Editor’s Note: The American Press Institute is helping news organizations reimagine local opinion journalism to promote healthier civic discourse and to better understand its role in news business sustainability. This essay by Martín Carcasson, founder of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation, is part of a series of essays on the topic, and explores how insights from outside of journalism might empower local opinion sections, as is happening at The Fort Collins Coloradoan.
I am a deliberative practitioner, a relatively new career choice that I believe will become more and more common and critical to local communities. One location it may become influential is in reshaping local opinion journalism.
Here is where I and perhaps others are coming from. My job as a Communication Studies professor and the founder and director of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation (CPD) is focused on helping my community have the sorts of conversations and collaboration they need to address their shared problems more effectively. I was initially trained to do the difficult work of evaluating the quality of arguments, trying in particular to distinguish between strong and weak arguments. We believe that the better our arguments, the better our decisions and ultimately stronger our communities will be.
Initially, my research focused on analyzing national political discourse. I quickly grew weary, however, because my research clearly showed that our political system often rewarded weak arguments and punished good ones. So I shifted my work from national politics to local, and from being a critic and analyst to being a practitioner. Connecting with the broader deliberative democracy movement and organizations like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, my focus now is serving as a principled impartial resource to the community, using what I know about communication, argumentation and social psychology to try to turn the tide and build systems that bring people together across perspectives and encourage quality argument and engagement.
The forum added a positive component to our local deliberative system.
I founded the CPD in 2006 as an experiment to see if concepts that seemed to work in the classroom to spark better conversations and collaborative problem-solving could also work in the community. The CPD was based on the idea that democracy requires high quality communication and collaboration, as well as the realization that those features are growing more and more difficult to achieve. Indeed, research in social psychology informs us that humans are naturally wired much more for polarization and outrage than deliberation and collaboration. That problem is compounded when we realize our political systems, typical public engagement processes and media incentives tend to reward tactics that trigger these negative tendencies. The growing prevalence of what Amanda Ripley has called “conflict entrepreneurs,” who understand human nature and profit off of peddling simple narratives to their audiences, only makes the situation worse. Bottom line, the natural quality of our public engagement was highly problematic.
For its first ten years, the CPD primarily planned and hosted innovative public engagement events, often working directly with local governments, school districts and community organizations. The events were designed to spark very different conversations. In dedicated courses, we trained CSU students as small group facilitators to support the events, and used deliberative process design to avoid triggering the worst of human nature and tap into the best. We developed techniques to hear from the community, developed discussion guides specifically designed to spark discussion, built a broad toolkit of engagement techniques, continuously refined our facilitation training, and have run over 500 meetings in our 17 years.
While we sparked good conversations and uncovered valuable insights about local issues, we recognized that only a small percentage of residents would ever actually attend an in-person event. Around that time, the research on deliberative democracy had made the “systemic turn,” shifting from a focus on events to seeing communities as deliberative systems with multiple relevant institutions and sources of either high quality or low quality deliberation. I saw my role as the CPD director shift to considering this broader system and thinking about how we might strengthen it. As we sought ways to expand our reach, I was invited to attend API’s convening in 2019 focused on reimagining opinion journalism and depolarizing public debate. That gathering helped me realize the immense collaborative potential between deliberative practice and local journalism.
Bringing non-news insights to local journalism
In the fall of 2022, the Fort Collins Coloradoan (a local Gannett newsroom) and the CPD were awarded a Local News Ideas-to-Action grant from API, and we launched the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project (DJP). The collaborative project now involves multiple CSU departments, local media outlets, the local public library district, and community organizations such as the League of Women Voters, all focused on reimagining local journalism by infusing it with insights from deliberative practice. The primary motivation for the DJP was the need to build capacity in communities for better conversations and collaborative problem-solving, but we also quickly recognized that we could take on the crisis in democracy while also addressing the crisis in local journalism. Our belief is as local news outlets build up their deliberative toolkits, communities will see the renewed value of local journalism and step up to support them. Based on some initial community conversations, we developed a set of key tasks to guide our work.
