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Nov. 14, 2018, 9 a.m.
Audience & Social

25 newsrooms have attempted to bridge divisions — in person. Here’s what they’ve learned

“Whenever you have an individual interaction, a lot of the bluster, a lot of the generalizations, a lot of the group identifications fall away,” one participant in Pennsylvania said.

A bunch of strangers walk into a room, and journalists try to get them to get to know — or at least not hate — each other.

That’s not a joke; it’s the goal of 25 news organizations’ engagement initiatives studied by the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. The 2016 (and 2018) elections effed up a lot of people and their trust in media, as we all know, and news organizations have been experimenting with ways to improve trust face-to-face and across wrenching divisions.

But…what comes out of those events besides a lot of extroversion and handshake germs? How many gatherings are needed to finally start whittling away at stereotypes? Is convening community members with drastically different views a service or a spectacle used for reporting? Can these meetings possibly change people’s perceptions of “the media” — and each other?

Looking at the examples of bridge-our-differences programming can’t fully answer those questions, but new research by Talia Stroud and Caroline Murray, funded by the News Integrity Initiative, provides a decent landscape of the impacts. (Disclosure: I helped corral some of the examples at Murray’s request.) They’re a creative bunch, from the Evergrey’s Melting Mountains road trip bringing Seattleites to meet rural Oregon residents to 60 Minutes’ Oprah Winfrey roundtable in Michigan to a Chicago photojournalist bringing residents from the city’s booming North Side to meet the folks living at their mirror address on the underinvested South Side and vice versa.

“One reason that ingroups [an exclusive group of people with a common interest/identity] develop animosity toward outgroups [groups that aren’t part of the ingroup] is that they are unfamiliar with members of the outgroup,” Stroud and Murray wrote in their findings. “If you’ve never met anyone from an outgroup, encounters with dehumanizing mischaracterizations of the outgroup are not checked by actual experience. And if most of your interactions with members of the outgroup are negative, it’s unsurprising that you might hold intolerant views. Creating circumstances where people have positive interactions with outgroup members is key.”

True, but easier said than done. Here’s what newsrooms have learned and could keep in mind for planning future events, followed by the list of events in the sample:

  • Encourage a receptive and empathetic frame of mind. Stroud and Murray cited previous research that showed that “when people were in an empathetic frame of mind, trying to imagine how the other person feels, narratives were more effective than numbers at encouraging people to feel that they understood where someone with a different point of view was coming from.”
  • Make sure outgroup members are seen by ingroupers as representative of that particular outgroup: “If people perceive the outgroup members as atypical, re-fencing can occur whereby people believe: ‘Yes I liked those people, but they are certainly different from the rest of their group.'”
  • Use mediated and imagined contact. Mediated means having someone keep the exercise on track, and imagined contact serves the adage of seeing yourself from someone else’s shoes: “This kind of journalism should truly make audience members feel like they are the person in the outgroup, experiencing life as they experience it.”
  • But the contact does not have come directly from people of the outgroup — ingroupers speaking sympathetically about the outgroup’s experience can promote tolerance without the outgroup having to be present, Stroud and Murray wrote.
  • Keep in mind the novelty and uniqueness of the experience — like the 60 Minutes/Oprah roundtable. Oprah was probably an influential draw for some participants, but 60 Minutes’ follow-up showed that the group stayed in touch regularly over social media and even planned their own outings together.
  • Curse you, selection bias: “Those most in need of outgroup contact may be least likely to hear about it or seek it out.”
  • It’s about quantity and quality: Contact between in- and outgroup members needs to be substantive and positive to make a difference and counteract previously-held beliefs.

And here are the projects Stroud and Murray examined:

