So in the run-up to the 2016 election, I was, like most of us, watching the rise in discord and vitriol and nastiness in our public spaces. It was this crazy uptick in polarization. It was both disheartening and distressing. And so I started thinking, with a fellow journalist, Jeremy Hay, about how we might practice our craft differently. How we might go to the heart of divides, to places of conflict, like journalists always have, but then, once there, do something really different. We knew we wanted to take the core tools of our craft — careful vetting of information, diligent research, curiosity, a commitment to serving the public good — to serving our democracy — and do something new. And so we mapped out this process, what we call dialogue journalism, for going to the heart of social and political divides, and then, once there, building journalism-supported conversations between people on opposite sides of polarizing issues.
But how actually to do this in a world that's so divided, so deeply divided — when we live in a world in which cousins and aunts and uncles can't talk to one another, when we often live in separate and distinct news ecosystems, and when we reflexively and habitually malign and dismiss those with whom we disagree? But we wanted to try. And so right after the 2016 election, in that time between the election and the inauguration, we partnered with the Alabama Media Group to do something really different. We brought 25 Trump supporters from Alabama together in conversation with 25 Clinton supporters from California. And we brought them together in a closed, moderated Facebook group that we kept open for a month. What we wanted to do was to give them a place to engage with genuine curiosity and openness. And we wanted to support them in building relationships, not just with each other but with us as journalists. And then we wanted to supply facts and information — facts and information that they could actually receive and process and use to undergird their conversations.
And so as a prelude to this conversation, the first step in what we call dialogue journalism, we asked what they thought the other side thought of them. So when we asked the Trump supporters from Alabama what they thought the Clinton supporters in California thought of them, this is some of what they said. "They think we are religious Bible thumpers." "That we're backwards and hickish, and stupid." "They think that we all have Confederate flags in our yards, that we're racist and sexist and uneducated." "They think we're barefoot and pregnant, with dirt driveways." "And they think we're all prissy butts and that we walk around in hoop skirts with cotton fields in the background."
And then we asked that same question of the Californians: "What do you think the Alabamians think about you?" And they said this: "That we're crazy, liberal Californians." "That we're not patriotic." "We're snobby and we're elitist." "We're godless and we're permissive with our children." "And that we're focused on our careers, not our family." "That we're elitist, pie-in-the-sky intellectuals, rich people, Whole Foods-eating, very out of touch."
So by asking questions like this at the start of every conversation and by identifying and sharing stereotypes, we find that people — people on all sides — begin to see the simplistic and often mean-spirited caricatures they carry. And in that — after that, we can move into a process of genuine conversation.
So in the two years since that launch — California/Alabama Project — we've gone on to host dialogues and partnerships with media organizations across the country. And they've been about some of our most contentious issues: guns, immigration, race, education. And what we found, remarkably, is that real dialogue is in fact possible. And that when given a chance and structure around doing so, many, not all, but many of our fellow citizens are eager to engage with the other.
Too often journalists have sharpened divides in the name of drama or readership or in service to our own views. And too often we've gone to each side quoting a partisan voice on one side and a partisan voice on the other with a telling anecdotal lead and a pithy final quote, all of which readers are keen to mine for bias. But our dialogue-based process has a slower pace and a different center. And our work is guided by the principle that dialogue across difference is essential to a functioning democracy, and that journalism and journalists have a multifaceted role to play in supporting that.
So how do we work? At every stage, we're as transparent as possible about our methods and our motives. At every stage, we take time to answer people's questions — explain why we're doing what we're doing. We tell people that it's not a trap: no one's there to tell you you're stupid, no one's there to tell you your experience doesn't matter. And we always ask for a really different sort of behavior, a repatterning away from the reflexive name-calling, so entrenched in our discourse that most of us, on all sides, don't even notice it anymore.
So people often come into our conversations a bit angrily. They say things like, "How can you believe X?" and "How can you read Y?" and "Can you believe that this happened?" But generally, in this miracle that delights us every time, people begin to introduce themselves. And they begin to explain who they are and where they come from, and they begin to ask questions of one another. And slowly, over time, people circle back again and again to difficult topics, each time with a little more empathy, a little more nuance, a little more curiosity. And our journalists and moderators work really hard to support this because it's not a debate, it's not a battle, it's not a Sunday morning talk show. It's not the flinging of talking points. It's not the stacking of memes and gifs or articles with headlines that prove a point. And it's not about scoring political victories with question traps.
So what we've learned is that our state of discord is bad for everyone. It is a deeply unhappy state of being. And people tell us this again and again. They say they appreciate the chance to engage respectfully, with curiosity and with openness, and that they're glad and relieved for a chance to put down their arms. And so we do our work in direct challenge to the political climate in our country right now, and we do it knowing that it is difficult, challenging work to hold and support people in opposing backgrounds in conversation. And we do it knowing democracy depends on our ability to address our shared problems together. And we do this work by putting community at the heart of our journalistic process, by putting our egos to the side to listen first, to listen deeply, to listen around and through our own biases, our own habits of thought, and to support others in doing the same. And we do this work knowing that journalism as an institution is struggling, and that it has always had a role to play and will continue to have a role to play in supporting the exchange of ideas and views.
For many of the participants in our groups, there are lasting reverberations. Many people have become Facebook friends and in-real-life friends too, across political lines. After we closed that first Trump/Clinton project, about two-thirds of the women went on to form their own Facebook group and they chose a moderator from each state and they continue to talk about difficult and challenging issues. People tell us again and again that they're grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this work, grateful to know that people on the other side aren't crazy, grateful that they've had a chance to connect with people they wouldn't have otherwise talked to.
A lot of what we've seen and learned, despite the fact that we call ourselves Spaceship Media, is not at all rocket science. If you call people names, if you label them, if you insult them, they are not inclined to listen to you. Snark doesn't help, shame doesn't help, condescension doesn't help. Genuine communication takes practice and effort and restraint and self-awareness. There isn't an algorithm to solve where we are. Because real human connection is in fact real human connection. So lead with curiosity, emphasize discussion not debate, get out of your silo, because real connection across difference ... this is a salve that our democracy sorely needs.