For the last year and a half, we have experimented with the concept of deliberative journalism. We have hosted several online community gatherings to discuss the idea and hear what residents want from local journalism, we have held webinars on issues such as addressing misinformation, and hosted deliberative forums on topics such as “reimagining local journalism.” The CSU Journalism and Media Communication department developed a Deliberative Journalism class to specifically support the project, along with other classes that have specific assignments connected to the project.
The potential of non-news insights in local opinion and commentary
The most significant development thus far, however, has been the Coloradoan relaunching their opinion page with the DJP’s help. The Coloradoan Conversations platform is an online forum focused solely on local issues. Each week, one or two questions are posted online and then published in the Sunday print edition, and responses are collected from participants that must go through a free registration process. The Coloradoan staff, with assistance from the CPD, write up “recaps” after a week or two, summarizing the discussion, drawing key insights, highlighting specific comments and working to move the conversation forward.
A team of CPD staff and students are being trained to support the discussions, participating at times with questions and comments to encourage productive interaction (adapting skills from their in-person facilitation training), assisting with fact checks or informational needs, and doing analysis to contribute to the recaps. The analysis borrows from research on deliberation and argumentation, engaging questions of fact, bringing out underlying values and tensions, highlighting key themes and evaluating the quality of the interaction.
Coloradoan Conversations is clearly still a work in progress, but we are encouraged with the amount of engagement and the slow but steady improvement in the quality of interactions. Our goal, as expressed in a recent editorial marking a year of conversations, is to build a useful local forum that contributes positively to our community’s ability to address its shared problems. Said differently, the forum added a positive component to our local deliberative system. Long term, we hope it becomes a model for other communities, particularly in terms of a university-local media collaboration.
Five functions to guide reimagined ‘opinion forums’
We see a number of functions the forum can fulfill, some basic and others rather labor intensive (a key reason we designed this from the beginning to involve students — resulting in a win-win of students gaining valuable skills connected to dedicated coursework while providing critical capacity to their community).
The most basic function of an opinion page and local online forum is to provide a place for people to be able to express their opinions. Ideally, a broad range of voices are involved, and, following a traditional function of journalism, newsrooms should work to expand the voices participating, simplify access and reach out to traditionally marginalized or missing voices. While this initial function is critical to a pluralistic, free society, is it merely an initial step, and one that many other platforms allow now. Perhaps in the past, the local opinion page was a key location for such expression, but with social media, individuals have unlimited opportunities to express their opinions publicly.
The second key function is closely related to the first, but focuses on the reader rather than the writer: provide access to opinions of other people. The internet has also greatly expanded this opportunity, but since it is mostly not focused on the local community, it has greatly defused and distracted from the local conversation and the critical need to create a sense of local community. In addition, when left open, forums tend to become either havens for the like-minded or unproductive spaces full of polarized outrage and misinformation.
As a result of the limitations of the first two functions, our project is exploring how to make these work better, while also considering higher order deliberative functions. Bottom line, we don’t want the forum to just be a collection of individual (often problematic) opinions, but a place for authentic engagement, the refinement of opinions, and, ideally, the co-creation of new, innovative ideas. Such goals are in line with deliberative practice. When we avoid triggering the worst in human nature, we have a better chance of tapping into the best, such as human creativity and imagination. When we stop focusing on simply attacking or ridiculing those we oppose, and actually turn our focus to addressing actual shared problems, humans can positively surprise you.
Perhaps in the past, the local opinion page was a key location for such expression, but with social media, individuals have unlimited opportunities to express their opinions publicly.
As a result, a third key function of our forum is to provide a place for and a model of quality interaction and discussion. Here, both the participants and the organizers have important roles. There are several components to this, such as traditional use of ground rules (in this case, USA Today Network CORAL Conversation Guidelines) and moderating techniques. Developing methods and the capacity for quality local fact checking is another key aspect. Overall, we hope to focus more on positively reinforcing and inviting quality engagement, rather than primarily policing or calling out bad behavior. We work to praise posters that help support quality discussion, either with their contributions or the way they interact. In a typical facilitation style, we don’t praise particular ideas — we are impartial — but we can praise positive behavior such as providing links to quality information, asking good questions, responding to questions from others, and, in one of our favorites, publicly recognizing a shift in perspective. In doing so, we can actually provide an example of how to engage tough issues productively, something unfortunately rather rare in our public discourse.