  • Guns, an American Conversation organized by Advance Local, Alabama Media Group, Essential Partners, Newseum, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Spaceship Media, and Time: “The project began during the March for Our Lives protests, during which 21 citizens from across the country joined in D.C. for a weekend workshop on gun violence and gun rights. The participants included survivors from school shootings, police officers, teachers and those who felt like they were often left out of the national conversation on guns.” The conversation continued after in a moderated Facebook group.
  • AL.com and Spaceship Media’s Alabama/California Conversation: “A chief goal of the project and other Spaceship Media initiatives is to dispel the negative assumptions people normally have about the ‘other side.’ From December 14, 2016 to January 15, 2017, the women engaged each other in a closed Facebook group.”
  • Alaska Public Media’s Community in Unity series: “The events attract representatives from community organizations, government officials, activists, academics, as well as ordinary citizens. Some of the events have been public forums featuring a group of panelists who discuss these big issues as they relate to Alaska…. Participants bounce ideas off of each other and ideally come away with a more nuanced understanding of an issue in their community than they had before.”
  • The Bay Area News Group, Southern California News Group, Spaceship Media, and Univision’s Talking Across Borders: “After a month, Tom Bray, the managing editor for content with the Southern California News Group, told the California Newspaper Publishers Association that although consensus was not reached, he felt the project resulted in ‘a passionate, compelling but respectful collection of conversations, coming at a time when chats that end in “thank you” are rare.'”
  • Capital Public Radio’s Story Circles: “The radio station purposefully designed each circle to include diverse residents with different backgrounds. Participants were affluent homeowners, developers, affordable housing advocates, or even homeless themselves. To start, the participants sat for a meal together and each person shared a personal story about their experiences with housing….In a post-meeting survey, more than 80 percent of residents said that they felt the event had enhanced their awareness of the issue, increased their empathy for others and inspired them to act on the issue.”
  • The Oprah roundtable: “In the fall of 2016, Oprah Winfrey hosted a panel of 14 Michigan voters on CBS News’ 60 Minutes. Seven of the participants voted for Donald Trump and seven did not. The roundtable participants agreed on very little during their first discussion, but when CBS reached out to reconvene the panel after Donald Trump’s first year in office, they discovered that members of the panel had actually kept in touch and had become friends.”
  • Colorado Public Radio’s Breaking Bread: “The six participants included three Trump voters, two Clinton supporters and one Green Party voter…. The participants, along with CPR reporters, sat down to dinner to have their discussion. They showcased complex political views that defied stereotypes, such as a liberal’s distaste for Obamacare and a Clinton voter’s support for gun rights…. CPR reporters have followed the two participants from the original conversation on their visit to the mosque, started a series on how to overcome political divisions at work and documented conversations between new pairs.”
  • The Dallas Morning News and This American Life’s discussion with Texas hate mail-writers: After the paper endorsed a Democrat for president for the first time since the Roosevelt administration, editor Mike Wilson “invited two readers to come into the newsroom to talk over their differences with him face-to-face. Both were conservative, long-time readers of the paper, but were recently considering giving up their subscriptions. The two readers sat in on an editorial meeting with the paper’s senior staff and although they still worried about how a few pending stories would ultimately be portrayed in the paper, overall they found the meeting surprisingly ordinary and professional. They then talked to Wilson about the main issues they saw with the paper, liked skewed messaging in headlines and lack of diverse story selection.”
  • The Evergrey’s urban-rural Melting Mountains: “Following the 2016 presidential election, about 20 residents of Seattle made the 10-hour drive to meet the people of nearby Sherman County. Seattle is part of a largely urban county that voted overwhelming for Hillary Clinton during the election, in contrast to rural Sherman County, where the majority of residents voted for Donald Trump. The Evergrey, a local digital news publication in Seattle, organized a meeting between residents of both counties to talk about their political outlooks and what they hoped to see for the future of the country. The participants sat down for lunch and discussed their political concerns in rotating one-on-one conversations for nearly four hours.”
  • Jubilee Media’s Middle Ground series: “In each video, three people on each side of a debate in American society come together to have a productive dialogue. Jubilee Media has them stand, and then the participants are read a statement, such as ‘Sometimes I question my beliefs,’ ‘I am proud to be an American,’ and ‘I was surprised by someone’s response today.’ If a participant agrees with the statement, they are invited to sit down in a nearby circle of seats and voice their thoughts about the statement.”
  • KPCC’s Across the Divide: “As a part of KPCC’s live event segment, reporters brought together four Hillary Clinton voters and four Donald Trump voters after the election to discuss their hopes and fears for the future. KPCC said they were inspired to put on the event when they heard from many of their listeners who didn’t have a single friend that voted for a different candidate than them.”
