By David Plazas
McMinnville, Tennessee, sits 80 miles east of popular sunbelt city, Nashville, also known as Music City, the “it” city, and the Athens of the South. Nashville is the city I have lived in for eight years. When the Tennessean news publication hired me to lead its opinion section, I chose to move to one of its densest, most urban areas because it felt like home to this Chicago native.
McMinnville, on the other hand, is a bucolic, quaint small town. Its downtown is perfect for a postcard or the setting for a Hallmark Channel movie.
Here are a couple of more relevant comparisons.
Nashville’s population in 2020 was about 715,884 residents, growing 14 percent over the last decade. McMinnville’s population is just shy of 14,000—about 2 percent higher than it was in 2010. That means the town grew by fewer than 200 people.
As for voting, in the 2016 presidential election, 60 percent of Nashville-Davidson County voters chose Hillary Clinton while 70 percent of Warren County residents picked Donald Trump.1 McMinnville is the seat of Warren County. In 2020, nearly 65 percent of Nashville voters selected Joe Biden and nearly 74 percent of Warren voters opted for Trump.2
These two communities are emblematic of the nation’s growing urban-rural divide and the stark polarization that is afflicting the United States today.
For centuries, the American two-party system has created conditions for people to view the world, politics, and policy in radically different ways. In recent years, however, with the advent of social media, issues such as the Affordable Care Act, abortion, gun rights, COVID-19, the Capitol insurrection, critical race theory, and LGBTQ+ rights have worsened these divides and threaten to destroy our pluralistic democratic society.
On April 26, 2018, I made my way to McMinnville for the first time, taking a charming route to a place where I knew the people would be courteous but dubious of me because of my line of work. Over the last several decades, Gallup has documented the drop in trust Americans have in institutions. The latest poll showed only 21 percent of Americans trusted newspapers.
I was heading to McMinnville because the Rotary Club had invited me to talk about a new initiative, called Civility Tennessee, that the Tennessean had started under my leadership.
As a news organization and as journalists, we were very concerned with the growing polarization and animus since the 2016 election. People ended friendships, screamed at each other on social media, and demonized those who did not go along with their views.
I was present at the state’s General Assembly House of Representatives chambers in December 2016 when Tennessee electors affirmed then President-Elect Donald Trump’s victory in the state. The chair, in a stern voice, said they were fulfilling the “will of the people.” A protestor in the gallery screamed: “It’s not the will of the people.” The two Americas that commentators often talk about starkly revealed themselves that day. Nearly a year later, my boss challenged me to start a campaign revolving around civil discourse.
I was finishing up a very successful yearlong series examining affordable housing in Nashville, which involved long-form columns, three community forums, and a documentary. I started research for this effort a year before we published a single word and learned about the importance of the subject to citizens deeply concerned about Nashville’s cost of living. I rode the bus weekly and listened to riders’ conversations; I took frequent ride-shares on the weekends and chatted with multiple drivers. Their concerns centered around the city’s rising cost of living and housing costs. Nashville was booming, but these people were being left behind.
I enjoyed going in-depth on meaty topics that were tangible. Rising housing costs and growing income inequality were facts and could be measured. Civil discourse? That was far more subjective and I had major misgivings. We were living through an era when former friends were unfriending, trolling, and insulting each other because of differences in their politics. Trying to create bridges in the midst of polarity felt daunting. But I like a challenge, and I felt very disconcerted by the threat polarization posed to democracy.
So, Civility Tennessee was born.
What is Civility Tennessee?
The drive to McMinnville is picturesque. Once one gets to downtown, you see several churches lining the main strip, charming houses, and a lot of greenery. The Rotary Club created a brochure announcing my visit with the headline, “Restoring Civility in Public Discourse.” The sub headline read: “Media Giant Gannett Launches Civility Tennessee.”
I felt a lot of pressure to deliver. The campaign was barely four months old, and my staff and I were still trying to figure things out.