A fourth key function falls primarily on the organizers of the forum: provide analysis of the conversation that contributes positively to the public discourse. I often explain that the work I do with the CPD, particularly leading up to our events, involves “making sense of the noise.” With all the ways for people to express their opinions, the noise can be overwhelming, both in terms of information overload and, due to human nature and concepts like confirmation bias, our flawed individual ability to process information well. As a result, an important added function to a local opinion forum must be working to summarize and analyze the information. We can use the collected data to get a better sense of the issue, particularly identifying misinformation and key questions to engage, understanding the underlying values, and potentially learning about new ideas and possibilities.
Such a function is complex, and can open local journalists to criticism, but has become a critical need for local communities that I believe journalists are best situated to address. It connects to what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel label “sense making” as a new task for journalists in The Elements of Journalism. The goal is to find ways to help shift raw data/opinion to information, information to knowledge, knowledge to insight, and ultimately insight into wisdom and better decisions. The internet has exponentially expanded the amount of data on the front end, but our communities severely lack in their ability to move down the line. The Coloradoan Conversations recaps are the most obvious examples of attempting to fulfill this function, but we will continue to explore how to do this better, tapping into the substantial research in deliberative practice on the importance of framing issues for deliberation.
The fifth and final function of the forum is to contribute to local community building. Our political discourse is dangerously polarized, but that polarization is often exaggerated and manufactured, and is largely a function of human nature combined with a national zero-sum political system that unfortunately triggers the worst of our natural “us v. them” brains. Shifting away from Red-Blue partisan politics to local issues can on its own have a significant depolarization and re-humanization effect. Social media platforms thrive on dividing us (in order to narrowly categorize us and sell us products), whereas the traditional local paper can focus on the community overall. Local media can tap into the positive power of “us” without necessarily relying on the motivational threat of a “them.”
From diffuse opinion to local cooperation
A key aspect of deliberative practice is transforming how people see themselves as they engage issues. We seek to shift from an adversarial mindset to a collaborative one, and from the easy assumption that problems are primarily caused by wicked people, to recognizing the inherent wickedness of social problems. When we shift from seeing each other as opponents we must defeat to collaborators shoulder to shoulder working a problem together, we begin to build the environment for the kind of talk that helps communities thrive. This kind of work can spark a virtuous cycle — the more you do deliberative work, the easier it becomes: relationships are built, caricatures are exposed, trust and mutual understanding develops and new civic muscles are formed.
When we avoid triggering the worst in human nature, we have a better chance of tapping into the best, such as human creativity and imagination.
In conclusion, the work of the DJP broadly and Coloradoan Conversations specifically is clearly still in its developing stages. In many ways, these functions are aspirational rather than currently being fulfilled. As we continue to engage and combine research and practice in fields such as journalism, deliberation, democratic innovation, conflict management, social psychology, argumentation and others, we are constantly finding new tools and possibilities. We are closely following and learning from other innovative journalism strands such as Solutions Journalism, dialogue journalism, citizen-centered journalism and collaborative journalism. The dedicated courses tied to the DJP give us the flexibility and people power to explore, experiment and create, and we will continue to share what we’ve learned with all who may be interested.
The challenges facing democracy and journalism are significant, but crises also tend to spark creativity and innovation. In particular, there are genuine reasons for hope at the local level, where processes can be developed that provide residents with authentic alternatives to the dysfunctional, polarized environments that too often dominate. The CPD experience has shown that many are yearning for that alternative and will support it when given the opportunity. The Coloradoan, while early on, has seen subscription conversions tied to its reimagined opinion forum.
As local media work to adjust to new realities and reestablish their role in their communities, we are confident that serving a more explicit deliberative role will be embraced and potentially transformative.
Martín Carcasson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Communication Studies department of Colorado State University, and the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD).