feedback on programming, allowing them to develop relationships and discuss controversial subject matter with residents in highly conservative regions of the country. They operationalized cultural sensitivity by finding ways to listen to the language residents used and reflect the way they navigated sensitive  or locally controversial issues in their communities, like the education of girls or the rights of women. Through this process, they were able to gain a loyal following even among conservative listeners (though like all media in Afghanistan they now face an uncertain future). While a model designed for Afghanistan could not be imported whole cloth into a U.S. context, there may be elements of such a project’s use of feedback loops to inform content development and follow-up that could yield media programming that similarly appeals across political-cultural divisions.

Likewise, while Radio La Benevolencija’s work in the African Great Lakes region addresses a specific post-genocidal context of ethnic identity-based divisions, lessons learned from its many years of work highlight possible strategies to consider in a U.S. context, for example an awareness of the problem of reactance to direct messaging (even, say, to fact-checking). Likewise, its work shows the possible benefits of indirect exploration of conflict, such as through its interventions convening residents of divided societies to start by talking about conflicts taking place in another distant context before then making connections back to their own identities and related conflicts.

Finally, the experiences of organizations like More in Common undertaking messaging campaigns in the U.S. offer cautionary insights for journalists wishing to share content that appeals across partisan divides. While More in Common has had some success appealing to shared nonpartisan identities, they were reminded of the fluidity and ever-expanding boundaries of what is defined as partisan.

 

Journalistic skills-building

The journalistic skills-building initiatives we discuss here incorporate some of these dialogue and messaging strategies. Indeed, some of the projects are connected to organizations that triangulate these strategies as part of an overall objective of addressing identity-based conflict. These projects are largely oriented around an idea that journalism has the potential to either contribute to an escalation of conflict or to help create an environment where pluralistic discussion is possible. 

 

What do these projects do?

The projects we focus on have undertaken a combination of workshops and training for working and student journalists, and/or on integrating journalists into civic dialogue projects. As mentioned, some of the same organizations undertaking dialogue and messaging programs also conduct initiatives focused on journalists. Examples include: 

  • Complicating the Narrative is a project undertaken by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) that built on journalist Amanda Ripley’s exploration of how journalists could draw from the work of conflict mediators to adjust how they listen and ask questions in their interviews, and how they frame the stories they report. After Ripley’s article exploring lessons learned for journalists received considerable attention, SJN conducted a series of trainings and workshops for journalists and newsrooms. 
  • Internews is a U.S.-based organization supporting media projects in 100 countries. While Internews is well known for its journalism training and humanitarian information work, it also has done a number of projects focused on using journalism and media projects to encourage social cohesion and conflict resolution. 
  • Digital Citizen’s News Ambassadors project is a new initiative that seeks to pair teams of students from journalism schools in areas with different political leanings to collaborate on multimedia reporting. Student journalists engage with community members to explore their perspectives and gather questions about the respective “other,” which they then collaborate with their teams to answer. 
  • Search for Common Ground, Spaceship Media, and several organizations profiled above also seek to build the skills of journalists as part of their projects. SFCG conducts journalism skills training in areas where it focuses on conflict prevention. Spaceship Media involves journalists in moderating discussions and providing facts for groups of participants, but at the same time seeks to encourage self-reflection and growth among the journalists themselves. 

 

What frameworks and theories of change do they use?

Many of these journalism training initiatives operate as a complement to dialogue initiatives. Because of this they are often guided by contact hypothesis principles (discussed above) like the benefits of exposure to difference and the value of active listening to build empathy. All of these projects adopted, with varying degrees of emphasis, the goal of creating content to be shared with audiences across lines of difference—be it through a shared media outlet, or through journalists associated with different identity perspectives reporting back to outlets associated with their respective identities.

Some initiatives undertook the practice of co-reporting, where reporters who identified with one identity (regional, ethnic, religious, linguistic, etc.) collaborated with a reporter who identified with a different identity. For example, an Internews project6 during the waning days of Sri Lanka’s civil war in the mid-to-late 2000s, connected reporters who identified as Sinhalese, Tamil, or Muslim and facilitated co-reporting trips to their respective regions. The process followed a conflict hypothesis framework seeking to reduce intergroup prejudice by inviting teams to collaborate on a shared goal in a noncompetitive environment. A related approach is being undertaken by Digital Citizen’s News Ambassadors project, where teams of students from universities across the U.S. with different partisan leanings collaborate remotely to answer the questions of their respective publics. However, as their project is still in the pilot stage, it is not yet clear how these student journalists may identify in terms of demographics or political allegiances, or precisely how their work will be distributed (for example, how their local outlets will be perceived as associated with one party or another).  