Up to that point, we had created a strategy with four pillars:
- To encourage conversations that are civil and respectful, even if they are hard
- To enhance civic participation in important conversations ranging from transit to local elections to the gubernatorial and senatorial races
- To help promote voter registration efforts
- To increase news literacy and enhance trust of the Tennessean and sister publications
Our inaugural event featured conservative author and lobbyist Jim Brown who wrote Ending Our Uncivil War. Vanderbilt University hosted the evening and its former chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, introduced the program, which gave our effort a boost.
We had two well-viewed virtual events on Facebook Live with experts I interviewed to discuss how to engage others on difficult topics such as racism and gun violence.
And we had just hosted a debate at the Nashville Public Library on a controversial multibillion-dollar transit plan pushed by the city. But we had never taken the show outside of Nashville to—dare I say it—a red county.
A Blue Dot in a Red State
Metro Nashville (the city and county are consolidated) is exceptionally blue in its politics, and it is 1 of only 3 in 95 counties in Tennessee where most voters picked the Democratic presidential candidate.
Tennessee is an overwhelmingly red state. The Tennessee General Assembly had been run by Democrats for more than a century until 2010 when the tide changed. Today, Republicans have supermajorities in the state House and Senate.
It used to be the pendulum would swing on gubernatorial politics. Since 1970, Tennessee voters had alternated between Republican and Democratic governors. That changed in 2018, when air conditioning company CEO Bill Lee, a Republican, succeeded fellow Republican Bill Haslam as governor. Lee beat his Democratic opponent by more than 20 percentage points.
“Why Should I Trust You?”
As I walked into the Rotary Club in rural McMinnville at a local church in 2018, my nerves settled a bit. The McMinnville Rotarians were a friendly bunch. They shared their fried chicken, greens, and cherry pie with me. The leaders conducted their traditional introductory rituals and offered announcements before it was my turn to speak.
I was given 20 minutes, and I spoke to the audience for just half of that. I planned to listen and respond to questions for the second half. My speech focused on what Civility Tennessee is, why we were doing it, and a description of our recent events.
When the Q&A started, a gentleman raised his hand, stood up, cleared his throat, and asked boldly, “Why should I trust you?”
Those words echoed in my head.
“Why should I trust you?”
He explained that he was not out to accuse me personally, but he believed that journalists had failed at their jobs by creating the impression that Hillary Clinton’s victory was inevitable and by taking an adversarial stance against Donald Trump. He also alluded to the impression rural communities have that “media elites” looked down upon people like him, and he resented it.
Two years before, I had been dumbstruck that more than 60 percent of my fellow state residents favored Trump. That moment at the 2018 Rotary Club meeting was the start of a series of “aha” moments for me.
I realized that Civility Tennessee was far more important and essential than I had recognized and that I had to shed my impostor syndrome feelings and assume the role with full confidence. Even though my engagement work had focused on bringing communities together on tangible topics, as an editorial writer, I had often taken adversarial stances against government officials over the years. This new initiative required me to go from occasional pugilist to nearly full-time conciliator.
There is a photo of me from 2019 when I spoke to Minneapolis business leaders about Civility Tennessee. I am standing in front of a screen giving a slide presentation and the slide that appears in that moment says:
“Questions journalists need to be able to answer: Why should we trust you?”
I keep that photo on my desk. It is a reminder that this is a question we in the press need to answer every single day.
A study by the Pew Research Center shows that only a fifth of Americans have ever met or spoken to a journalist.3 In 2021, the American Press Institute (API) found in its research that most Americans don’t cherish the same values journalists do.4 The research showed that while journalists hold certain values dear—factualism, giving voice, social criticism, oversight, and transparency—it would behoove them to understand people’s perceptions of news through the lens of their own moral values. The respondents tended to value factualism, but many also perceived journalists to have a slant on news coverage, which created trust issues.
This helps explain why people’s impressions of the press tend to be negative—that we look down on them, that we publish only news that makes subjects and the world look worse than they are, that we are willing to sacrifice ethics for a good story that will draw a bunch of clicks. This explains the distrust and mistrust that cause some Americans to turn their backs on the press and embrace misinformation and disinformation, sometimes to the detriment of their lives, as we have seen with COVID-19.
I am grateful to the McMinnville Rotarian because he allowed me to answer his question. I explained the aspirations of the campaign, I acknowledged our errors, and I did my best to send a hopeful message. I did my best to be humble instead of combative.
