In recent years, the number of nonprofits and initiatives that could be categorized under a concept called “bridging” has expanded in the U.S.: Millions of Conversations, The People’s Supper and Good Conflict are just a few. Some efforts build on conflict resolution practices at a large scale (think social psychology) or individual (think marriage counseling), and all aim to create strong conditions for talking and working together across various fault lines.
Looking at this expanding list, it’s easy to wonder what journalists — who are faced with their own challenges in reaching people with shared conversation and facts — might learn from them. But why, amid all other pressures on their work and livelihood, might they want to?
Mónica Guzmán, Director of Digital and Storytelling, Braver Angels
With this question in mind, I turned to Mónica Guzmán. The co-founder of The Evergrey and a former Nieman fellow, Guzmán is an engagement-minded journalist who has inspired many people. When Guzmán and her co-founder Anika Anand started The Evergrey, for instance, the email-based local news outlet’s casual tone was part of an effort to essentially invite local residents to engage in conversation about issues in the community. And in early 2016, Guzmán published a study with API on building audience and relevance by listening to and engaging your community, and we have since followed up with API programming including essays, fellows, a lab and more.
At an API summit on listening and dialogue, Guzmán also told the story of the Melting Mountains project, a grassroots effort led by The Evergrey to connect urban Seattle voters who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 with rural voters in neighboring Oregon who voted for Donald Trump. It foreshadowed, in some ways, the work that consumes Guzmán today: She is the digital director of Braver Angels, one of the more prominent “bridging” groups. It’s a group defined by equal parts “Red” and “Blue” leadership (she considers herself a Blue) that tries to help people converse across political fault lines. A Mexican immigrant and the daughter of immigrants who voted for Trump — she has spoken publicly about how her family influences her outlook — she is also just an ever-curious person. She even wrote a book on the topic: I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, which is slated for publication on March 8.
I recently talked with Guzmán about her current bridging work and what it might offer for journalists, and why, if at all, journalists may want to pay attention. We talked about how it has shown her to dig deeper to unearth the concerns of whomever she is talking to. We discussed tips for how journalists can avoid being “incurious,” including instances when they are faced with clear falsehoods. And we explored how journalists might think about engagement projects in 2022 that attract more than the loudest partisans.
Here is our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Loker: I wonder if we might start by having you reflect on a few specific practices you’ve learned in this “bridging” work recently — things that you wish you would have known or done in a newsroom. Have there been any moments where you think, “Gosh, I wish I had thought of this when I was working directly in newsrooms?”
Guzmán: One big one that’s come up is the power of learning people’s concerns. Of asking about them, then looking for what’s behind them and beneath them — because concerns reveal their values. And once you get to the level of values, particularly on contentious issues, it’s one of the richest places both to find common ground and key differences between perspectives and to explore the tradeoffs that as a society we make all the time as we try to thrive together as different people.
Another is a powerful question I’ve been asking when I’m talking to someone who has a really strong conviction about something: “What do you think is the strongest argument for the other side?” Finding a way to ask that question gets fascinating because people have to detach themselves from their own belief a bit in order to consider another belief as generously as possible. The more closely they identify with their conviction, the more resistance there is to this question. But then I just ask the question again: “Well, you know, I see this other perspective on this that’s quite strong. What do you think they’re saying that is connecting?” And if I can get folks to consider that out loud, the interview becomes less about good guy, bad guy, and gets us to whatever the heart of the issue truly is for them.
[pullquote align=center] We want people to affirm a shared reality before they earn our trust. But what if it takes trust to build a true shared reality?[/pullquote]
Loker: When I think about the work of Braver Angels, sometimes I think the most applicable ideas are aimed at engagement editors or perhaps moderators — people who in many ways are charged with creating conversation around news that can include many voices or perspectives. And there’s more and more of that. But I wonder if you might expand on how lessons from the bridging space go beyond that to help more journalists in their day to day work.
