By Martín Carcasson
Dual crises in democracy and journalism are occurring in communities across the country. Democracy is struggling as partisanship, polarization, and growing authoritarian tendencies and bad faith actors undermine our trust in institutions, expertise, and each other. Local journalism has been in crisis for a couple decades as the financial model has collapsed with the growth of the internet (which both took away advertising dollars and provided so much free content that many people are no longer willing to pay for – or in some cases pay attention to – local journalism). Thousands of local newsrooms have closed their doors and most others have significantly cut staff. These two crises are deeply interconnected, as democracy and journalism have always been. Thankfully, crises often spark creativity and determined effort, and as a result numerous experiments and innovations have developed to address both situations.
In the fall of 2021, the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project (DJP) was launched as an explicit effort to explore how civic organizations dedicated to supporting the local community and those focused on local journalism could work together to reimagine our local information ecosystems and take on the dual challenges. Initially sparked by a grant from the American Press Institute, the project is a collaborative effort that involves a growing list of organizations. Initially, the partners included the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation (which I direct), the Fort Collins Coloradoan (a local Gannett newspaper), KUNC (a regional radio station), FC Public Media (local public access channel), the Poudre River Public Library District, and two Colorado State University academic departments: Journalism and Media Communication and Political Science.
Since its launch, the CSU Honors Program, the Larimer County League of Women Voters, and the CSU Language, Literatures, and Cultures (particularly a Spanish professor that is working to help connect us to the Spanish speaking community) have come on board. We have also partnered with key state resources such as the Colorado Media Project, the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), and the Institute for Science and Policy at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. For the past year we have run several events engaging the community on issues such as reimagining local journalism and addressing misinformation and disinformation, including developing deliberative discussion guides for each issue designed to help communities engage those issues productively. Currently, three different CSU classes—one tied to the CPD, one to journalism, and one to the Honors program—have significant assignments and focus on supporting the DJP. Working with the Coloradoan, we have also helped them relaunch their opinion page as Coloradoan Conversations, which engages the community on two local issues each week.
What do we mean by Deliberative Journalism?
Journalism has always been inherently connected to democracy, and thus inherently connected to deliberation. Scholars and practitioners of deliberative democracy focus primarily on the processes that the public goes through to make decisions together about their shared problems. It is “talk centric” in the sense that it is focused on the reasons people share for their preferences, rather than simply an aggregation of votes from different perspectives. At their best, deliberative processes involve representative groups coming together, listening to each other, considering a broad range of options, weighing those options, and coming to a judgment about collaborative action.
Since such idealistic conversations are clearly not natural – we are unfortunately much more wired for polarization and outrage than deliberative and collaboration, as I argued in an earlier NCR essay – deliberative practitioners use a wide variety of techniques to help avoid triggering the worst in human nature and attempt to tap into our best (particularly our creativity). Deliberative processes, therefore, rely on impartial conveners, facilitators, and process designers dedicated to helping people have these conversations and pursue the ideal.
Deliberative journalism is particularly focused on supporting high quality deliberation and collaborative problem solving in their community. Deliberative journalists see themselves working in a facilitative role, working to intervene in community conversations with the explicit goal of elevating those conversations and helping community members engage each other more productively. Their goal is to help the community have the kinds of conversations, engagement, and collaborations they need for a diverse democracy to function well and for them to address their shared problems. In many ways, journalism has always been a resource for quality deliberation. Indeed, past and current journalism movements such as public journalism, civic journalism, Solutions Journalism, engaged journalism, dialogue journalism, Constructive News, and citizen-centered journalism would all connect or overlap with deliberative journalism or at least make positive impacts on deliberative quality, and we plan to continue learning from all of them. Our project, in other words, is clearly not inventing or attempting to own the term, but we do believe we are making some new connections and forging some innovative paths. In particular, we seek to draw from the rich interdisciplinary literature that informs deliberative practice and apply and adjust it to local journalism. We believe by connecting deliberative journalism with the latest theory and practice in deliberative engagement, we are covering new ground and setting up exciting new possibilities for local journalism, while at the same time providing a critical resource to our communities that is greatly needed to reinvigorate democracy to face its current challenges.