He thanked me politely and sat down.
Why Trust Matters
Throughout the Civility Tennessee campaign, which is now in its sixth year, my staff and I have worked with partners to help us learn, strategize, and pivot when necessary.
The Trusting News organization, a project of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) and the American Press Institute (API), works on helping news organizations earn trust from community members. This is a valuable asset that helped us focus on explaining to the public how and why we make our decisions. It sounds simple, but we rarely do it and then wonder why a reader or viewer does not understand why we published a particular story or viewpoint. Trusting News reminded us that labels (i.e., “opinion” for commentary to distinguish from news) and explanations by editors about our process matter greatly.
We partnered with volunteer organizations such as the citizen-run nonprofit Braver Angels (formerly known as Better Angels) to learn listening techniques that help with building personal relationships with ideologically diverse groups of people before jumping into a political discussion.
In addition to working with Vanderbilt University and the Nashville library system, we also developed programming with other universities, including Belmont, Cumberland, Memphis, and Lipscomb, where we held our best-attended event on voting in the state. In the recent past, Tennessee ranked 50th in voter turnout, and we thought it was important to understand why and how to move the needle.
The reasons for the low turnout included changes in law (stemming from Supreme Court decisions on voting rights) that allowed states to create stricter barriers to voting. After the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, Tennessee changed laws to require a strict identification card requirement. However, unlike other states, Tennessee did not alter its voting laws after the 2020 election. After all, Trump handily won the state.
Another activity was a book club around historian Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America that allowed for intimate interactions among citizens. We again partnered with the Nashville Public Library and offered 50 seats for a book club discussion, which included time for citizens to talk about the book in a small setting and then share their insights with the larger group. Literacy and examining history critically are essential for a healthy civil society.
We also refined our definition of civility.
In the summer of 2018, there was a lot of pushback on the term civility after former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was kicked out of a Virginia restaurant. She and other peers urged citizens to be civil. The criticism against her was that she was advocating for policies and making statements that several citizens found uncivil and, in some cases, exaggerated or dishonest.
We had already heard criticism of our campaign name because some people, such as progressives, thought civility was impossible in the Trump age. Others, including people in marginalized and underrepresented communities of color, had seen the word used as a cudgel against them when they advocated for equal rights.
I wrote a column headlined “On Civility: Don’t Be Nice, Be a Good Citizen,” in which I argued that we needed to shed the modern interpretation of the word that equates civility with politeness, courtesy, and acquiescence.
The root of civility is the Latin civitas, which means: “1) the body of citizens who constitute a state, especially a city-state, commonwealth, or the like; and 2) citizenship, especially as imparting shared responsibility, a common purpose, and sense of community,” according to Dictionary.com.
For us, civility was not just about having pleasant conversations; it was a call to do our duty as citizens in a democratic republic. This means working together, despite our differences, to create a healthy and equitable society beneficial to citizens enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We wanted to support the citizens of Tennessee in doing this work.
There is a school of thought that we should drop efforts to build, preserve, or reestablish trust, which is critical to our work to build bridges and understanding. I understand. It is a lot of work—any relationship is. And sometimes it doesn’t work. But relationships of trust yield great benefits: among them, that people will listen. They don’t have to agree, but sometimes they may be persuaded and other times they help change our minds, too.
Without trust, the Tennessean might have suffered a devastating blow.
The Islamophobic Ad Incident
In June 2020, the Tennessean print newspaper published two full-page ads by a zealous, Islamophobic religious sect that sought to discredit Islam. As sales and news operate separately, our journalists had no warning.
The first ad, published on a Wednesday, was cryptic. The second one, which ran on the following Sunday, claimed that someone named “Islam” was going to detonate a nuclear device at Nashville’s city hall.
The claims were nonsensical, and it is not completely clear to me why this group would go to so much trouble and pay so much money, except to stoke fear and turn people against Muslim citizens. It was embarrassing, and dangerous, especially to the community of Muslims in Tennessee who had struggled with bigotry and hateful rhetoric over the years.
The criticism of the Tennessean on social media was brutal and searing.
