The Journalist as Mediator? Up for debate.

Do some of the answers to our biggest questions live in brave, small spaces?

Allison Dikanovic
Oct 27, 2019 · 5 min read

It’s no mystery that in many ways, 2019 America is experiencing a crisis of trust, and understandably so.

Collectively, we are struggling to trust in the integrity of institutions, of where we’re getting our information from, of our “opponents,” which means different things to different people. We’re struggling to trust in each other.

It’s impairing our ability to communicate effectively, our ability to genuinely listen to another person, our ability to collaborate or compromise, and to get really lofty: it’s impairing our ability to sustain this experiment we call democracy. Namely, we’ve lost a lot of our ability to successfully navigate our way through conflict.

Now, is it the job of journalism to serve as public mediator in a time like this?

Maybe not, but I would argue that maybe yes, at least a little bit in the ways that we can.

Do I mean that it is our job to single handedly repair this crisis of trust? Is that even possible?

Obviously, no.

But historically (and even recently), the media has not only been ineffective as mediator, but it has at times seriously exacerbated conflicts, and that is an unacceptable status quo.

This week was dense with readings and experiences that kept my wheels turning about all of this.

I started the week bouncing back from a visit with my parents, who I am constantly learning how to better communicate with, how we can listen better to each other and how we can have healthier, more productive and authentic conversations when we disagree.

For class, we read the important and provocative Complicating the Narratives by Amanda Ripley and had a guest lecture from two women who moderated comments for Spaceship Media, an organization that seeks to bridge divides through a practice called “dialogue journalism.”

I also helped facilitate a group for an Open Newsroom put on by The City and Chalkbeat facilitating conversations with parents and caregivers about special education, and attended an event called the Art of Return, where formerly incarcerated individuals shared their art and engaged in an on-stage interview with journalist Allen Arthur.

In between classes, I listened to an On Being episode called An Invitation to Brave Space where Krista Tippett interviewed Lennon Flowers and Jennifer Bailey, who co-founded a project called The People’s Supper, which uses dinner parties to facilitate conversations around polarizing, isolating or generally hard topics as an opportunity to build community.

I also delved into Lewis Raven Wallace’s new podcast called The View From Somewhere, which unpacks the ways that the media has the ability to shift the substance of public conversation by what we choose to validate as newsworthy.

Throughout the week, I kept returning to the question posed in our community engagement class: Is it our job as journalists to act as mediators?

If there was a simple answer or solution to this, I would hope that we would have figured it out already.

But that’s the thing. If I’ve learned anything from reflecting on what I’ve read, listened to and experienced this week (as well as what I’ve been observing and reflecting on for the past several years), it’s that getting anywhere close to repairing the extent of broken trust and improving our ability to navigate conflict in this country is dependent on us not trying to make things too simple.

It relies on our being brave enough to make things more complicated, but to do so in small spaces, through relationships, and to be committed to doing so for the long haul.

Is it our job as journalists to act as mediators?

Maybe not.

But is it our job to frame the conversation in as nuanced a way as possibly? To strive to more genuinely represent people’s lived realities, even if they don’t fit nicely within our canned narratives?

Is it our job to open up the opportunity for people to engage with issues, events and people in their communities in more authentic ways?

I think yes.

I think it is our job to ask better questions that encourage thoughtful reflection and honest answers instead of stoking ideological battles.

I think it is our job as journalists to reckon more honestly with our blindspots and our biases and to realize there are questions that — because of our own experiences and identities — we don’t think to ask right away.

It is our job to not lazily reduce complicated things down to black and white, but to make space for gray areas.

When we make things specific, relevant and personal, it’s easier for our audiences to not default to broad ideological, gridlock-inducing arguments.

I have no idea what this all would best look like in practice, but I believe it has to start in small spaces: in rooms in basements of public libraries, in Facebook groups and around dinner tables, as modeled by those I learned from this week who are brave enough to try to engage in this kind of work.

Three tidbits/frameworks from this week are going to stick with me, and I hope to use them in my work and in my life going forward:

1. Humans need to be heard before they will listen.

Amanda Ripley said this in Complicating the Narratives when talking about the insights Spaceship Media learned by facilitating a Facebook group of women across the political spectrum after the 2016 election, and I think it is a crucial insight into how we take in new information, which can maybe help us more effectively share information.

2. Social change moves at the speed of relationships. Relationships move at the speed of trust.

Jennifer Bailey said this in the On Being interview, and I think journalists have a lot to glean from it. That’s ultimately our task, to cultivate relationships to build trust: relationships among constituents, relationships between constituents and reporters, relationships between constituents and leaders. Relationship-building is often slow work, and we have to remain committed to it long term.

3. The poem, An Invitation to Brave Space.

This poem by Micky Scott Bey Jones came up in the On Being episode, but the idea of brave space was also discussed at the Open Newsroom when talked about setting ground rules and laying the groundwork for productive conversations in our groups. It’s pretty cheesy, but I think the sentiment serves as inspiration for what we are striving to create.

Together we will create brave space

Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”

We exist in the real world

We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

In this space

We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,

We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,

We call each other to more truth and love

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect.

It will not always be what we wish it to be

But

It will be our brave space together,

and

We will work on it side by side.

I’m not sure if it’s our job to be mediators or not, but I do think we would undoubtedly do our jobs better if we were intentional about seeking and doing our best to create brave spaces when it is within our realms of influence and capacity to do so, both in our newsrooms and in our communities.

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