Magazine article American Journalism Review

Covering (and Reinforcing?) Conflict: A Writer Wonders If Typical News Stories Further the Divide

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Covering (and Reinforcing?) Conflict: A Writer Wonders If Typical News Stories Further the Divide

Article excerpt

If the stories journalists tell about conflict focus primarily on the dissent between extremes, are we actually fostering polarization? And if we are, even if it's unintentional, should we do anything to change that?

These two provocative questions are being posed to journalists by an unlikely source: the Public Conversations Project, a handful of family therapists who facilitate discussions among people who are deeply divided over the hot political topics of the day, such as abortion, land use and homosexuality in the church. I first learned about PCP, a Watertown, Massachusetts-based organization, several years ago while involved in a small-time spat of my own. I've been doing my best to share the group's insightful questions about our profession and its influence on society with other journalists ever since.

"Yes" is my answer to the first question, based largely on firsthand experience with the coverage of a conflict in my community. When my neighbors in Oak Park, Illinois, became so bitterly divided over the competency of the principal of Hatch Elementary School that some parents (including myself) transferred our children to other schools in town, we attracted the attention of our two weekly community papers. Early on, parents met at the school to discuss the problem. But once it became evident that we had reached a stalemate, each side began avoiding those with whom it disagreed, preferring instead to trade accusations via vitriolic quotes to reporters and in letters to the editor. For me, the low point came when one parent I'd never met was quoted calling people on my side of the issue "racist," noting that the schools where we had transferred our children had fewer minority students than Hatch. Since I considered my concerns to be purely educational, I concluded (privately) that this guy, who lived just a few blocks away, must be "an idiot."

The rift had been running for a couple of years when, luckily, I stumbled upon PCP's definition of a "stuck conversation" while doing research for a book. The description--a debate in which each side's positions are repetitive, predictable and shared directly only with those who can be expected to reinforce them--fit my neighborhood's situation so well that I decided to call PCP for advice.

Armed with a set of suggested ground rules and support from Robert Stains Jr., PCP's program director, I mustered the courage to call about 20 parents and administrators on various sides of the dispute and invite them to a meeting at my house to "start a new conversation." While I was pleasantly surprised at how receptive people were to my invitation, my reaction to hearing "the idiot" speak during the meeting was more akin to shock. In contrast to the image I had developed based on what I had read in the newspaper, he was gracious, thoughtful and made many good points.

While those sorts of mutual discoveries were common among the people in my living room that afternoon, and were truly great news for my neighborhood, they were unsettling for me as a journalist. Even if all the news stories about the conflict had accurately reported our quotes, did they really get the story "right"? It seemed that many essential elements--areas where opponents' views may have overlapped, or interviews with people who had a more productive or positive take on the problem--were somehow left out. How? Why?

And this was a small dispute in a suburban community. Consider the effect on much larger, more significant divisions, between political parties, for example, or people who share international borders. That's why I answer Question No. 2 (And if we are fostering polarization, should we do anything to change that?) with an even more emphatic "yes." Although, like most journalists, I hold dear the values of neutrality and independence, I have begun to agree with PCP's observation that the media have more influence over our sources and our audience than we realize. …

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