Dialogue Journalism: Adapting to Today’s Civic Landscape

Back to Summer 2023: Volume 112, Number 2

By Eve Pearlman

When I was in school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the mid-1990s, I often felt at odds with the majority of my peers, those who believed that their work could be objective or neutral and that the words or videos they crafted could be definitive expressions of reality.

The idea that the work we produce is not informed by who we are, by our experiences, by our economic and geographic and racial backgrounds, has never sat well with me.

We are all products of culture and community and experience. Just look at clothing or language or religion or music or ideas about family and friendship and marriage and parenting, and education. We are all products of our life experiences. And we experience life and create journalistic content from the sum total of our beings. We are all exactly who we are.

I trace my earliest awareness of a disjuncture between official news and life as I experienced it to reading the local newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera, as a child. The paper came to our doorstep every morning in the 1970s and 1980s, my growing-up years.

In my adult life, as a reporter in the island city of Alameda, a community of about 75,000 in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, I was deeply aware that my ideas about things—my support of the public schools, for example—informed my reporting.

  • My belief in the fundamental usefulness and importance of functional governments also informed my reporting.
  • My belief that a functional democracy relies on an informed, participatory citizenry informed my reporting.
  • My belief that I could support people in my town by parsing, investigating, articulating, and confirming information for them informed my reporting.
  • My belief, not fully articulated to myself at that time, that connection and relationship are the starting place for good, useful journalism informed my reporting.

That was my work.

I knew each time I made a choice—what story to cover (or not), whom to interview (or not), what data to include (or not), what questions to ask (or not), what quotes to use (or not)—those choices were informed by my definitions of importance and relevance, meaning and value, by who I was and where I came from.

My bias against American football came through when I chose not to write a story that a neighbor and football coach asked me to write about the formation of a new youth football league. (Because concussions.) My bias against the Boy Scouts came through when I wrote a long piece about a young man who had fulfilled all the requirements to be an Eagle Scout but then was denied his medal because he was openly gay.

Because of my awareness of some of my biases, I often felt like somewhat of a fraud, not a “real” journalist. I didn’t carry myself with the same separateness and assurance that many of my peers seemed to.

It got a little better (meaning I felt like less of a fraud) when I became, in addition to a reporter, a blogger and columnist. In those roles, I was transparent about my opinions. In those contexts, I could write more honestly, more truthfully. I could say, “This is my view: this is why I think this policy or tax or program is good (or bad) for our community.”

But I was also perplexed by this tension: the idea that I could write a story for the paper in the features or news section, ostensibly with no opinion, but then write a column with an explicit point of view. Both creations are products of the same me. And, yes, the style is different, but in either sort of writing, there are micro- and macro-choices being made at each and every juncture. How can we even dare suggest that there is no opinion in traditional or straight reporting?

The newest round of racial reckoning we are part of now in the United States is allowing for more consideration of the ways journalists’ choices shape reporting. What has been left out of coverage? What is included? How much coverage is there about redlining and homeowner associations, school suspension and expulsion rates, access to fresh and healthy food by neighborhood, or emergency room treatment based on familial background? Do we see images and stories about successful Black people, for example? Whose reality does coverage reflect?

We have the same lapses in coverage, of course, with respect to gender and class, geography, and ideology. Who is featured and profiled? Who is quoted? (All studies show a relative absence of voices of color, of women, of the less affluent, of those who challenge accepted orthodoxies.)

Knowing the complexity and imperfection of human perception and of our society, what can journalists do? What can I do to support and create an informed public, an educated public, a public whose members need to be able to engage with one another about the issues that matter in a democracy?

After many years as a local reporter, columnist, and blogger for the Alameda Journal, I had the luck in 2010 to launch an all-digital local news site for Patch, an AOL-funded network of news sites.

The Alameda Patch I edited was built on a dynamic platform with room for people to post notices and blogs as well as comments and questions, and it came of age at a time when major social channels, Twitter and Facebook, were becoming integral parts of the news-gathering and news-sharing landscape. Patch was at the forefront of a new version of connection to community in a changing news landscape.

Patch management in New York City invited the editors of local sites (there were 900-plus across the country) to be open and forthright, to explain who we were and where we came from. I interpreted this as an invitation to dispense with false separateness, to dispense with the facade that reporters don’t have views and ideas like everyone else. Patch’s ethos, I believe, is the backbone of news done right and one that sat well with me. I could come clean with who I was and what I thought and do my job as a reporter and editor. I could serve community and serve democracy.