Other initiatives shared a recognition that conflict in itself could be generative and constructive, but that using conflict as a default framework to structure journalistic storytelling could contribute to distorted and destructive perceptions of reality. Search for Common Ground developed what it called a “common ground journalism methodology” that challenged practices that they recognized many would consider “good journalism.” For example, they critiqued the practice of saying “so-and-so Republican says this, so-and-so Democrat says that”:

You’re not really explaining the points. You’re just giving the identity marker. … “If you have sided with this identity, then you should support this. If you’re siding with that identity, you should support that.” I think that’s an example of something that on the one hand is good “objective” journalism, but is not necessarily what we would see as constructive journalism.

Amanda Ripley, the author whose work led to SJN’s Complicating the Narrative project, came to similar conclusions when she was exploring the question, “When you’re writing about really polarizing subjects, can you do it in a way that doesn’t make it worse?” She critiqued the overemphasis on two-sided binaries and adversarial accountability journalism. Reporters were too often “trying to be like Bob Woodward” even when their stories were not actually about holding the powerful to account. She argued that “adversarial design has reached the upper limits of its usefulness.” Ripley explained that this did not mean journalistic stories should not include conflict, but rather that:

We’ve just defined conflict so narrowly. Some of the most interesting conflict is internal, or a conflict between who I used to be and who I want to be, or who we are as a country and who we aspire to be. That’s conflict.

Ripley suggested journalism could also consider alternate “mental frames that are more about mutualism and cooperation.” In this way, her work, like SFCG’s efforts, drew on concepts similar to earlier traditions such as peace journalism, which was put forward in the 1960s and 1970s by sociologist Johan Galtung. Proponents (some of whom continue to champion the practice at universities) encourage journalism to explore the causes of conflict and strategies for prevention, and to consider stories with an agreement-orientation instead of focusing exclusively on points of difference. 

The Complicating the Narrative project developed by Ripley and SJN drew on expertise from the field of conflict mediation. After conducting initial training for journalists by conflict mediators, they distilled their findings to “four pillars” and developed a curriculum around each. As SJN’s project manager for Complicating the Narrative explained, these were “listening differently,” “going beneath the problem,” “embracing complexity,” and “countering confirmation bias.” Each pillar had accompanying techniques or strategies. For example, “listening different” encouraged journalists to use the technique of “looping,” where they would synthesize, share back, and confirm what an interviewee said before continuing to a new question. This technique required journalists to be active listeners and reflexive about their own biases, story frames, and other distractions. The pillar of “going beneath the problem” encouraged journalists to explore the interests and motivations that undergirded people’s policy positions, while the pillar of “embracing complexity” focused on acknowledging the multitude of dimensions of a conflict and to highlight perspectives beyond “the usual suspects,” including community voices and people with cross-cutting identities, such as “the first-generation immigrant who works for ICE” or “the Catholic person who works for Planned Parenthood.” This pillar also included “widening the lens” to look at an issue in a different geographic or historical context. This strategy connects to the tactic Radio la Benevolencija shared, regarding facilitating discussion of conflicts in other geographies as a way to engender new thinking about conflicts closer to home. The fourth pillar of countering confirmation bias includes “showing and not telling” by using graphics and infographics, and highlighting data from sources that may be seen as surprising or aligned with a group that may be skeptical. 

Notably, none of the representatives of organizations undertaking journalism training mounted a defense of the dominant journalism norm of “objectivity.” Some, such as the SFCG representative above, offered critiques of how striving for objectivity led journalists to pursue unhelpful and inaccurate practices that depicted two-sided binaries in their stories. At the same time, some acknowledged that they still grappled with how to effectively formulate an alternative to objectivity:

I also… don’t know that the solution is to then just keep telling your readers what your biases are and what you believe. That feels too self-centered. … My solution to everything is just try to be really curious and be aware when you have a bias in reporting and when you’re reacting to something.

Another also used the word “curious,” particularly suggesting the importance of asking “curious questions” of interview subjects, but also asking yourself:

What am I carrying to this interview? What are my preconceived notions about this person? How can I name them for myself and then go below? How can I hear as carefully as I can?

