Finding our way back to common ground

Posted on January 11, 2011 by Janet Coats

When the announcer broke into the program we were listening to and said there were reports a congresswoman had been shot in Tucson, my daughter asked me if this meant I was going to work.

She caught herself almost right away, remembering that I no longer have a newspaper to edit. For my children, news bulletins always meant mom was heading into the office.

So for the first time in my life, I was with my children while a major story was breaking. My older children are 14 and 12, and they are extraordinarily tuned in to the news and especially political events – one of the residual effects of having a journalist for a mother.

My oldest is especially tuned in to the political dialogue. I’ve taken great joy in watching him wrestle with his own beliefs, articulating with a mixture of conviction and uncertainty what he thinks about governing.

I watched as my child followed the evolving story of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords all day. By Sunday night, he’d been thinking and reading and stewing over it for a full 24 hours. And with the passion of the very young, he began to speak over the dinner table about what he believed, and what he feared.

He said he knew that there was no evidence that the man who pulled the trigger had been motivated by depictions of crosshairs on a website or any of the heated political rhetoric aimed that passes for news in some circles. And he said he wasn’t sure that mattered.

What worried him is that political talk has become so ugly that it was even a possibility that someone could be influenced by it to kill. The fact that we were talking about whether our political dialogue had crossed the line from contentious to dangerous meant we needed to stop and think about what kind of political culture we want in this country.

How can we govern ourselves, he asked, if we can’t even talk to each other and respect each other as human beings? It makes me fear that democracy can’t last, he said.

His earnestness overwhelmed me, even as I assured him that the United States has a long history of political speech that begins to tip over the line between mere disagreement and into dehumanizing your opponent. We are a culture of extremes, and yet somehow we tend to find our way back to common ground.

But my son’s words also carried echoes of conversations I had been part of in newsrooms almost 20 years ago, as some of us tried to change both the tone and content of political coverage in journalism.

I was fortunate to work for two editors – Buzz Merritt at The Wichita Eagle and Cole Campbell at Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot – who were leaders in the civic journalism movement of the early 1990s. Buzz was the movement’s intellectual father, inspired to try to change the way we cover elections by the truly awful coverage of the 1988 presidential election. If you’ll recall, the single dominant visual from that election was of Michael Dukakis wearing a helmet and riding in a tank – an image that made the Democratic candidate look more than a little dorky and which played over and over again.

Buzz was convinced that for democracy to thrive, we needed to have more substantive journalism when it came to covering both the elections through which our leaders are chosen and the act of governing itself.

He and Cole both advanced such ideas as establishing listening posts throughout the community, so that journalists could hear citizens discuss the issues that mattered most to them instead of taking all their coverage cues from politicians. We started “truth-squading’’ political advertisements, checking out the claims politicians were making and calling them on exaggerations or outright falsehoods.

Reporters started posing questions to politicians that were submitted by citizens themselves instead of working off a question list drawn up on the press bus. We started publishing more verbatim comments and responses to stories in our newspapers, this in the days before the Internet was ubiquitous.

Perhaps most importantly, we started working against journalism’s conflict model. Instead of framing stories and issues as being debates between two opposing sides, we began framing stories as discussions about common ground. Journalism’s conflict model naturally seeks out the extremes on any issue; we started looking for the folks in the middle, those who could see merit in a range of positions.

I loved those stories. They reflected the fact that human beings can hold what journalism wanted to make into conflicting positions in their own lives.

The steps we took then seem so obvious and non-controversial to me now, but at the time, the journalism establishment treated it as heresy. We were looking for ways to engage our communities. Now the web offers a wondrous range of tools to use for that engagement – just as it offers new pathways to spread misinformation, hate and venom.

This is why responsible journalism, journalism that is focused on helping communities conduct fact-based, civil dialogue, is so vital. Journalism should not be about stenography or about who yells loudest. It should not be about achieving some illusory “balance’’ in coverage. Journalism is about evidence-based discussion. It is also about knowing the community you serve and showing that community that you care about its future.

Jennie Buckner, the former editor of The Charlotte Observer and someone I greatly admire, used to describe the role of a newspaper in a community as that of a trusted friend. She said the friend you trust shares in your joys as if they were her own. She works to help you when you are in trouble. And she speaks the truth to you about your own failures and shortcomings.

In a digital age, when there are so many paths to creating acts of journalism, it is the role Jennie described 15 years ago that still speaks most to me. Working to help the entrepreneurs and the tenured press who are trying to preserve this function is what we’re trying to do with the New Media Journalism Initiative at The Patterson Foundation.

Our work is based on the idea that healthy communities need healthy journalism, journalism that enriches lively conversation and debate. Instead of journalism of opinion, we want to help support the future of a fact-based, data-based journalism that sustains spirited, even passionate, debate. The journalism that does that best is the journalism that focuses on shedding light instead of generating heat.

Our national discussion about the events of this weekend serves as a reminder about how much we still need that light.

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