  • KQED’s Start the Conversation: “KQED paired up Californians with contrasting outlooks on political or cultural issues to see if they could find common ground. The first segment featured a Trump delegate from LA and a gay man who went to D.C. to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration. … KQED also facilitated conversations between people who already knew each other, such as two teachers in the same high school and a granddaughter and grandfather who disagreed about her job as a journalist.”
  • KUOW’s “Ask A…” series: “The Seattle-based radio station selects people who are members of a group in the news and pairs them with other people who don’t typically interact with that group and wish to learn about them. In speed-dating style, each pair has a few minutes to talk, then everyone switches partners. KUOW’s “Ask A…” series has featured Trump voters, Muslims, immigrants, transgender persons, cops and other groups… They found that there were statistically significant increases in participants’ knowledge about and empathy toward the group, even three months after the workshop.”
  • NPR’s Divided States: “The show brought together voters from four hotly contested swing states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Ohio. … The series featured stories in several formats, including roundtables after the televised presidential debates where participants shared their reactions to candidate’s rhetoric and policy positions. Although some of the roundtables became heated, participants from each state expressed positivity about being able to talk to one another.”
  • Your Vote Ohio by Ohio News Media and the Jefferson Center: “They hosted a series of three events to discuss the candidates’ positions and what Ohioans considered robust and fair election coverage. Each of the discussions had 18 participants, all residents of Akron, Ohio, but diverse in their race, income level, age and political beliefs…. After the election, the initiative shifted its focus to the opioid crisis and renamed itself Your Voice Ohio to reuse the discussion model for issues other than elections.”
  • Philadelphia Magazine: Can These People Agree on Anything? ” brought together two Hillary Clinton voters and one Donald Trump voter to see if they could find middle ground on an issue…. One of the participants remarked that ‘Whenever you have an individual interaction, a lot of the bluster, a lot of the generalizations, a lot of the group identifications fall away.'”
  • The New York Times’ political podcast The Run Up’s Let’s Talk series: “All three pairs were guided by a set of questions designed by The Village Square, a civic organization that works with social psychologists to encourage open and civil conversations. The list included questions like ‘How do you think our views came to be so different?’, ‘Do you feel ignored or misunderstood as a voter?’ and ‘What do you think we agree on?'”
  • The Skimm’s No Excuses dinner parties: “The goal of the program is to encourage its readers to get informed, take action and break out of their bubbles. theSkimm later expanded the program to host dinner parties for strangers to discuss immigration. They brought together 14 women from different cities across the nation, some of whom were undocumented immigrants themselves.”
  • Spaceship Media’s The Many constituted “5,000 women across the country with diverse political convictions in a closed Facebook group to share personal stories, political thoughts and policy ideas. The group was moderated by Spaceship Media journalists in order to provide relevant facts and to ensure that the dialogue remained productive and civil. Spaceship Media ran the project up until the November 2018 midterm elections.”
  • StoryCorps One Small Step: The interview structure is designed not to be political and to steer away from current events and specific policies. Instead, they are meant to be personal and highlight the experiences and people that have shaped the other person’s worldview. StoryCorps provides guiding questions such as ‘How did your childhood shape your view of the world today?’ and ‘Can you talk about a time you experienced doubt over your beliefs?'”
  • Talking Eyes Media’s Bring It to the Table: “Winokur traveled around the country with a table and set it up in shared spaces, such as barbershops and book stores, and tried to engage in deep conversation with people who held different political views than her. … After the documentary, Winokur expanded the Bring It to the Table concept and began creating
    workshops and hosting live events as a part of the Talking Eyes Media team, which includes journalists,
    producers and other media professionals.”
  • TEGNA’s An Imperfect Union: A Facebook Watch show which “brings two people with opposing views together to talk and participate in a community service project, such as cleaning up a park or volunteering at a food bank.”
  • The Tennessean’s Civility Tennessee: “On the day of President Trump’s State of the Union speech, The Tennessean launched a year-long campaign designed to encourage civic dialogue around challenging and divisive issues. The mission of the series is not only to strengthen trust in local news media, but to satisfy a hunger for these civil discussions.”
  • Tonika Johnson’s Folded Map: “She began connecting people from opposite sides of the city so that they could share what living in their two communities was like and have a conversation about the divide, one that is predominantly defined by race. Johnson also had her pairs visit each other’s houses and photographed them standing in front of the opposite residence. For several residents from the North Side, it was their first time ever visiting the South Side.”
  • Zeit Online’s Germany Talks: “Over a thousand people were matched with their ideological opposite after answering a series of yes or no questions that addressed contentious topics in Germany, such as the refugee crisis. ZEIT Online provided the pairs with guidelines for how to have a productive and civil conversation and then let them organize their face-to-face meetings independently.”

    Read the report in full here.

    POSTED     Nov. 14, 2018, 9 a.m.
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