Guzmán: One thing that comes to mind from Braver Angels is one of our signature workshops called “Depolarize Within.” A foundational principle of that workshop is that we are all polarized when we live in a polarized world. As a journalist I have often found myself thinking “polarization is a problem for other people, but not for me. Obviously.” As if I have some special immunity from the warping effects of polarization. But no one is immune. Being more “educated” or “informed” doesn’t offer more protection, the research is showing us, and for all I know, being so steeped in a deluge of media — as most journalists have to be — actually makes me more vulnerable to misperceptions across our divides, not less!
So if journalists are to be what I think we can be — leaders and models for the best ways to make sense of a sharply divided world — we have to get really humble and really honest. Where might our own views and assumptions be leading us to make conclusions that close us off to asking better questions, telling truer stories, or just including the people we’re serving? At Braver Angels, I’m learning every day about this. Just this morning, some of my politically “red” leaning colleagues saw that political “blues” on the media team had labeled a perspective in one of our podcasts as “right-wing.” They found the label demeaning and shared that in their view, it would really turn off “reds” in our community to see that label used that way. Our whole jam is to speak and reach across divides constantly. But I didn’t see what a problem this label was until my colleagues pointed it out to me. It was another reminder that no matter how careful I think I’m being, I can always learn from people who come at things from a different point of view — and can never stop being open to that.
Loker: That flows into something I was going to ask about. So you’re at Braver Angels and you have this book about being ever-curious. I wonder if you might expand more on how journalists — who are usually quite curious — might sometimes be or act less curious than they ought to be.
Guzmán: One of the most dangerous traps we fall into is unintentionally framing issues or questions in a way that makes people feel like they have to parrot some familiar talking point instead of telling us what they really think. I have this principle I think a lot about: When we’re not honest together, we’re not together. We’re just performing to each other. When people perform familiar perspectives instead of openly sharing their actual ones, it gets really hard to tell any kind of shared story that’s gonna help us figure stuff out. People these days are scared to express their honest political views to their relatives and friends, let alone journalists. So we have to go out of our way as interviewers and storytellers to help people feel good being honest. Minimize the risk and increase the reward of it.
One thing I do is invite people to think out loud if they’re scrambling for what to say, and some part of you thinks — are they scared I might take it the wrong way? Are they being too guarded, too careful, instead of freely expressing themselves to me?
At those moments it helps keep an exchange more curious and more candid if I put my notebook down and say, “Go ahead and think out loud a minute. I won’t hold you to it!” And mean it.
Loker: Are there other ways journalists might inadvertently close off getting true answers in interviews?
Guzmán: I think another of the ways that as journalists we can unintentionally be incurious is by failing to detect the assumptions in our questions. Assumptions, when they are baked into our questions, narrow the field of true answers someone feels comfortable giving us.
There are so many assumptions out there about what people are “supposed” to think based on who or where they are, or what’s deemed more or less okay in their community. So I also go out of my way to let people know that I am trying to wash myself of all expectation. That I am here to understand their true story without judgment, and let them surprise me as they will. And when they do surprise me? I don’t hide it! I lean in, being honest about where I’m coming from in hopes that that encourages them to be honest about where they’re coming from, too.
[pullquote align=left] There’s also resistance to the exercise of bridge-building itself that has built up. I get why, but I look at it very differently. If we can’t get curious across divides in a polarized world, we can’t see the world at all.[/pullquote]
It’ll never be perfect! Since I’ve started talking more with people with very different and sometimes hugely contentious views — all the way from folks on the right who believe the 2020 election was fraudulent to folks on the left who believe the vaccine was designed to hurt them — I’ve caught myself realizing during an interview that I made a big dumb assumption earlier on. Everything from assuming that someone who is gay or is a person of color leaned left to assuming that a person who is concerned about the vaccine must lean right. As soon as I know I made an assumption, I call it out and apologize. That almost always gets us someplace more honest.
Loker: Thinking of engagement, I’m interested to what extent you think your Melting Mountains project with The Evergrey could happen today. It seems like such a radically different time than 2017.