To be clear, we are not arguing that all journalism need focus on deliberation, but that deliberative journalism is an important tool in the local newsroom’s toolkit that warrants more focus. Drawing from the recent publication of News for Us by Paula Ellis, Paul S. Voakes, and Lori Bergen, deliberative journalism seeks not to replace traditional journalism, but works to preserve key aspects and reimagine others while adding expectations, goals, skills, and, most importantly, resources. The most important aspects to keep from more traditional journalism are the professionalism and expertise of the journalistic process in terms of serving as an independent watchdog over government and other powerful interests, and simply the professionalism of insuring quality information, fact checking, and protecting sources. While new trends in citizen or volunteer journalism have promise and can serve a valuable role, we nonetheless argue that local communities will still need professional, well-trained full time career journalists.
Due to connection between the DJP and the CSU Center for Public Deliberation, the project will be well versed in deliberative practices, such as those summarized in the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s Resource Guide and the pages of the Journal of Deliberative Democracy. Deliberative practitioners utilize a wide variety of tools and techniques to support their work. Working with journalism educators at CSU and working journalists in our community, the DJP will be constantly experimenting in order to bring the most recent insights and tactics out from deliberative practice and adapting them to local journalism.
As has been the typical practice in both deliberation and journalism, the project will also inherently work to connect with other relevant fields of study and practice to improve our work. At this early stage we are in particular exploring new connections to four areas of added insight that we believe are critical to our efforts. First, the project is informed by work on wicked problems and conflict management. Essentially, the wicked problems lens provides a framework to explore local issues with a particular focus on the competing underlying values that are inherently part of any issue. In a way, it views living together in a diverse democracy as an ongoing unresolvable conflict precisely because (a) all tough issues involve multiple values that (b) don’t fit together very well and (c) different people would prioritize differently. Seeing local issues as unresolvable conflicts, however, need not be fatalistic.
Conflicts can be handled well or poorly, and indeed the ongoing quality of a community can in many ways be measured by its capacity to manage these inherent conflicts well. Too often, conflicts are exaggerated and polarized, leading to both poor management of the problem as well as erosion of the trust and mutual understanding so critical to community capacity to address other problems. A vicious cycle develops that is crippling our national politics and, more and more, state and local communities as well. Deliberative journalism will be particularly focused on turning this tide by providing additional resources – informed by conflict management and deliberative practice techniques – for addressing conflict well. Because humans are not well equipped to deal with conflict and are particularly susceptible to manipulations that undermine their ability to deal with conflict well (the focus of the next paragraph), community resources dedicated to helping manage conflict better are critical to local communities, but must be proactively developed and well sustained.
Second, the DJP is informed by deep understanding of brain science and social psychology which we believe is necessary to understand the current hyper-polarized environment and what can be done process-wise to turn those tables. Such work has been the heart of CPD’s ongoing efforts and the primary motivation of forming the DJP. Simply put, democracy requires high quality communication and engagement, but our brains are unfortunately not wired for such conversations and are rather susceptible to simple narratives, manipulative strategies, and unconscious biases. Indeed, in many ways in our current political system, too often aided by the “outrage industrial complex” of social media and partisan media, bad arguments are incentivized and good arguments are punished. While managing these issues at the national level is very difficult, local communities can develop robust resources and a culture of engagement and collaboration that can overcome these tendencies and bring out the best in human nature.
A third area of insight that the DJP is bringing to the work involves the academic field of argumentation, which is where I received my initial training. Argumentation is focused on evaluating how people make arguments to support their perspectives or confront opposing views, as well as making difficult but critical distinctions between strong arguments and weak ones. Argumentation scholars are trained to break down arguments into more manageable parts, and then utilize various tools to discern the quality of the argument. At the CPD, we have particularly used the distinction between fact claims, value claims, and policy claims to better understand the public arguments made by actors, and, when combined with deliberative processes, find ways to shift from the overwhelming and disconnected noise of social media and conventional public input processes to more productive frameworks that spark mutual understanding and support quality deliberation. These tools are still being developed, but we are excited about the potential of equipping journalists with these skills and assessing how they may help us improve the value of online forums and comments sections. We believe these tools may be particularly useful for engaging controversial issues and mis/disinformation while still maintaining and rebuilding trust by avoiding the appearance of bias.
