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.
PCP's staff has become increasingly concerned about the connection between the way journalists cover conflict and the way the rest of us live it out. For one thing, they believe that people in conflict tend to mimic the press in the way they characterize their opponents and the dispute – reducing it to a battle between two, and only two, extremes, making it more difficult to explore the complexities of their opponents' views, those of people on their own side and even their own positions, which may include internal doubts.
Within a dialogue, PCP tries to maximize the positive power of questions, which can serve to either enhance understanding or further polarization. They have found that people in conflict ask each other the sorts of accusatory questions often associated with journalists, and that PCP tries to steer its dialogue participants away from: questions that re-circulate what's been said; attribute motives; contain a veiled statement of blame or judgment; and focus on the past without pointing to the future. "As society's most visible 'question askers,' journalists serve as models," Stains contends. "Consequently, we've had to work hard to help people learn new inquiry skills, which lead to deeper, richer, more nuanced conversations and stories about the conflict."
What if journalists added more searching, less contentious questions to our repertoire and worked some of them into our coverage of political and other disputes? Some ideas, adapted from questions PCP has crafted to foster understanding during a dialogue, include:
• To a sparring activist or pontificating politician: Do you have any internal doubts about your own views? Granted, many, if not most of them, would ignore or twist the question. But occasionally we might uncover a new insight.
• Instead of a "gotcha" question pointing out a politician's flip-flopping: Can you describe how your views developed and changed over time?
• To an evangelical Christian who has criticized a liberal Democrat (or vice versa): Have you ever met your opponent directly? If so, what about him surprised you?
• To someone engaged in a conflict seemingly without end: What are your hopes for the future?
Asking unexpected, thought-provoking questions also may help us address a frequent criticism of the press in this era of 24-hour coverage: endlessly repeating the same headline stories even when nothing new has happened. What if a reporter took a look beyond each Senate battle over President Bush's judicial nominees and examined a more fundamental series of questions people on both sides of the aisle have been raising: Is the independence of the judiciary under attack? If the courts' independence and esteem are eroded, what does that mean for our democracy? Would that fresh version of the story generate more light than heat? Would the audience find saturation coverage less tiresome and more stimulating?
Even in the pressurized atmosphere of political debates and news conferences, reporters can sometimes work in thoughtful questions that have been prepared in advance. Asking a politician to give an account of how he developed his perspective will likely yield a more enlightening answer than a question that merely goads one candidate into criticizing another. At the time of the Democratic primary debate in February 2004, for instance, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller asked Sen. John Kerry about President Bush's handling of soldiers' funerals. "More than 500 American men and women have died in Iraq, and the president has been criticized for not attending a single funeral. Now the argument of the White House is that he can't attend one without attending them all... What would you do?" she asked. When Kerry criticized Bush, as expected, she challenged him with, "How can you go to 500 funerals and be president?"
Is there a different question that might have provided more insight into Kerry's thinking? What if Bumiller had asked something like this: As president, how would you handle the funerals of the soldiers who have died in Iraq? What do you consider important as you think about weighing the competing needs of honoring American soldiers and the limits on your time as president? What would have been lost by asking a less contentious question? What might have been gained?
Experimenting with new questions will ultimately lead to new story ideas – stories that fill gaps between extremes, put context around sound bites and highlight the contradictions we all know exist but rarely get mentioned in our coverage, whether it's of gay marriage, the future of the United Nations or politics in the Middle East. Maybe these stories will show that we aren't as divided as we thought. Certainly they will show that things are not as simple as the writing formula we tend to follow. They may even be the types of stories that will bring back old readers and viewers and win new ones.