What might journalism learn from ‘bridging’?

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By Kevin Loker
American Press Institute

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 ConversationsThe 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?

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 essaysfellows, 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.

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 (abridged) 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.

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.

 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?

Read the entire interview here: https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/articles/journalism-bridging-monica-guzman/

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