Guzmán: It could still happen today from scratch, but it would take a lot more prep work. And the reason I’m sure about that is pretty simple: We’ve dug deeper into our trenches, and we can name the challenges of the last several years that have driven us so much further apart: massive distrust in elections and election policy, COVID shutdowns and mandates, high-stakes reckonings with race, gender, and speech, all these issues and narratives where we disagree with a passion and one side can feel completely assaulted, disrespected, and misunderstood by the other.
Plus: there’s also been ample time for ideas to circulate about how trying to build bridges across what look like impossible chasms is naive, stupid, a waste of time, an abandonment of one’s own values or, you know, a path to the dark side. So there’s also resistance to the exercise of bridge-building itself that has built up. I get why, but I look at it very differently. If we can’t get curious across divides in a polarized world, we can’t see the world at all. So isn’t it more naive and a greater abandonment of our values to not stay curious?
Loker: With perhaps Melting Mountains but also Braver Angels, how do you handle when people come to a conversation bearing what seem like clear falsehoods? I know you have engaged with these topics at BA, including around the 2020 election and Jan. 6.
Could you talk about the tension between exploring and understanding views you disagree with vs. giving airtime to problematic (or inaccurate) views. What have you learned that might apply to journalism, which of course wants to be rooted in facts?
Guzmán: This is the hardest thing, isn’t it? I mean, when things that seem so false to me circulate this widely, my faith in our society and in journalism itself starts to wobble. “Shouldn’t truth be stronger than this?” I think.
I served as vice-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee and helped revise the SPJ Code of Ethics, paying close attention to the call to “minimize harm.” I know that misinformation is harmful. I’ve seen how it twists and warps our view of each other and the world. And yet, as digital and storytelling director at Braver Angels, I have signed off on our approach to some really tricky cross-partisan conversations about the election, COVID, etc., which we design carefully but do give ordinary people space to share what they believe fully and freely, so long as they’re willing to hear other people’s beliefs, too.
It isn’t easy to hear people share beliefs that fly in the face of your understanding of reality. You might feel stunned. Incredulous. You’ll want to immediately push back. If you’re a journalist hosting a live public segment designed to inform listeners of critical facts in a few short minutes, then goodness, yes! You’ll have to!
[pullquote align=right]The Internet is a non-place that makes us into non-people. So I guess that means that newsrooms need to do as much as they can to help people be people again.[/pullquote]
But you mentioned that journalism wants to be rooted in facts. Which yes! Of course! What else would it be rooted in? But let’s turn that assumption into a question, so we can get curious: What else would journalism be rooted in, if not just facts?
My answer for now: the collective search for truth.
I should expand upon this elsewhere, but I think that when journalists dismiss an apparently false conclusion people make without getting really curious about what led them to it, we miss an opportunity not just to listen to them, but to report the truth of their stories — the concerns and experiences that make it up — and understand the world better as a result. When we hear people out fully and freely, we also build trust, which keeps people from finding comfort in spaces that will happily affirm their beliefs without putting them in constructive conversation with others.
This is why I believe that journalists today need to be at least as committed in some venue to helping people see and understand each other’s genuine perspectives — whatever they may be — as we are to helping them see and understand what we deem in our most open-minded and responsible reporting to be objective and indisputable facts about the world. I think some of the conversation on this mis- and disinformation misses this, to everyone’s detriment.
We want people to affirm a shared reality before they earn our trust. But what if it takes trust to build a true shared reality?
Loker: You live and work in Seattle. Technology and social media is something we haven’t talked about explicitly, but is certainly underneath it all here. For news organizations, some are monitoring disinfo or doing fact-checking work related to social media. And then there’s organizations that are thinking about, how do you just pierce through that mess? Right?
I’m curious if through your book or work at Braver Angels, if you have any takes on how news organizations might cut through all the noise on social media.
Guzmán: We’re not often conscious of the extent to which social media limits the power of conversation. And when I say conversation, I’m talking about something that’s more than just talking about people chatting. Conversation at its best is something that gets created anew every time. So this conversation we are having right now is something unique with its own fingerprint. It’s a meeting of minds in a particular moment, a particular context. And it’s so powerful because it’s unpredictable, because people can learn from and surprise each other.