The Tennessean’s editorial board, on which I serve, quickly began reaching out to leaders in the Muslim community with whom we had developed strong relationships over the years. We had attended events at local mosques. We had hosted tables at the annual Community Iftar to celebrate Ramadan and encouraged interfaith conversations. The multifaceted—and less stereotyped—representations of Muslims had grown in our news and opinion pages.
Without that history, starting from square one to recover from this scandal would likely have been impossible.
The sales side terminated the manager responsible for approving the ad and agreed to offer print and digital space for efforts to bridge gaps and educate Americans about their Muslim neighbors. The editorial board convened a meeting via Zoom the following day, and over the next several days we developed and executed a plan to explain to the public what happened. We scheduled deep training for our staff, which included mandatory presentations and Q&As with A Million Conversations, the American Muslim Advisory Council, and Jonathan Metzl, author of Dying of Whiteness. We also used our print and digital platforms to elevate and amplify the voices of Muslim leaders on the editorial side (news and opinion).
By the end of the year, Samar Ali, an influential leader who is Muslim, agreed to participate on a panel on reconciliation, hosted by our parent company Gannett’s interfaith employee resource group. This was a conversation I moderated with five diverse speakers, including Ali and Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Our panelists spoke and answered our employees’ questions about the importance of reconciliation in the COVID-19 era and in the wake of a contentious and divisive presidential election.
Today, Ali cochairs Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity and American Democracy. Her friendship and trust was critical to helping us get through this crisis. As a news organization, we have a responsibility to learn from this incident, make things right, and do better. It was important to use this approach in order to have deep connections to communities of diverse ideologies, including conservative residents who felt treated unfairly by traditional media organizations.
One major step we took was hiring Cameron Smith as a new columnist in June 2021. He is a former political attorney who worked in national Republican politics and once served former U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions. While our opinion and engagement team has made inroads to increase the publication of conservative voices in the Tennessean, the perception lingers that conservatives are not welcome because of the Tennessean’s 100-plus-year history of aligning editorially with the Democratic Party. (Democrats were endorsed for president of the United States from 1908 to 2008.) Creating spaces for people of diverse ideological backgrounds is important to civility work.
Social Media Experiments
Social media poses a challenge and an opportunity when it comes to building trust. When I decided to get on Twitter in 2008, I had no idea how to use it. On September 26, 2008, I tweeted for the first time, “I am on a call about leveraging our social networking strategy.” I tweeted four times that year. Some 13 years later, I have tweeted thousands of times, but a platform that was supposed to be about sharing activities and connecting with others has become a space for trolling, doxing, feuding, and obscuring the facts.
I still use Twitter, but I am a lot more cautious than I used to be, and I do not engage in back-and-forth pointless arguments. I found that feuding became a narcissistic pursuit that distracted from our public service mission.
The ephemeral nature of Twitter is that the issue will often go away. A careless and angry tweet, however, may follow someone in life and work for a long time. As a preacher’s kid, I grew up with the adage in the Letter of James to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. This mantra was essential for my mental health and our reputation. We journalists should be leery of letting reckless tweeting or posting distract from our reporting, writing, and broadcasting. Such recklessness has the potential to hurt our organizations’ credibility and discredit us with sources and as professionals. I often tell colleagues that if a tweet enrages them, it’s best to take a break from the mobile device and take a walk or do some other such grounding activity. There is value in social media. However, one must be mindful of messaging. One must be attentive to those who truly want to connect and disengage from those who want to harm you. This is essential in practicing journalism that is about engaging communities and building trust.
Civility Tennessee became for me a way to practice civil discourse on an online platform. Some of the lessons in real life were invaluable for the virtual world we have found ourselves in throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
When I delivered a speech for TEDx Nashville in September 2020 about the issue of public disagreement and “adult” conversations, I outlined some tips:
- Stop feuding.
- Don’t respond hastily.
- Learn to disengage.
- In person is best.
These are easier said than done, but they are essential to preserving one’s wits, growing community, and building trust.
Finding Community During a Panic
When community members can convene in person, over coffee or over a meal, for example, there is a greater chance to build and develop a relationship. When COVID-19 emerged in March 2020, city and countywide shutdowns made many of these types of interaction a thing of the past.
