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July 2, 2018, 12:07 p.m.
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“The goal is not to wash away the conflict; it’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact.”

In a report for Solutions Journalism Network, journalist Amanda Ripley writes about how reporters can work new techniques into their journalism — ones that are better equipped to deal with the “kind of divide America is currently experiencing,” which researchers call ‘intractible conflict.'” Ripley spent three months interviewing “people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it” — “psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths.” A condensed version of her story was also published by The Guardian.

What we need to do, Ripley argues, is “complicate the narrative,” telling more complex stories that people will open up and respond to. “Complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue,” she writes. “When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.”

Here are a couple of Ripley’s tips for how journalists can complicate the narrative:

— “Set a tone for complexity” by asking questions that don’t have yes-or-no or easy answers; don’t consolidate the conversation too early. Ripley had two professional mediators watch a 60 Minutes segment in which Oprah Winfrey interviewed Michigan voters — half Republicans, half Democrats — about Trump. Her first question was about how Trump is doing in his job so far.

‘It’s a relatively closed question,’ Cobb said. A better opener might be, ‘What is dividing us?’ That way, “the conversation becomes about the division, and Trump doesn’t become the black hole where all this complexity is going to get dumped.’

Then came the first answer Winfrey got — from Tom:

‘Every day I love him more and more. Every single day. I still don’t like his attacks, his Twitter attacks, if you will, on other politicians. I don’t think that’s appropriate. But, at the same time, his actions speak louder than words. And I love what he’s doing to this country. Love it.’

Hearing this, Winfrey turned, without comment, to the woman next to Tom to solicit her (polar opposite) opinion.

Both mediators jumped all over Winfrey for failing to respond to Tom. It was a perfect opportunity, said Cobb. ‘I would have said, ‘Gosh Tom, I didn’t know from out of the gate that we were going to have this kind of complexity in the room, and I compliment you because it’s so easy to say Yes or No, but you’ve actually said two things at the same time.’

In the first minute, Winfrey could have set a tone for complexity. Which would have been more accurate and more interesting. Most of us have more than one story, and so did Tom. Winfrey could have drawn out this complexity, Winslade said, by asking something like: ‘So on the one hand, you love him more and more, and on the other hand, you don’t like some things he’s doing. Tell me what you don’t like about his attacks.’

— Dig under people’s gripes or “positions,” and talk about underlying values and beliefs.

People are driven by their gut and heart, not their reasoning, as New York University social psychologist [Jonathan] Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, citing research going back decades. In fact, superficial self-interest has never been a good predictor of political behavior. (Note to journalists: it might be time to stop doing stories on how Trump voters in the Rust Belt voted against their economic interests; that’s about as insightful as a story revealing that beach-goers don’t wear sunscreen.)

Instead, Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition. Liberals (and liberal members of the media) tend to be very conscious of three of these foundations: care, fairness and liberty. Conservatives are especially attuned to loyalty, authority and sanctity, but they care about all six. And conservative politicians reliably play all six notes, Haidt argues.

Conservatives (and conservative media, I’d add) have a systemic advantage as a result. They can motivate more people more often because they hit more notes. (Notice how Democratic leaders still do not talk very often about Trump’s disloyalty to America, his cabinet members and his wives, in those terms, despite being bombarded with evidence of such disloyalty. They complain more often about injustice, indecency and unkindness, because those are the notes they most like to play.)

If journalists want to broaden their audiences, they need to speak to all six moral foundations. If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots — just like mediators.

— “Approach interviewing like an art, one [you] never stop learning.” “No one has listened to my interviews for a print article and given me feedback — ever. I learn by trial and error, which is like studying a language by yourself,” Ripley writes. “You can get better, but it will take you forever.” For instance, listen for “signposts”:

Signposts include words like ‘always’ or ‘never,’ any sign of emotion, the use of metaphors, statements of identity, words that get repeated or any signs of confusion or ambiguity. When you hear one of these clues, identify it explicitly and ask for more.

At one point in the 60 Minutes conversation in Michigan, a man named Matt explained his Trump vote this way: ‘We wanted somebody to go in and flip tables. We’re tired of the status quo…’

In response, Winfrey asked: ‘In your mind, what table got flipped?’

That was a good question, our mediator experts said, because it showed curiosity about Matt’s metaphor. People often use metaphors when they feel emotion; investigating those metaphors can help excavate the rhetoric and into a deeper, more compelling truth.

Even better, Winslade said, would have been to ask what tables have not gotten flipped — to adopt Matt’s metaphor and then challenge it. To ask, in essence, ‘Are there any parts of the Trump administration that perpetuate the status quo?’

The full report is here.

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