New 'dialogue journalism' project will immerse itself in gun debate

A coalition of American newsrooms is working to overcome the anger and divisiveness driving the national debate over guns and gun violence by convening 150 people across the political and cultural divide in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“Guns, an American Conversation,” is a new approach to public service journalism that will bring together Americans of diverse perspectives and experiences in a closed, month-long moderated Facebook group to discuss guns and other related social issues, according to a news release from Advance Local.

The project, led by Advance Local in collaboration with Spaceship Media, the Newseum and Time, will launch with a small, in-person workshop for 20 participants, or fellows, in Washington, D.C., March 24 and 25 in advance of the April online convening. The discussions there will be facilitated by Essential Partners, an organization that works to foster constructive dialogue.

The workshop will take place the same weekend as planned marches around the nation for and against greater gun control, but will not be connected or involved with them, said the release. Participants will spend two days at the Newseum in facilitated conversation, storytelling and trust-building exercises before they move into the online group.

As the Facebook group discussion gets started, the coalition will work with journalists from Advance’s local media groups around the country, including John Counts from MLive, Enrique Lavin from N.J. Advance Media, Rebecca Walker Benjamin from AL.com and Steve Koff from Cleveland.com’s D.C. bureau, to build and moderate the online community and report about issues and questions members of the group have.

At the same time, Advance Local will be working with writer Kelley Benham French, a frequent Poynter faculty member, to produce a long-form story about the experience.

Stories and videos about the project will run on Advance sites and newspapers in Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Central New York, Ohio, Oregon, Staten Island and Pennsylvania, and in Time, among other places.

After putting out a call for participants, Advance Local received more than 800 applicants in fewer than five days. Here were some of their stories:

  • “My wife is an orthopedic trauma surgeon and she sees the damage caused by guns, almost on a daily basis.”

  • “I want to be part of this conversation because I am part of the next generation of firearms owners.”

  • “I am a mom, I’m handicapped, I’m a survivor of kidnap/rape, and I am a concealed carry instructor.”

  • “My family owns and operates a ‘mom and pop’ gun shop in Massachusetts, so this issue directly affects my family's ability to live the American dream and keep a roof over my parents' head.”

  • “I was a victim of armed rape, and I have long been an advocate of more gun control."

  • “As a former U.S. diplomat I have fielded decades of questions from foreign interlocutors on why America permits such unregulated gun ownership and the resultant gun violence.”

  • “I want to bring a perspective about gun safety and gun violence in America from someone whose life has been indelibly and forever changed by gun use. A month before my first birthday my mother, who had been diagnosed as manic depressive, committed suicide by killing herself with a gun. I also come from a long line of hunters and outdoorsman that use guns on a regular basis."

Spaceship Media is the creator of a new Dialogue Journalism method, which originated with a project between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump voters after the 2016 presidential election in conjunction with AL.com. The organization has helped conduct a similar dialogue project on Facebook about the immigration debate in California, and race and education dialogues in Seattle and Alabama, among others, and will serve as a consultant and partner in the effort.  

Advance is also working with advisers across the civic dialogue community, including Search for Common Ground.

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