July 10, 2024

“But how do we get people to trust and care about our journalism?”

“How do we engage audiences who think our reporting is partisan?”

“People don’t even want to be interviewed by us anymore. What do we do?”

“What’s going to happen if people don’t believe the results of the 2024 elections?”

If you’ve heard a version of any of these questions in your newsroom, this collection of ideas is for you. I’ve heard them hundreds of times in one-on-ones with reporters, editors and newsroom leaders.

But their answers have a way of breaking journalist norms, and sometimes their brains. Why? Because the answer is not to produce more information, the main thing newsrooms know how to do.

The answer is creating space for connection.

In UW-Madison professor Sue Robinson’s 2023 book, “How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities and Care,” she states plainly: “We need new skill sets, new relationships, and new mindsets. And we have them at the ready.”

Robinson’s book challenges existing thinking and processes and identifies the necessary skill sets and jobs to be done for newsrooms that truly want to answer these questions — and not throw their hands up or resort to blaming others for their woes.

The roles needed include relationship builder, community collaborator, community conversation facilitator and professional network builder. The skill sets required to do them well include moderating difficult conversations, helping people come to understand their differences, creating inclusive spaces and collaborating with community members, to name a few.

If newsrooms don’t move beyond blasting out information on their various channels, sooner or later, they risk being taken out by a variety of forces already in play: artificial intelligence, bad actors seeking to discredit fact-based media outlets, media avoidance and overwhelm, partisanship and polarization. The newsroom-to-community relationships that can endure these threats need to be durable. And to be durable, they need to be anchored in as many 3D, humanized interactions as possible.

Robinson, who used to be a working journalist, came to this conclusion after stepping back and looking at the big picture. So too has Mónica Guzmán, a senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, an organization working to depolarize America. In Guzman’s book, “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times,” she introduces the powerful idea of “conversational dials.” These are, essentially, dimensions of creating a space in which more nuanced, connected and transformational interactions can take place. These five dials are:

  • Time: Do you have the time needed to get into it?
  • Embodiment: How much information is the medium you’re using able to convey? E.g., text vs. phone call vs. video call vs. being IRL.
  • Attention: What’s the quality of your attention and are you able to be fully present?
  • Parity: Are those involved in the conversation on a level playing field? If not, how can you make the power more even?
  • Containment: Is this a private space to get into touchy subjects and be vulnerable, or is it too public and therefore too risky?

Think of these as adjustable dials. The higher they are, the more nuanced, connected and transformational a relationship can become.

Now consider the way most newsrooms bring people’s attention to touchy or tough information. Most of these dials are turned way low. So it’s not shocking that just reporting more information and distributing it in the same old ways isn’t creating the conditions for trust, connection, empathy and relationships.

This is where the living room comes in — Living Room Conversations, that is. Becca Kearl is the executive director of this fascinating organization that, in their words, “connect(s) people across divides and within communities to build understanding through conversation.”

Her organization was founded on the simple and powerful idea that in order to address the issues that face us, we need to be in better relationship with one another — both individually and collectively. Kearl found her way to Living Room Conversations after a meandering career path working in domestic violence, doing community-based courtroom monitoring and a wide variety of what’s come to be called “bridging work.” That is, work that helps bring seemingly disparate people and ideas together in order to break through conflict and make the world more functional.

Throughout my interview with her, she kept dropping profound truths that newsrooms don’t often pick up and examine, like, “Connection generates confidence and trust,” and, “So much we know and believe is a result of the people and information we’re connected to,” and “A small conversation seeds connection, and when you’re feeling more connected you’re more willing to listen.”

Yes. OK, so how can newsrooms make use of these laws of human nature to meet their goals of having the information they work so hard to produce, be useful to and used by the people they aim to serve? They can start by deploying their methodology and any of the hundreds of conversation guides that Living Room Conversations has generated.

The Living Room Conversation methodology

The essence of a Living Room Conversation is astonishingly simple and effective: Invite four to six people to sit down for an hour or so about an agreed-upon topic, follow their tested conversation guide, listen and learn from one another, and walk away with more connection and understanding.

Now with a little more detail: You can invite people with differing views, ask the invitees to each invite someone who thinks differently or open it up to a bigger group — hundreds of people even — and divide folks up into smaller groups of four to six people. It can be in an actual living room, a high school gym, a house of worship, a meadow, your newsroom, wherever people can sit comfortably and feel welcome.

Once the attendees are assembled, the structured conversation begins with an introduction covering the basics: name, where you live and what drew you to the conversation. The next, critical point is conversational agreements. What these six agreements do is nothing short of magic: They lay down a set of rules that ensures none of the typical bombs can get detonated that blow up a productive and respectful conversation.

Next, the first question round is kicked off, focusing on getting to know who people are and their values. The hot topic is coming, but people are doing the important work of warming up to one another, humanizing those who they may soon learn they disagree with on the given topic. Let’s take the topic of abortion — a round one question in this guide includes this question: “What are your hopes and concerns for your family, community and/or the country?” Hearing the other folks in the group share their hopes and fears allows everyone to relate to one another first and start building bonds.

