Bridging the Media Divide: NCDD 2016

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s 2016 National Conference was the first time I’ve been surrounded by Dialogue and Deliberation practitioners in my first year at the Jefferson Center. A few of the people I met work a few miles—or even a few blocks—from our office in Saint Paul, so this opportunity to cross paths was not only much-needed but also truly overdue.

The theme for NCDD 2016’s program was “Bridging Our Divides,” especially fitting for an electoral climate that has plenty of them. While the theme seems like shorthand for political partisanship, there were a number of divides that D&D practitioners face; among them, the gap between practitioners and funders and between practitioners and the media.

Both divides were addressed in plenary sessions, bringing representatives from philanthropic organizations and media organizations to field questions from the audience and consider the ways in which they work with D&D practitioners. These sessions didn’t explicitly lay out how to get funding or media coverage; instead, they focused on how to frame the work practitioners do in a way that is compelling to philanthropists and media, and how to build meaningful relationships with representatives of both.

In the case of the media, our work has focused primarily on another gap – that of relationships (trust) between citizens and journalists. Considering the gap between community members and the media, our work on the Your Vote Ohio/Informed Citizen Akron project has centered on how we, as practitioners, can help bridge the divide between those in the media and those outside of it. Kyle’s introduction to our work in the media-focused plenary session provided an outline of the role we’ve played, and the people and organizations we’ve worked with to bridge this divide.

For many practitioners, their struggle with the media relates to the difficulty they face in getting their work ‘covered’ by traditional media. Chris Faraone of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reframed the pursuit for traditional media coverage for us, and directed us to “Stop thinking of it as PR; start thinking of it as storytelling.” What I understood this to mean was that people doing great community engagement work can’t simply expect media coverage – local media simply lack the resources to cover “events,” even those with a compelling community purpose. I would argue that most practitioners don’t expect it, they just really want it, and understandably so! But with the media’s current condition, practitioners must help journalists by articulating the ideas explored and agreements created in dialogue work, and their impact on current issues.

One message repeated by practitioners and media panelists was the desperate need to build relationships with one another to support the work both parties do, which is underpinned by the same principles: to inform and engage the community and to address issues of community concern.

With such closely aligned principles, there are ways for both to support one another. The stressors they face are similar: traditional media has faced substantial reductions in revenue and staff capacity, and D&D practitioners often struggle to receive adequate funding for their efforts. As was mentioned in the plenary session, journalists are generally unable to commit their staff time to attending a deliberation or dialogue session with no guarantee of a compelling story. Faraone instead suggested that D&D practitioners reach out to journalists and consider them partners in the design process; the journalist has the opportunity to create content which reflects community input more fully, and the practitioner is more likely to receive media coverage for their work.

The Your Vote Ohio project was developed as a means to create more informative discourse around the 2016 Presidential Election. The hunger for substantive conversation on issues impacting Ohioans was clear, and instead of attempting to meet this need alone, we connected with media partners who were interested in serving their communities in the same way. Because we were able to tap into a pre-existing network more powerful than what we might have created independently, the impact of our work was amplified and improved. Where many media organizations in the collective before had struggled to receive high quality, representative feedback from their audience, the polling done for Your Vote Ohio gave insight on the priorities and concerns of a broad cross section of Ohioans in conjunction with deeper feedback on coverage practices from Citizen Jurors.

In partnership with Ohio-based media organizations, we have created an opportunity for the public to interact with newspapers and media engagement innovators, design how to best communicate information, and identify what information needs communicating to inform and build our communities. Both groups can come with preconceived notions about how the other operates, making authentic connection sometimes challenging. In spite of the potential for difficulties, a credible and transparent process has helped us bridge the gap between the two parties, build relationships, and build trust (and receive media coverage for our work).

Certainly, the issues D&D practitioners address are varied and many are unrelated to the media; but, what we have tapped into is an existing need for communication identified by both parties that is potent enough to drive its own coverage.

While the initial framing for Your Vote Ohio concentrated on improving electoral coverage in the advertising-inundated battleground state of Ohio, the program has since shifted into improving coverage on issues of local importance based on the recommendations of deliberating citizen jurors. Currently, our media partners are working with the communities they serve to identify and experiment with the best ways to inform and engage citizens in addressing the heroin epidemic, an issue of foremost concern for many Ohioans. For those of us in the D&D world, we assume almost automatically that citizens have unique insight and expertise, and it’s our job to unleash and shape that collective knowledge toward public ends. This is a stark departure from the culture and professional approach of most journalists and media organizations. However, after participating in dialogue with citizens, our media partners began to recognize the unique contributions the public can produce – new story ideas, new sources, new ways of thinking about the issue – that can help media do their work better. And so, a partnership between media and the public has taken root.

When we think about how practitioners can get media coverage for our work, it’s important to ask ourselves: do we want the media to report on the bridge we’ve built, or build it with us?