At the Tennessean, we saw it also as an opportunity. It gave us a chance to create a new experience that connected the community with diverse groups of leaders who could help citizens understand what was happening in the pandemic and provide them some hope.
The Tennessee Voices video podcast, which I host, debuted on March 24, 2020. The 20-minute show offers a conversation with people of varied backgrounds and political affiliations working on interesting projects that elevate the common good or influence public opinion. Nonprofit leaders fighting for reproductive rights have been featured as have conservative Republican U.S. senators. By the end of December 2022, Tennessee Voices had produced 329 episodes, with more to come.
In addition, our staff struggled with how the pandemic conditions might affect our efforts to improve our engagement with underrepresented communities. We were working with the API to help us design experiments to build trust and grow our audience. In the spring of 2021, we decided to focus on the African American community, which represented more than a quarter of Nashville’s population.
What we wanted to do was to shift our perspective from telling stories about members of the Black community to telling stories for and with them. We used tools API taught us to create a strategy and tactics, compare our assumptions with facts, and quickly design experiments to better serve the community. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day 2020 and the subsequent protests and conversations on racial reckoning accelerated our urgency to act.
By the end of 2020, we had started a Black Tennessee Voices newsletter and a Black Tennessee Voices Facebook group, both curated by my engagement team member, the columnist LeBron Hill. Editor & Publisher featured Black Tennessee Voices in its November 2021 magazine.
The effort has yielded growth—a higher-than-average newsletter open rate, active participation in the Facebook group, and a doubling of the number of guest essays submitted by Black writers. These essays have run the gamut from personal stories of being harmed by racism to advocating policy positions in education, health care, and criminal justice reform.
The weekly newsletter allowed for a trusted voice from the community to weave together some of the most compelling columns and stories about the Black experience, from the pain of police brutality to the celebration of milestones. The intent was to grow an audience that is underrepresented in coverage and readership and also to show that we were willing to invest in our newsroom by hiring more journalists of color.
A Black Voices special section in June sent a powerful message to the community as a whole. It focused on Black citizens’ candid reflections on experiencing and combating racism. The section elicited great empathy and community support. There were occasional racist missives complaining about seeing too many Black people represented, but we didn’t get many of them.
We found, too, that the Tennessee Voices episodes with Black guests showed a higher rate of viewership and engagement by the general public than episodes with White guests.
The Tennessean and the USA TODAY Network’s commitment to telling stories for the Black community extended to major critically acclaimed projects including Hallowed Sound, about Black influence in music, including country music; and Confederate Reckoning, an examination of Confederate symbols, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Award in June 2021. The award’s judges made special note of the video panel conducted by the network with the founders of the Fuller Story, a campaign in Franklin, Tennessee, to add context around a Confederate monument and also tell the stories of Black residents throughout the city’s history.
Based upon the success of Black Tennessee Voices, the Tennessean launched a Latino Tennessee Voices newsletter on September 15, 2021.
Building Trust Takes a Team
The engagement work of the Tennessean has intentionally sought to bridge gaps; to develop, preserve, and rebuild relationships; and to make trust fundamental to these efforts.
In addition to our outward-facing efforts, the Tennessean and the USA TODAY Network have taken significant steps to enhance diversity in our newsrooms and to offer extensive training on topics such as investigative reporting and cultural competency.
Convening internal conversations through our monthly Diversity and Inclusion Task Force meetings and at other regular staff meetings is important to helping communicate our values, efforts, and commitment to our newsroom. Those deeper relationships lead to greater understanding, a higher rate of news literacy, and a commitment to sustain democracy.
The work of building and keeping public trust is not the job of one individual alone. It takes a dedicated team that is willing to do the work to drive the momentum forward, manage crises effectively, and keep the focus on our public service mission. This is about meaningful and intentional public service for our fellow citizens in order to help preserve and strengthen our democratic republic. The question, “Why should I trust you?” should be top of mind daily to journalists, who must be responsive in order to be successful in their work.
David Plazas is the opinion and engagement director for USA TODAY Network Tennessee, which is part of Gannett Co., Inc., the largest news publication company in the United States. He has written award-winning editorials and columns on issues ranging from affordable housing to social justice to government accountability.