They suggested that by encouraging self-reflection journalists could adapt and adjust their use of “standard journalistic practices.” They hoped this would help them to avoid unintentionally labeling people as “the other” or highlighting perspectives and narratives that reinforced existing power structures.

Lessons Learned and Critiques

Overall, these training initiatives centered on introducing journalism skills to journalists positioned to connect with audiences who crossed divides, or redefining what “good journalism” looks like in the hopes of encouraging media that presents more nuanced explorations of conflict and offers audiences a deeper understanding of would-be “others.” Given our interest in understanding how such interventions may work in the face of partisan interpretive filters, it is worth exploring some of the lessons learned from these projects so far and some possible limitations. 

Many of the projects shared here are early in their development, making it difficult to assess their impact. However, the Internews project that supported exchanges among provincial media houses in Sri Lanka ended more than a decade ago. During that project, reporters were able to cover stories they would have had difficulty accessing without co-reporting due to security and language barriers, as well as stigmatized perceptions. The journalists distributed their stories to their respective outlets in different regions of the country. Many offered testimonials of how the experience altered their perceptions of the “other” ethno-religious-linguistic groups. Some even shared that they had taken actions following the project, such as taking steps to learn the language of the “other.” 

At the same time, the original designer of the project (who was no longer affiliated with Internews) reflected, “I came out of that Sri Lanka project all those years ago thinking, ‘It’s great, but it’s really so initial.’ And then two years after we left, all the funding got cut. So what was that for?” They suggested one of the problems was that the project used a bridging model that benefited the individual journalists participating: “You’re creating connections between people who then go on continuing to do what they do with a different understanding.” They explained that while this had value, the project lacked the funding to sustain support for this work. They suggested it may have been more effective to use an empowerment model to focus on building “the strength of those who are already committed to a more equitable situation”—in this case, working not with the journalism sector but potentially with activists or artists. 

It should be noted that fully investigating the impact of this particular project would require additional exploration of how the project did or did not affect participating journalists or news organizations. However, the questions it raises regarding bridge-building versus empowerment resonate with questions we have noted around whether and how journalists should seek to mobilize audiences. That is, is it more valuable to create shared spaces of bridging, or to engage with marginalized groups to build their power? And how should resources be prioritized, for example when considering potentially bridging legacy outlets versus BIPOC-led movement journalism? While it’s hard not to see these tendencies in tension with each other under some condition, this does not need to be posed as a competition between opposing ideal-type models. Bridge-building and empowerment look less distinct when community boundaries are themselves seen as less distinct. And each approach contains much internal variety. We’ve been discussing some of the uncertainties on the bridge-building side, but there are also difficult questions for the empowerment approach: Does this approach suggest that marginalized populations have the opportunity to create social change if they are just more “empowered”? And does empowerment entail taking part in specific organized efforts to force change, like strikes and marches, or something more along the lines of consciousness-raising? If the goal is social change and advancing conflict to a productive stage, deciding which approach to use may be a question of what strategy works better for a given situation, rather than an abstracted philosophical debate. 

The issue of impact also came up in conversations with representatives of organizations who continued to conduct journalism training. Working in a variety of conflict situations, groups supporting media sometimes found themselves training and supporting journalists to produce content that would run in outlets whose management was not aligned with their values. Some saw this as an opportunity to intervene where they could. One shared how they ran a program on “how to distinguish hate speech, say, from neutral speech, through very simple criteria” on a government radio station that aired propaganda in the morning. In this way, the intervention potentially reached the same audiences who were also hearing problematic content, aiming to give them tools to listen more critically. 

Others said that they tried to focus on entire news organizations. One representative said candidly that they were “not the biggest fan” of training individual journalists:

One hour of excellent audio programming … if it’s interspersed with either garbage or negative reporting, it isn’t going to fundamentally change the listeners’ experience of the conflict.

They suggested that for this reason, they tried to focus on working with editors or preferably with the entire outlet. 

An organizer of Complicating the Narrative trainings in the U.S. said they sought to include editors and reporters from the same newsrooms in response to feedback they got from journalists:  

One thing we consistently hear is “This is great,” from the journalists, “but my editors strip all the details, all the nuance out of the stories. They’re not going to want me to make this complicated.”

They said following this feedback, they worked to make sure trainings were accessible to editors. SJN has plans for intensive fellowships that will be centered on journalists undertaking projects connecting to the methodologies of Complicating the Narrative (CTN). They explained that their hope was for the journalistic stories and resources they produced to “collectively make it easier for others (within and beyond newsrooms) to adopt CTN-informed solutions journalism.”7

It is important to note that there has been very little research to date on how content produced by newsrooms or journalists who have undergone training such as those noted here has been received by audiences. This brief overview of just some of the initiatives under way highlights some of the many questions this work raises and the need for more detailed exploration.

Journalism across difference

What, then, does this tentative typology of dialogue projects, message-based media programming, and journalistic skills-building suggest for those interested in creating journalism and media that appeals across lines of difference? As mentioned, what we’ve offered here is only a partial mapping of interventions being attempted and does not offer a thorough evaluation of these approaches. However, even with these limitations, we can see some common threads that may be of interest for practitioners, funders, and journalism educators:

  •  Listening and looping was a key point of emphasis at the level of individual interactions between journalist and source, as well as between dialogue participants (be they journalists or community members). Listening and connecting feedback loops was also emphasized at the level of media organization, such as with media projects that gathered research from communities to inform the design of their programs.
  • Initiatives in each category also raised challenges to the dominant interpretation of the norm of distanced objectivity in journalism. For those operating within traditional journalism frameworks, this could be nuanced and at times messy. Practitioners spoke of encouraging self-questioning among journalists and dialogue participants, and critiqued two-sided binaries within reporting. Those engaged in training journalists also underlined the value of working with news organizations, including managers and editors, over training individual reporters.
  • Trust-building was emphasized by projects in all categories, as were skills such as facilitation and mediation—skills not usually found within journalism schools’ curriculums. In addition, variation in the time spent and the frequency of interactions devoted to building meaningful connections across differences suggested a need for greater research following initiatives across longer timelines (often beyond the timeframes delineated by grant-funded projects).
  •  Many projects grappled with psychological concepts (such as reactance) as part of their theories of change. These demonstrated a recognition that connecting across differences required an understanding of how people made meaning from the information and stories they were presented with, and that sharing facts alone did not necessarily lead to shared understanding. Message-based media programming in particular offered insights on strategies for connection including centering and appealing to shared identities, as well as the necessity of monitoring shifts in how issues and language becomes associated with a particular identity group or party.
  • A key challenge many projects faced was how to ensure popular participation among members of the public, journalists, and news organizations who may be associated with different identity groups. In the U.S. context, practitioners shared the challenges they faced and the strategies they used in their attempts to connect with and invite participation from conservative community members and media. 
  • Some practitioners noted a tension between efforts to bridge divisions between groups and efforts to empower marginalized groups. However, these frameworks were not necessarily in competition, and their deployment could be prioritized based on strategic assessments within a given context.

One critical big picture takeaway was the recognition by many projects that conflict itself was not inherently negative—it could be destructive or productive. Practitioners in all categories of these interventions shared visions for “good conflict.”  These visions varied, as did the strategies to pursue them. Given the highly polarized context of the U.S., it may be worth underlining good conflict as a helpful framework for media makers considering strategic choices around whether to even attempt to connect with publics of varying ideological allegiances. The concept of “good conflict” does not necessarily offer a clear road map, and this preliminary review points to the need for more research and consideration. Nevertheless, the experiences of media makers responding to a range of political and sectarian contexts suggest there may be tools in their respective toolkits that U.S. journalists may want to explore on the path from stymying and noxious forms of polarization toward more productive conflict.

 

Footnotes

    • 1. See Amin, A. (2002). Ethnicity and the multicultural city: living with diversity. Environment and Planning A 34, p. 973.
    • 2. See Allen, D. (2006). Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago, p. 19.
    • 3. See Ahmed, S. (2008). “Multiculturalism and the Promise of Happiness,” New Formations, 63:121-137, p. 132
    • 4. The lead author was a projects and training manager for BBC Media Action in Afghanistan.
    • 5. For an example of this see: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/pdf/wstrust/AWH_Report_Oct_2009.pdf
    • 6. The lead author worked as a resident adviser on this project.
    • 7. correspondence with SJN 9/27/21.

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Andrea Wenzel, Anthony Nadler, Doron Taussig, and Natacha Yazbeck