The Wayback Machine Internet Archive yields my description of myself as it was posted on Alameda Patch for the years 2010 to 2013.

About Eve

An Alameda resident since 2000, I have been writing about local politics and people since 2005. As editor of Alameda Patch, I enjoy bringing community news to island residents every day.

I earned a master’s in journalism from Northwestern and a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University. I live on Versailles Avenue with my two children and kind-hearted husband.

My beliefs: As a journalist, I honor and respect Patch’s notion of quality news gathering: “At Patch, we promise always to report the facts as objectively as possible and otherwise adhere to the principles of good journalism. However, we also acknowledge that true impartiality is impossible because human beings have beliefs.” Everyone comes with biases, perspectives, and viewpoints, but as journalists we strive to do our very best to report the facts and tell stories as objectively as possible.

My politics: Many may consider me to be liberal, but I’m conservative at heart: my interests and activities revolve around caring for family, community, and our planet’s natural resources. One of my elemental beliefs is that the more we safeguard those among us who cannot care for themselves, the better off we all are.

My religion: I am culturally Jewish, but I am not religious. I admire and respect those who implement the truths held in common by all faiths—concern for the weak, the old, the poor, the needy; generosity; kindness; respect for living beings.

My aim as a journalist is to get the facts right and also to uncover the core issues behind the facts. And this effort, like life, is always a work in progress. We become better reporters/writers/thinkers when we acknowledge that we do not always have all the answers.

In terms of community involvement, I have been active in the public school system, volunteering in many ways, and I have served on my children’s school’s site council as well as on the board of the Alameda Education Foundation. My husband, an attorney, served until this spring on the City of Alameda’s Social Service Human Relations Board and has also been active with the Community Alliance Resource for Education (CARE). He currently serves on the board of the nonprofit Alternatives In Action.

I believe, like Patch, in local news that enlightens the community by inviting civil dialogue and helping us to better understand each other.

Alameda Hot Button Issues

Schools: I believe that our nation has been built on quality public schools and we are all made better if we fund them well. Although I believe that under the constraints of Proposition 13 no school parcel tax can be fair, I have supported all the recent school taxes in Alameda.

Development: I support intelligent and sensible development.

Change: Not all that is new is better, but it should be.

Community Identity: We are made stronger when we promote the general welfare.

Role of Government: I don’t believe that there is a giant conspiracy, that all who do public service are evil, or that someone is always out to get us, but I do believe that institutions are created by humans, some wise, some generous, some highly ethical, others selfish and dishonest, and that all of us humans are, of course, wildly imperfect.

Alameda Point: Truthfully? If I were the boss of all things, and money were no object, I would clean it all up to the highest possible standard, create acres of parklands with bay front trails. I would also create a promenade, with restaurants and stores and apartments along the bay with a view of it and San Francisco. I’d like a carousel along the water with open space for people to gather and enjoy the bay views and breezes. I would rehab some of the old buildings. I like the idea of senior living communities and also of preserving the businesses and communities that are already established on The Point. But I am not queen and Alameda, though a lovely city, is not a utopia. And that is where, it seems, the rancor begins.

I wrote that I cared about schools and community. I wrote that I supported intentional development as well as investment in local infrastructure, buildings, and humans alike. Instead of pretending I didn’t have views, I was transparent about them. It felt like renewal.

I learned over time that in addition to helping me feel good, my openness engendered trust. And I learned that when I proved myself reasonable and responsive and respectful, it engendered respect. There is so much talk about lack of trust in journalism, but I believe that good old-fashioned relationship building is one path out.

I learned that I could be me, openly, without artifice. I could be me without pretending I was infallible or all-knowing and do my job to inform and serve the community. It is not simply that I could do it, and not simply that I was better off for it, but also that my community, the people, with whom I was sharing information, were better off for it. With trust and connection, I could be a resource, clarify readers’ understandings and misunderstandings, and provide useful and relevant knowledge. This created a strong, valuable feedback loop. Over and over in those years, in online formats and in person, people would ask me questions or make comments. I could help clarify: Actually, that is not what that ordinance does; it . . . Actually, she voted for that resolution last week, not against it. Actually, the Piedmont Soccer Club is using 80 percent of Alameda fields every weekend.

My role as community researcher and explainer flourished. Because in addition to cultivating relationships, I have a discipline: I can be accurate with numbers, facts, and details. I can check and double-check. I can pay attention, assimilate, assess, articulate, query, synthesize, explain.