The fourth area of insight connects to developing work in systems theory and deliberative systems. Drawing on systems thinkers such as Peter Senge and Donella Meadows, as well as David Matthews’ Ecology of Democracy, deliberation practitioners are now thinking beyond the facilitated public forum to how they can make an impact more broadly on the local community. Employing a systems lens, they analyze how a community functions and how various institutions – public, private, and non-profit – work to either elevate or undermine the quality of public discourse and collaborative problem-solving, and then consider what interventions would have the most significant impact. The focus is on building relationships between key entities, and finding ways to spark productive coordination through the shared goal of elevating the capacity of a community to address its shared problems well. Indeed, the CPD worked to launch the DJP in large part because they saw the great potential of local journalism which is motivated and equipped to serve as deliberative resources to significantly improve the local deliberative system. Combined with other community organizations such as libraries, civic organizations, and academic departments with access to usable knowledge, innovative new connections can be forged that help us reimagine how local information ecosystems could exist.
The DJP’s Seven Key Tasks
We have developed a list of seven key tasks at the DJP to help direct our attention as we begin work together and explore ways to collaborate. The first five of these tasks represent a chronological progression that walks through the stages of a quality deliberative process, adapted from Sam Kaner and his co-authors’ work in their Facilitator’s Guide for Participatory Decision Making, Daniel Yankelovich’s public learning curve, and the Kettering Foundation’s Six Democratic Practices. The overall idea is that quality deliberative discussions require different communication styles at different times as the public works through an issue, but those stages unfortunately do not occur naturally. Individuals and communities are more or less equipped to complete the various steps. Essentially, the first five tasks represent potential leverage points of sorts where those focused on deliberative quality can intervene to elevate the ongoing conversation and increase the chances of the process leading to better outcomes. In Yankelovich’s terms, it is a process that if successful helps transform raw public opinion into quality public judgment. The final two steps are more broadly focused on capacity building in the community overall to help develop the natural ability for a community to proceed through the stages.
Task One. Ensuring broad voices are represented – We will work to reach all audiences, particularly those typically left out of local conversations. Those audiences will be incorporated across multiple stages of our projects. The more representative a conversation is, the more legitimate the ideas and actions they ultimately spark can be considered. Too often, conversations are dominated by the usual suspects that have the time and privilege to engage. As newsrooms have downsized their reporting staffs due to financial issues, engaging harder-to-reach audiences or those that distrust the media has become more difficult. Here is where collaborative efforts and longer term social networking and community building efforts will be critical to the project, as well as developing initiatives focused on making journalism more equitable and inclusive, such as the New Voices Project launched by the Colorado Media Project.
Task Two. Improving the quality and accessibility of information on local issues – Drawing from a traditional focus of journalism, we will work to provide quality information to the community about the issues they care about. This includes working diligently against misinformation and manipulative tactics while at the same time recognizing the importance of free speech and the value of diverse perspectives. Managing that inherent tension is difficult but critical. The project will thus work to constantly integrate public voices and expert information, honoring both, highlighting the strengths of each while recognizing each’s limits, and not letting either dominate.
Task Three. Framing topics for mutual understanding and quality engagement – The heart of deliberative journalism is helping our community have robust, productive conversations about how to address our shared problems. Due to human nature, our current polarized political environment, and the overload of available data, simply providing quality information is no longer enough. Borrowing from deliberative practices that create discussion guides and briefing materials specifically designed to spark deeper conversations, we will develop new, innovative journalistic techniques to share what we have learned from the first two tasks in ways that spark and sustain the sorts of tough conversations diverse democracies must have to thrive. This is the stage in which most communities have very limited natural capacity, and a key area where deliberative journalism could fill a critical need. Without quality deliberative framing of issues, simple, polarizing narratives and misinformation can dominate, undermining trust and sowing division.
Task Four. Engaging authentically – We will work with various partners to convene and facilitate innovative online and in person events to help the community react to what we are hearing, support ongoing learning, and move us toward productive collaborative actions. Deliberation requires interaction, people coming together and both expressing their opinions but also listening to each other and ideally working together to refine their opinions and learn together. It is difficult for such interaction to be productive without quality process design and facilitation, particularly for controversial issues. So once again, this represents a critical community need that the partners supporting deliberative journalism can provide.
Task Five. Serving as a catalyst for collaborative action – We will work with partners across public, private, and nonprofit sectors to help facilitate the identification, co-creation, and ultimately, implementation of ideas for working together to better address our shared issues to make Northern Colorado a wonderful place for all to live, work, and play. This task will certainly raise some concerns about the appropriate role of journalism in terms of independence and objectivity which certainly warrant deeper discussion. The overall idea here is not that deliberative journalists would ultimately play an activist role, but rather that deliberation in the end should lead to action from a broad range of actors, but such action often requires catalysts and bridging or backbone organizations to be sustainable. Ideally, communities have sufficient collaborative capacity to support such actions, but similar to the other tasks, if such capacity lags, deliberative journalists should work to build that capacity, or when appropriate, step in to fill the need.
