I was in a meeting last week in which the topic was civic engagement – how to foster it, how to encourage it, how to help it thrive.
We were discussing how difficult it can be to get people to talk about the deeper issues behind matters of public policy. We’ve all grown accustomed to the sound bite, the glib characterization of policy decisions that, in truth, involve complicated tradeoffs. And, unfortunately, we’ve also grown accustomed to the politics of personal attack.
One of the participants in this meeting used a phrase for the kind of public dialogue he was seeking to enable.
“I want conversations that are characterized by commas instead of periods,’’ he said.
He tossed that sentence out and moved on to make a bigger point, but I loved the phrase so much. I’ve been thinking about how well it describes the kind of dialogue we want to enable with the New Media Journalism Initiative – in fact, it is the kind of dialogue The Patterson Foundation wants to enable across all of its initiatives.
I think humans are attracted to the definitive statement. We like to see things in black and white. We aren’t nearly as comfortable with shades of gray. But in truth, the issues that matters – the big, important policy matters – live in the gray. They almost always involve our competing values that we care deeply about. If we didn’t care so much about those values, then these intractable problems would be much more easily solved.
Journalists have been guilty of feeding this desire for the definitive rather than for the nuanced conversation. We traditionally frame our stories in a conflict model: Two sides at war, with no in betweens. We love to keep score, in sports, in politics, on Wall Street.
There’s a reason that the most famous tag line in broadcast journalism history was Walter Cronkite’s, “And that’s the way it is.’’ We are all drawn – journalist or not – to the idea of putting a period on the end of a sentence.
That’s why I love the idea that our dialogue should be marked by commas instead of periods. Commas allow for inclusion, for the addition of thoughts and phrases. Commas let us build on our conversation, instead of ending it abruptly.
It is the dialogue of inclusion, of “and,’’ that is the dialogue we need. The last few years in journalism have, in a sense, been a war of the definitives. New media is media that extinguishes the traditional journalism values that have largely served us well in a democracy. Or traditional media is media of exclusion that doesn’t recognize the myriad of perspectives and voices that exist in any debate. We’ve positioned the changes journalism is undergoing as an either/or.
Part of what I love about working in the New Media Journalism Initiative has been the opportunity to explore the “and.’’ That’s what we’re doing now, with our project to enable connection about entrepreneurial local publishers. We’re hoping to let them find the “ands’’ in their own community and build on them in a rich dialogue that isn’t focused on finding one single solution.
In the broader sense, that is what The Patterson Foundation is doing across philanthropy. TPF loves to play in the spaces that are about possibilities instead of conclusions.
In this world, the comma is our favorite kind of punctuation. Followed very closely by the question mark.
Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.
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