My allegiance is toward truth and accuracy, both about who I am and what I believe as a person AND about what information I gather and share with others. These things are not oppositional. My journalism is better for both of them.

If It’s Broke, Try to Fix It

I have many obsessions. A cluster of them center on things we do as humans that don’t make sense. Consider lawns. Lawns are sensible in places where it rains year-round, but in coastal California where it doesn’t rain for nine or ten months a year? Are lawns sensible in any place where the water to maintain grass lawns is processed, pumped, purified, and piped? What a colossal waste of energy and resources.

We have grown our lawns mindlessly, perhaps because it is what is “normal”; perhaps because that is what the neighbors are doing; perhaps because that is what our parents did.

As a gardener who planted through several decades of California droughts, I learned to grow plants that thrive in the coastal climate: thymes, sages, tea trees, Santa Barbara daisies.

My discomfort with the dominant practices of traditional journalism was heightened in the run-up to the 2016 election as I observed the ugliness and dehumanization of our public spaces and the accelerated fracturing of our information infrastructure. That which had been simmering began to boil—the constriction of trusted voices and publications, the uptick in nefarious actors working diligently to divide and polarize us—all of which strain our democracy. Our nation’s journalism practices and our journalistic institutions were doing what we had always done, even as the landscape was changing.

I started to think more deeply about what I might do if I were practicing my journalism in a way that made as much sense as possible in response to the moment. What could I do in response to these pressures and concerns amid a rapidly changing information ecosystem? I mulled it over. What could I grow?

As a local news reporter and editor, I had already taken many turns at supporting the public square—moderating comments and conversations online and in person, editing columns and letters to the editor, advising on blog posts and community announcements. I wondered how I might use these moderating/mediating skills and my more traditional journalistic tool kit—vetting, researching, assessing, and sharing information—to more directly support conversations across the ever-growing divides in our public space? How could I be part of a repair?

I began to plot a new way with a journalist friend. Here’s what we thought: Let’s go directly to divided or polarized communities, to hot spots, and to places of tension and fracture (as journalists so often do). But once there, let’s put our skills to work differently. Let’s slow things down, invite dialogue, moderate, and support conversation about difficult issues.

Instead of highlighting the most extreme positions, let’s invite nuance, decency, respect, and actual conversation. Then let’s give people the information that they need to talk about issues. Let’s invite regular people to shed the ugliness of current discourse and ask them to join in a respectful dialogue about issues they care passionately about. Let’s invite them in as whole people, individuals with complicated stories and views.

So was born Dialogue Journalism, a seven-step process for convening and hosting journalism-supported conversations across social and political fault lines. We worked in partnership with established newsrooms to identify a polarizing issue relevant to that publication’s audience. They suggested issues such as educational policy, farming practices, immigration. And then we brought people together, often online, for monthlong engagements.

When people signed up, they were asked for basic demographic details so we could create a group that represented the community. We also asked for topic-specific information so we could represent a spectrum of beliefs and ideas. We then asked them four core questions. The first two invited curiosity, connection, and relationship.

  1. What do you want to know about the other side?
  2. What do you want them to know about you?

And then we asked:

  1. What do you think about them?
  2. What do you think they think about you?

These last two questions surfaced people’s reflexive, negative stereotypes about the other “side.” When we shared the answers back to the participants anonymously, people were nearly universally able to see the stereotypes cast in relief, to see that they said some pretty nasty things about a large group of “others.” They were able to recognize that “certainly not everyone who thinks differently from me is so awful.” Once articulated, we could look these ugly stereotypes in the eye so people could move forward into real dialogue.

As we moderated our conversations, we invited people to shake off the uncivil norms. We asked them to slow down, to be their best selves. We asked people to ask genuine questions, to assume good intentions of the other side, to share their personal experiences. We found, over a dozen or so projects over three years, that when we showed up real and authentic, transparent about who we were (people with values, views, and ideas) and clear about what our goals were (to support constructive, informed dialogue because democracy requires it), people would do their very best to engage constructively.

As I had learned earlier in my career, when I tell my story truthfully, without pretending, it engenders trust. As a journalist-moderator, I didn’t pretend that I am not exactly what I am: an educated, White, Jewish, female, and the product of elite universities and coastal communities (or progressive college towns) in the United States. I have strong political opinions, and I was transparent about them as well. Despite this (or because of it), I could be a respectful, effective moderator, a useful provider of information.

In our conversations, instead of reporting in a narrative form, we reported with what we call FactStacks. These issue-focused briefs are like explainers, and we created them in direct response to what people were discussing so that they could have accurate facts to support their discussions. While people disagree about the meaning of facts and how they ought to inform policy, once they trusted us, they could believe our reporting—which is of significant value in this era. In FactStacks we showed our work and explained our choices. We explained where we found information and why we chose to include it. Our transparency and responsiveness modeled behavior for the conversation participants.

We know from other parts of our lives that people don’t extend trust because they are told to; we know that trust is earned over time. Yet, as journalists, we sometimes default to demanding that readers or listeners “trust science” or “trust me, I’m a journalist” or at our worst, with a foot stamp, “trust me because I am right!” None of this helps make matters better.

We also know from a lifetime of experience (if not from social science research), that when you call people names (racist, snowflake, backward, socialist, sexist, weird, stupid), it exacerbates tensions and reduces the possibility of understanding. We know, too, that if we as convenors show up as honest and forthright, people respond to that.

Often people ask me whether these conversation experiences, moderated by journalists, are “real” journalism. Usually I say something like this: if our role is to communicate and if our writing and videos, and tweets and columns are not being trusted, read, or respected, then our communication is not working and we need to do something different. We need to consider, what will grow?

Spaceship Media was launched by considering how we might interrupt cycles of mistrust and distrust in journalists, how we might interrupt the dehumanization and nastiness in our public spaces, and how we might build community across disagreement.

There are many forces—economic, technological, sociological, psychological, and historical—working against journalists’ ability to fulfill our best, most altruistic aims, but part of our work must be to consider, reflect, challenge, and interrogate our practices. We must be as thoughtful and agile as we can be. If what we’re doing isn’t working, if people don’t trust us, if civil dialogue is contracting, how can we adapt our practices to better serve our highest calling, supporting our democracy? Spaceship Media’s Dialogue Journalism is one effort to adapt to the reality of today’s civic information landscape.

Look In to Look Out

Journalists are very often my favorite people. Most of my best friends are journalists, and I know that it takes a lot of guts to make a story from bits and pieces of this and that, from interviews and documents, to do this again and again under pressure from deadlines, knowing your results will be shared for many to see, critique, challenge, judge.

These acts of creative production take confidence and certainty, and while the work is very often driven by curiosity and a desire to serve, the practice does not necessarily invite certain kinds of self-reflection and openness.

When we launched Spaceship, we knew the problems in our communities were not just about the mistrust of each side for the other, but also about the mistrust of journalists. Dialogue Journalism is meant to create a triangle of trust between journalists and the divided communities they serve. Key to this effort is transparency, asking ourselves as journalists to be open about who we are, what we think and believe, and what we are doing—as we invite others, the journalists and community members we work with, to do the same.

The more you understand about who you are and where you come from and the more open you are about it, the better you can serve other people. The more you recognize and acknowledge the particularities of your own experiences and identity, the less time you need to spend contorting yourself to match the claim we are so often hampered by: that journalists can be neutral or invisible arbiters of information. Someone is always telling the story.

Creating and hosting Dialogue Journalism conversations were my efforts to reconceptualize the Fourth Estate, to respond to the reality of the existing information ecosystem. I did this explicitly, directly, intentionally, and collaboratively, and it has been tremendously gratifying to help create experiences for people in which they start out with disdain, mistrust, and anger but end up with the ability to talk with one another.

I believe that the more openly you can look with clear eyes at those with whom you engage and the more you can look with clear eyes at yourself—your history, values, ideas, experiences, prejudices, biases, and habits of practice—the richer your work will be and the more likely you will be to earn trust, build community, and support a broader, more dynamic, more inclusive society with your journalism.

Given what we know about how humans think and act, so much of how journalists are responding to this crisis of dehumanization in the information ecosystem doesn’t make sense. In an era of mistrust and skepticism, with people on heightened alert for being manipulated and played, the way out for journalists is to be as forthright and transparent as possible. Carry your pursuit of truth and accuracy into an effort to understand where you, with your perspectives and biases, come from. Deep authenticity is the way out of what feels like an impossible situation for our news and information systems. These are rough times. We must lead with bold, brave, and supple toughness, and embrace reality in all its complexity, external and internal.

Deepening our focus and learning to be more intentional about who we are and where we come from must be the new underpinning of our journalistic practices, our dialogic practices, and our work as part of the community that is our democracy.

Eve Pearlman worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for the bulk of her career as a reporter, editor, blogger, and columnist. In 2016, she cofounded Spaceship Media with a mission of reducing polarization, restoring trust in journalism, and building communities.

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