So I talk in I Never Thought Of it That Way about five things to look for that help you see how strong the conditions are for curious exchanges. The first is time, the amount of time the people in the conversation have to give. The second is attention. Are people in an exchange actually present with each other, actually or digitally? For all I know you have 10 tabs up right now, you know what I mean? Even on Zoom, we’re not really sure. “I don’t know; he’s moving his eyes a lot.” Parity is the third one, and it’s about the power differential in a conversation. If I’m with you in a coffee shop, we have equal platforms, right? But if you posted a Facebook post, and I am a commenter, you could delete me, you could hide me, you have power over me, so how honest will I be? Containment is the fourth one. And it’s really important, because the more contained a conversation is to the people actually participating in it, the more that conversation can invite their candor and deliver insights. But the more you’re exposed to the potentially massive invisible audiences of open social media, the more your conversation might resemble a performance. And then the fifth and last one is embodiment. As humans, we have this entire toolkit, right? Our gestures and our voice and our tone, etc. So depending on the technology, some of those things are just erased.
For newsrooms I think the place to begin is with the paradox that even though we are so “connected,” we are also remarkably disconnected. That even though we are surrounded by information, we are less informed about each other. The Internet is a non-place that makes us into non-people. So I guess that means that newsrooms need to do as much as they can to help people be people again.
Loker: This is not a presidential election year, but there is plenty at stake, including control of the House and Senate. Politicians also tend to try to motivate their parties’ base in a midterm election. Do you have any insights for journalists about how they might design their projects or their coverage to avoid attracting only the most rigid or polarizing voices?
Guzmán: A lot of our media is made for folks who feel strongly about things, whether it’s partisan views or anything else. Those are the dynamics right now. The partisans are the ones sharing. They’re the ones who feel most activated, most implicated. They’re the ones most committed, which is great. We need that. But when our attention is drawn to the extremes we end up overly amplifying the extremes. Anything that sort of speaks to them just pops even faster and gets us the clicks and the numbers. What we think that means is that the people who are not as partisan are just not interested. A different interpretation is that the people who are not as partisan are just not being spoken to. In large part, I bet, because they’re not being heard.
Loker: What would a Braver Angels-inspired news organization look like?
Guzmán: Oh my lord, what a great question. A Braver Angels-inspired newsroom would push for ideological diversity and ideological representation in editorial leadership. So it would begin there. What in the world would a newsroom look like when it is co-led by people who are intimately familiar with more liberal thinking because it is theirs, and people who are intimately familiar with more conservative thinking because it is theirs? Could it hold together? Could it thrive? Could it — I don’t know — model something important?
There’s this rainbow of natural political thought and instincts out there. Not just red and blue but everything in between and beyond.
And I’ve come to believe that rainbow is here for a reason.
Loker: I wondered if a Braver Angels newsroom might also use the “fishbowl exercise” — the tactic you use to have participants express what they value about their “side” and also what concerns or worries them about their side. Does that open more conditions for truth like you discussed earlier, in a way beneficial for journalists?
Guzmán: The fishbowl exercise is also a phenomenal way to help people on opposite sides of an issue explore what exists between them and speak to each other in a constructive way. You end up understanding perspectives and the influence that they have and how we construct our world.
So I see a Braver Angels newsroom doing that constantly with any issue that is important to the community — and I mean constantly, and inviting people in the community to participate. Get to a place where we can do it calmly. Put things out on the table. And then, actual policymaking, which right now seems so impossible, becomes possible, because you have now had the experience of looking at the other side generously, and understanding that they do have something to contribute, even when it seems like they absolutely don’t. Sometimes I feel like in our politics, we sort of have this weird endgame that the whole other side just disappears or dies. Not gonna happen.
The American Press Institute supports a number of initiatives on community listening in news, including highlighting examples in its newsletter Need to Know.
Trusting News, a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and API that helps journalists earn trust and demonstrate credibility, recently began a new initiative: the “Road to Pluralism.” If you’re a journalist interested in the themes in the above interview, consider getting involved.