Getting people with differing views to talk to and understand each other’s perspectives can seem like an impossible task.
But that’s what Spaceship Media and AL.com managed to do in a recent experiment called The Alabama/California Conversation Project. In December, Spaceship Media, a startup built around a reporting model it calls “dialogue journalism,” filled a closed Facebook group with 50 women, half of them Trump voters from Alabama and the other half from San Francisco, to do nothing more than talk.
Over the course of the month-long project, the women in the group held deep, often uncomfortable conversations about topics like healthcare, reproductive rights, gun control, and how their views on these subjects affected their voting decisions. While the Spaceship Media team periodically steered the discussions, the group quickly took on a life of its own, with participants on both sides taking ownership of the group and independently starting and maintaining discussions. Members even experimented with reading each other’s news sources. Some women created their own group after the project ended in January.Eve Pearlman, one of Spaceship Media’s founders, said that while few minds on either side were changed, she was still impressed by the results of the project. “In this political moment, for people who have different beliefs and news ecosystems to sit down and talk to each other, and in such detail, with passion and nuance about the issues that matter to them is really a remarkable thing,” she said.
Pearlman launched Spaceship Media last fall with Jeremy Hay. Both are former reporters for Oakland-based education news site EdSource. For months during the election, the pair witnessed the increasing polarization among various groups — Trump and Clinton voters, the Black Lives Matter movement and police — and saw opportunity in creating a way to bridge the gaps between communities that were drifting further apart. “We’re interested in places where there isn’t dialogue, or where, when there is dialogue, it’s destructive and angry,” said Hay. He and Pearlman are working full time on the project, which has been funded by grants, donations, and personal loans.
Spaceship Media’s methodology starts by asking both sides a series of questions meant to generate conversation: What do you think the other community knows about you? What do you think of the other community? What do you want the other community to know about you? The organization first tried its approach in a project last fall that brought the police department of a California suburb and local high school students together to talk about policing issues. The process has proven to be a powerful one “because it acknowledges that there are a lot of negative assumptions floating around,” said Pearlman.
The approach feels essential today. More Americans are flocking to areas of the country filled with likeminded people. Few Clinton voters said they knew anyone who voted for Donald Trump, and vice-versa.The story is similar online, where the comfort of news and information silos has calcified assumptions and made it easier for people to demonize those who disagree with them.
These are the very ideas and issues that enticed participants to sign up for the The Alabama/California Conversation Project. “There’s definitely an element of these women saying, ‘I want people to know that we are more than they think we are.’ That was a big motivator for a lot of the women involved,” said Michelle Holmes, VP of content at AL.com, who got involved after a call from Spaceship Media the day after the election. “There’s such a pervasive stereotype attached to the Alabama experience and personhood that there’s always some level of wanting to be seen as more than these reductive labels.” To find the women who participated, reporters in Alabama and California tapped their sources and Spaceship Media put a call on Facebook and AL.com.
If Americans aren’t talking to and understanding each other, journalists are partially to blame, Holmes argued. The election exposed some deep political faults among the electorate, but many were widened by reporting designed to exaggerate differences and conflicts rather than reduce them. “So much of the reporting in the run up to the election was people looking for Trump supporters and then basically making fun of them. You saw that at many outlets,” she said.
Pearlman and Hay share some of those concerns about the media’s role in widening cultural and political gaps. Journalists who idealistically set out to cover problems between groups “often end up amplifying those conflicts,” said Hay. That, in turn, fuels the perception that reporters are more beholden to their own agendas (such as “knowing” what the story is before reporting on it) than to honestly reporting on the stories they’re covering. While the The Alabama/California Conversation Project was created to be agenda-free, with no presumption of what stories — if any — would come of it, the group’s conversations ended up inspiring a series on AL.com, including stories about the debate over immigration, faith, and the application of the “lesser of two evils” argument to politics. Some women even contributed their own personal essays .
The organic emergence of these stories was important to the project, and core to Spaceship Media’s approach. Rather than starting with a story idea in mind and finding the quotes and evidence to support it, AL.com followed the conversations and wrote the stories that participants wanted to read. Spaceship Media supplemented the group discussions with original reporting based on what participants were discussing and want to learn more about. When the project’s participants clashed over their views about the Affordable Care Act, for example, Spaceship Media provided data to show that healthcare premiums are increasing faster in Alabama than in California. This tactic both increased the transparency of the reporting process and gave everyone in the group the same foundation of facts. Pearlman said that the veracity of this reporting, and the motivations behind it, were rarely questioned by group members, which seems like a rare feat at a time when distrust in media is at a historical high among Americans.
Pearlman and Hay hope the project encourages other news organization to embrace the dialogue journalism approach. Both Spaceship Media and AL.com are thinking of ways to expand and build upon what they’ve done so far. Holmes said that AL.com is already planning more projects like The Alabama/California Conversation Project. Future iterations are likely to include in-person events, which will add another layer of complication to the process, but also make the resulting product more nuanced.
“Often when we we try to do this kind of thing, we have a shortcut,” said Holmes. “But I’m convinced you can’t get this level of quality without putting more quality in.”