Conflict Journalism

Ten days ago, I had a long conversation with Helen Kramer of Resetting the Table. I have worked closely with Helen since she was a sophomore at Oberlin, and I expect something interesting and unexpected to crop up every time we talk.

This time the interesting and unexpected topic came from an unexpected direction—journalism. It turns out that Resetting the Table has made quite a bit of progress in building bridges to journalists, in particular, helping them cover tough issues from a peacebuilding and/or conflict resolution perspective.

Good millennial that she is, Helen sent me a video and an article by Amanda Ripley (@amandaripley) while we were talking and did so without missing a beat. As soon as we turned off our video cameras, I read Ripley’s article and realized that it was not simply filled with lessons for journalists but for those of us who do peacebuilding and conflict resolution for a living.

That starts with Ripley herself. She is one of the best print journalists of her generation whose work routinely appears in The Atlantic, Politico, The New York Times, and the like. Her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, is a must read for anyone interested in improving American education.

She also did her homework. She spent time with people in the field, including my friends Peter Coleman and Sara Cobb. She even got some training from Resetting the Table.

So, when she calls for a change in the way journalists work, other journalists listen.

Her diagnosis of the problem is quite simple. She is convinced that the way journalists cover conflict does not help us overcome our differences. Sometimes, they even make things worse. As she put it:

The problem is that in a time of high conflict, coherence is bad journalism, bordering on malpractice.

She is not talking about fake news and the like here. Rather, she is convinced that journalists could and should do a lot more to cover the complexity that underlies most conflicts and help their readers/viewers reach more subtle and nuanced conclusions that could help point them toward solutions.

There is no evidence that Ripley has done a deep dive into my beloved field of complexity science. She didn’t need to. She gets it already.

Ripley entitled her article Complicating the Narrative but she really wants to break the current narrative, which is the title she uses for the final section of her article. You can see how different journalism would be if Ripley got her way from these conclusions she drew from the three months she spent hanging out with people like Helen, Peter, and Sara taught her:

  • Amplify contradictions. Explore more deeply the reasons why people disagree. As mediators often put it, dig below the surface debate to find the underlying issues, values, positions, and interests.
  • Widen the lens. Journalists can help people see the bigger picture by zooming out from the specifics of the debate they are covering and raising some of those underling forces. As the mediators she worked with are quick to point out, widening the lens makes it possible to reframe the issue and expand the options all sides are willing to consider.
  • Ask questions that get at people’s motivations. All too often, journalists let their sources make bold statements and don’t dig into why they think that way or what evidence they use in reaching their conclusion. In watching the current government shutdown, I’ve been amazed at how often leaders duck such questions, but I’ve also been amazed at how often journalists let them get away with it—on both sides. Ripley suggests asking a number of key questions that force their sources to see the complexity of the issue and, in particular, surface why the other sides thinks the way it does. At a time when our leaders don’t seem to be able to agree about anything, perhaps journalists should foster a sense of empathy on the part of the people they cover?
  • Listen more and better. This was not new to mediators. She stresses the importance of “looping” or repeating back to their sources what the journalists think was just said. That makes it easier to avoid mistakes but it also allows the journalist to dig deeper into what their sources didn’t say, the reasons behind their thinking, and so on.
  • Expose people to the other tribe. This, of course is what we peacebuilders do. However, journalists can do it, too. As we all know from watching televised debates, such discussions can often make things worse. Still, journalists who try to amplify contradiction, widen the lens listen better, and so on can actually do some of the mediators’ jobs for them. Meanwhile, the members of their audiences learn more and become more engaged.
  • Counter confirmation bias. This psychological phenomenon reflects the fact that we tend to agree with people we are already predisposed to agree with. Personally, I’m more likely to take a Yankees fan or another liberal more seriously than I am someone who loves the Red Sox or voted for Trump. But, what happens if someone I find credible says something I disagree with? We know that that can make all the difference both from what we have seen in the field and from what psychologists find in their lab experiments. Can’t, Ripley asks, journalists do the same thing?

What’s more, there is a “business case” for doing journalism this way. There is already some evidence that when people encounter stories done this way, they want to come back for more, which means more newspapers sold, more ears tuned to radio station, and more eyes on screens.

She even has evidence to back that point up. There are at least two groups of journalists, the Solutions Journalism Network (@soljourno) and Hearken (@wearehearken) who are putting these ideas into practice. Both work with newsrooms and train journalists to do the kinds of reporting that Ripley talked about in her article.

It works. Both sites provide case studies documenting their impact. Some of those anecdotes may not satisfy the data demands of a serious monitoring and evaluation expert. However, I was struck by how many of the campaigns they mentioned led to a growing and more engaged audience.

I know that because I’m part of that audience. My local NPR station ran a number of Hearken-influenced stories that certainly grabbed my attention and made me want to learn more.

Last but by no means least, Ripley’s lessons for journalists apply to us as we become more actively involved in conflict in our own country and community. I’m not convinced that we always take all of them to heart, especially when we deal with people we disagree with.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.