Journalists often like to learn and mimic the good work of their peers at other news organizations.
But if we think about local opinion journalism as a vehicle for greater civic discourse, there is a world beyond news that opinion editors might also gain valuable insight from.
We at the American Press Institute are on the heels of an API Local News Summit on Opinion, Civic Discourse and Sustainability in Austin, TX. At the summit, like one we held in 2019, we purposefully brought together not just opinion editors but also civil society organizations and researchers who are focused on bridging and facilitating constructive conversations across Americans’ many lines of difference. The idea is simple: When it comes to better civic discourse and problem-solving in our communities, we are all in this together.
It’s easy to become insular in our solution-seeking for challenges facing local news, including in opinion sections. But a group like Good Conflict might help us imagine and then train letter-to-the-editor writers or commenters to have more constructive conflict. A group like Braver Angels might teach us strategies for recruiting community perspectives across the political spectrum. And More in Common can give us insight into how surveys and psychological research might influence the types of conversations our opinion pages seek to foster.
We plan to share specific takeaways on this theme at our summit in the coming weeks. But the general idea is worth posing now: If you widen your view of whom to learn from — even in your own community — what ideas and partnerships might follow?
– Kevin Loker, API director of strategic partnerships and research
TRY IT OUT NOW
- To broaden who you learn from, spend 20 minutes Googling and signing up for newsletters or following social media accounts from relevant civil society organizations or individuals who work on topics such as bridging, pluralism or social psychology. As starters, consider the Power of Us and More in Common newsletters.
- Next, look in your own backyard. What local universities or colleges might have expertise that you might learn from — or even partner with? Are there specific local academics who could be partners and not just op-ed writers, given their research? Are there centers working on conflict resolution or civic engagement that might value your platform and also bring insight or capacity to further leverage it?
Martín Carcasson, founder of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation, details what he’s learned in almost 20 years of applying deliberative practice to community discourse — and how this approach can be applied to opinion journalism. As newsrooms reimagine opinion forums, like the CPD’s partner the Coloradoan, he encourages them to consider these five basic functions.
- Provide a place for people to express their opinions. Newsrooms should work to expand the voices participating, simplify access and reach out to traditionally marginalized or missing voices.
- Provide access to opinions of other people. When left open, forums tend to become either havens for the like-minded or unproductive spaces full of polarized outrage and misinformation.
- Provide a place for and a model of quality interaction and discussion. Establishing ground rules, moderating techniques and fact-checking is essential. Focus on positively reinforcing quality engagement, rather than primarily policing or calling out bad behavior.
- Provide analysis of the conversation that contributes positively to the public discourse. With all the ways for people to express their opinions, the noise can be overwhelming. An important function of a local opinion forum must be working to summarize and analyze the information.
- Contribute to local community building. Shifting away from Red-Blue partisan politics to local issues can, on its own, have a significant depolarization and re-humanization effect.
WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING
- The Lexington Herald-Leader partnered with CivicLex to elevate community voices.
- The Laconia Daily Sun applied conflict mediation skills to its opinion content.
- The Christian Science Monitor has experimented with identifying and sorting its news stories by values that drive them.
- Trusting News offers its Dimensions of Difference guide, which supports newsrooms in creating better content by helping you to identify, understand and talk about your own differences internally.
- Research API conducted with More in Common suggests Americans find conversations about a community’s future led by news organizations more helpful than standard debate formats.