The second question round focuses on lived experience with the issue, not on partisan talking points or research or anything not directly related to that person’s life. Check out this powerful question from the abortion guide for round two: “Have you or someone close to you ever had to make a decision about abortion? Who made the ultimate decision? How do you (or the person you know) feel about it now?”

The sharing and the listening from round two is the heart of the conversation, enabling people to take off the layers of armor they often bring to polarizing topics and speak with the protection of the group’s conversation agreements to ensure no one is ostracized, humiliated or shamed. It allows people to give and receive the ultimate gift of feeling seen, heard and understood.

Round three enables reflection, including questions like, “What learning, new understanding or common ground was found on the topic?” and, “Is there a next step you would like to take based upon the conversation you just had?”

After the group concludes their reflection, they close out the conversation, thanking one another for participating. And people are changed, often in as little as an hour. They feel more connected, more curious, more willing to listen to views or ideas that are not their own. And then they step out into the world with a bit more humility and ability to understand themselves and others.

Isn’t that what journalism, in its finest form, enables? It helps people better understand the world, their place in it and how to make it work alongside people different from them. At least that’s the kind of journalism I want more of in the world.

How journalists can use these guides

You might be thinking, this all sounds nice, but my job is on a deadline and I don’t have time to convene people to have a chat. Well, how long does it take you to find six people with differing experiences on a topic, create the conditions for them to trust you and speak candidly so you can better understand what motivates them in order to quote them for a story? Not so fast.

And in the traditional method of a reporter calling folks individually, those being interviewed don’t get the tremendous benefit of being in a space to really listen to, learn from and better understand others, as they would in a group conversation.

This kind of collective transformation impact is also scalable. Many groups that use Living Room Conversations hold dozens of these conversations, which touch hundreds of people in that same hour. What’s needed is just space to host folks, either IRL or in Zoom breakout rooms. And the conversations can be about all manner of topics. Living Room Conversations has hundreds of free guides on topics ranging from A to Z — The American Dream to Zero Tolerance.

Living Room Conversations recently partnered with the National Association for Community Mediation on a series of tools and conversation guides to help schools and communities reverse the trend of school board meeting meltdowns. Kearl said the results of this intervention have been promising — not only did participants open up and have deep, rich conversations, but participating school boards have been making adjustments and creating more opportunities for community engagement, based on what they heard and learned.

Let’s talk about trust in elections

Living Room Conversations recently launched Trust in Elections guides, both for local and national elections. Their website hits the problem coming for newsrooms and for Americans: The results of the 2024 elections are going to be questioned. No matter who wins, a significant portion of America will believe that democracy is broken. Their contribution to safeguarding election integrity is to build trust in elections and one another through openly discussing trust in elections.

If I could wave a magic wand, local newsrooms would partner with libraries, Rotary Clubs, community colleges, faith- or cultural-based organizations now to host this conversation across their communities. And if newsrooms needed to extrude some product from the gatherings, they could add a panel discussion or interview with local election officials and reporters to explain the process, get people’s questions and create content around what is most salient. As well as interview the folks who participated in it and ask what changed for them during the course of the experience.

I’d also integrate the great questions from the Living Room Conversations guides into interviews with candidates and elected officials, especially those sowing distrust in elections and pulling out their own lived experience with the problem, not accepting hearsay or vague hand-wavy gestures of malfeasance.

There are countless other free guides that Living Room Conversations have built and tested that newsrooms could be taking advantage of right now, including: Anxiety and Elections, Does My Vote Really Matter?, Faith in Politics, Democracy, Extremism & Outliers, The Census, Redistricting and Gerrymandering, to name but a few of their many free tools.

In fact, if I were a newsroom doing radio, podcasting, TV or video, I’d convene on any one of these topics weekly and allow more people to witness the nuance, complexity and humanity of others. It’s one important tool to stave off political violence and allow communities a level of relational resilience for the storms ahead. And it’s a type of information people are hungry for: less yelling, more understanding.

When I asked Kearl about journalism’s role in the current environment of polarization and breakdown of trust, she said to me, “Too often with big issues we want to hand it off because we don’t see our role in it, or we don’t see there’s anything we can do about it.”

Research, in fact, shows that a simple 45-minute conversation with a disengaged news consumer builds trust for that person with the news brand and the journalist. And Trusting News put those findings into action with partner newsrooms, conducting 76 user interviews and developing seven strategies to help with outreach to engage folks who don’t typically engage with news.

Hopefully you can’t help but see an obvious and actionable role that you and your newsroom can play in not only helping your community trust your newsroom, but also understanding important issues you’re reporting on, and understand one another better. Our elections and our democracy depend on it.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Jennifer Brandel is CEO of Hearken, and co-creator of a variety of initiatives supporting journalists in shifting their practices to better meet this moment of…
Jennifer Brandel

More News

Back to News