Journalists at DDEx Grapple with Helping Citizens See Themselves in Public Issues

The journalists from five different countries who gathered at the Deliberative Democracy Exchange (DDEx) had many things in common, but most of all, they were worried. 

Over the past year, headlines around the world have called out the deepening of divisions, “populist” revolts, and growing polarization. What concerned these journalists was how these divisions were impeding people’s ability to make progress on issues, not just in a single country, but around the globe. And what was more, they suspected that standard journalistic practices were contributing to the deepening divisions and wanted to do something about it, but they weren’t sure how.

The journalists came from Colombia, Israel, Italy, Kenya, and South Africa. They shared experiences and frustrations in trying to encourage citizens to see issues as shared public problems instead of dilemmas to be solved by experts alone. 

Each saw polarization, but acknowledged that in each country the fractures emerge in different ways. In the United States, for example, polarization is often defined in political terms, such as Democrats versus Republicans or liberal versus conservative. 

Yet in South Africa, class and race emerge as dividing lines. 

In Colombia, class, land ownership, and the experiences of decades-long civil war—and the challenges of negotiating a recent, fragile peace—have left citizens polarized.

In Israel, religious differences both between faiths and within them, and the societal power associated with different group identifications, divide people. 

In Italy, Kettering Fanning resident Federica Marangio said that politics has become so contentious that people just walk away. They see no clear role for themselves and so become apathetic. 

In Kenya, where there are numerous tribes but only a few that typically gain political power, government corruption and tribal identification are both issues that split people and groups. 

The journalists at DDEx want to cover the issues, but do so in a way that people see a role for themselves in democracy and in making progress on shared public problems. The journalists all had the same question: How could they help both inform people and encourage them to see their own power?

The answers are a little different for each journalist—and each country. 

In South Africa, where three-quarters of fourth graders cannot read for meaning, the answer is not simply to write another story emphasizing the need for parents to use libraries or demand more from schools. Instead, Rod Amner, a former Fanning resident and journalism professor at Rhodes University, is helping to build a network of parents, learners, teachers, NGOs, and government officials to help families become more literate and help others to do the same. Then those who have undergone literacy training will be involved in writing the stories. 

In Kenya, three journalists are holding meetings with other journalists in their country about the need to go beyond daily stories of corruption that increase the feelings of apathy among readers and radio listeners. Instead, they want to discuss ways journalists can write stories that help people see what they can do. They hope to hold meetings to discuss the practices of naming and framing issues for journalists for whom those concepts are new. 

In Colombia, journalists decided to take a different approach when covering the recent presidential election. They noted that the country has been divided for 50 years, between political parties and between right-wing and left-wing armed militants. Political divisions in peacetime are still prevalent, and they wanted to avoid contributing to those divisions. They tried to cover stories in a way that showed people what they have in common, even if they have different views. They gathered citizens ahead of the race to ask them what questions they wanted candidates to answer and involved officeholders who seemed most interested in a community-oriented approach. 

In Israel, journalists wrote about an issue that a Jewish woman spoke about in a way that made both Jewish and Muslim women see what they all shared in common. It involved a husband withholding from his wife a blessing over a meal, done in such a way that made it impossible for her to eat without suffering public shame. Both groups saw that the use of religion to harass or abuse a spouse was not relegated to one religion alone; they coined the term, “spiritual violence” for such acts and have made it a public issue. In such stories, the journalists said, they could show people a problem that very different religions share.  

And in Italy, Marangio discovered for herself that how journalists frame stories will make it more or less likely that people will respond and get involved. She first tried to hold a public forum to hear people’s general concerns, but nobody came. Then she wrote a story on increased levels of illness in areas located near factories, and then held a forum, inviting both citizens and politicians. This time, 100 people came because she had written about an issue in a way in which her readers could “see” themselves—and see the issue—as a shared public problem. The way she framed the story mattered. 

The steps each journalist took were often small, but important, and contribute to their shared recognition that ordinary citizens have a role in democracy in grappling every day with issues of concern. Journalists who are open to change and who question their professional routines and the way they go about reporting stories may find that they are embarking on interesting and even exciting experiments that change the way they report the news. It might even change how those who read and hear their stories think about, and perhaps even trust, the media.