Task Six. Civic capacity building – Through workshops, webinars, podcasts, and learning exchanges, we will constantly work to build capacity of individuals and organizations in our community to better support the five tasks stated above. Some programming will be internal (for the collaborators) and some will be public (for the community as a whole). Drawing on the research on social psychology, deliberation, collaboration, conflict management, systems thinking, etc., we recognize that the more people and organizations who develop capacity in these areas, the more naturally a community will be able to support the steps above on their own. The hope is that deliberative capacity represents a virtuous cycle. The more a community has a chance to engage in authentic ways, the easier it becomes as they build mindsets, skillsets, and community capacity. This task is focused on nurturing that virtuous cycle.
Task Seven. Community building – A key advantage of local journalism is simply the proximity, which allows real people to engage each other with significant natural sources of common ground to build connections. The social psychology research teaches us that humans naturally see things in terms of us and them, which too often sparks polarization as groups define “them” as a dangerous enemy. Our two-party system unfortunately inherently incentivizes such simple narratives. Local journalism, however, can serve a critical function of bringing communities together and giving them a common sense of identity and civic pride – focusing more on the us than the them – which can be critical to counteract the adversarial and divisive impacts of national politics and build enough common ground and connection that helps communities address their differences more productively.
A key aspect of this work is the realization that in many ways we are asking local journalists to learn new tools that are often time consuming at a time when local newsrooms are constantly cutting down on staff and being asked to do more with less. For deliberative journalism to thrive, significant changes will be necessary that go beyond the control of individual journalists or newsrooms. In a way, one of the first issues deliberative journalism must address to spark deeper deliberation and collaborative action in is the state of and support for local journalism and its connections to democracy. In that spirit, the DJP developed a community discussion guide focused on how communities could reimagine local journalism. An initial draft – with a link to provide feedback as we continue to refine it – is available now, and communities are encouraged to borrow the framework and adapt it to their needs.
Using the National Issues Forum style, the guide is framed as a broad question – How can we best reimagine local journalism to support its success while meeting the broader needs of our community? The guide highlights four potential approaches for communities to work together on to address the issue. In true deliberative style, the approaches are not designed for participants to simply pick one, but rather to ensure a full conversation that engages the inherent values, tradeoffs, and actions embedded in the approaches. There is no magic bullet, but there are many potential steps that could be made by numerous actors which could help move the needle.
The four approaches are:
- Better equip the public and the next generation through high quality media/digital literacy and civic education programs that will create a natural demand for quality journalism
- Newsrooms and journalists must adapt and develop new skills and audiences to compete in the new environment
- Expand who is responsible for and involved in local journalism
- Reinvent the financial model for local journalism by recognizing it is a public good that must be broadly supported
The first approach focuses on the need to build up the demand side and equip the public with both the skills to deal with the current informational overload but also convince them about the importance of supporting quality local journalism. It calls upon multiple community entities, particularly educational institutions, to assist. The second approach focuses on potential changes to both how journalists work and how they are trained. The third approach connects with the growing momentum and innovations in collaborative journalism, both in terms of newsrooms working together and with civic organizations and educational institutions to build more capacity. Finally, the fourth approach seeks to spark critical conversations about the financial model for local journalism, built upon the stark recognition that a market model focused on subscriptions and advertisements will very likely not be sufficient to provide the level of journalism that communities need.
I recognize that in many ways deliberative journalism represents an unreachable ideal, as does deliberative democracy itself. It assumes high expectations for the public, journalists, and community organizations at a time when limited resources, growing distrust, and crippling polarization is too often the norm. Nonetheless, I am confident of the value of efforts to work toward an unreachable ideal and believe that deliberative journalism projects will spark virtuous feedback loops that in the long term will produce significant positive impacts. If anything, the pursuit of this ideal will provide a refreshing new narrative and sense of purpose that communities and journalists can rally around that has the potential to tap into the best of human nature and spark creativity and innovation to help address our dual challenges.
Martín Carcasson is a professor in the Communication Studies Department of Colorado State University and the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation.