By asking thoughtful questions and practicing engaged listening, journalists can unearth aspects of conflict that make it more interesting and productive.
If you have followed The Journal’s coverage closely in recent years, there is a term that you are starting to see show up more – “complicating the narrative.”
When The Journal hosted a social media forum on a constitutional amendment related to abortion before the Aug. 2 vote, we used questions with our panelists designed to “complicate the narrative.” I’ve referenced the work of journalist Amanda Ripley, who has outlined approaches for journalists to cover controversial issues differently. You also might have also heard that the Solutions Journalism Network selected me to be a part of its first Complicating the Narratives Fellows cohort.
But what exactly does it mean to complicate the narrative? And why would anyone choose to do that?
It is something that I and other members of the Kansas Leadership Center’s civic engagement team have been exploring over the past few months. We are currently working through how The Journal, through my work with the fellowship, can report on immigration and demographic change in the heartland in a way that fosters dialogue between people with different points of view and elevates emerging solutions.
This work is not entirely new to us. Complicating the narrative is something that The Journal has tried to do since I became editor of The Journal in 2013. You can see elements of it in everything from how we’ve covered K-12 education to guns and public safety.
But our knowledge of how to do it was not especially deep. We would try bits here and there, but we did not necessarily fully understand how to do it.
However, this year, I and other members of The Journal team have gone deeper in our efforts to become skilled at complicating the narrative. Amy Maestas, director of the local media project for the Solutions Journalism Network, trained about a dozen Journal contributors on complicating the narratives techniques in February. Earlier this month, I completed the second of two 90-minute training sessions with Ripley and Hélène Biandudi Hofer as part of my Complicating the Narratives Fellowship.
But I still really have not explained what it means to complicate the narrative.
The “why” part is straightforward. We live in hyper-polarized times where exacerbating conflict and oversimplifying issues has become a tried-and-true way to command attention. Journalists are not the only civic actors who contribute to this problem. Ripley uses the phrase “conflict entrepreneur” to describe fire starters who exploit disagreements to advance their own interests. Even if they are not trying to, journalists too often fan the flames rather than dampen them.
Complicating the narratives is a framework for changing that emphasizes two key things.
First, it calls on journalists to ask different kinds of questions, questions that help get below the surface of what’s driving conflict. The current list includes 22 questions amplify contradictions and widen the lens and get to people’s motivations. They also encourage more and better listening. Questions can be used to expose people to the other tribe, in hopes of countering confirmation bias, that tendency to look for information that confirms beliefs we already have.
But the key is not just asking questions, it is also listening to the answers. Ripley recommends a conflict resolution technique called looping, in which you summarize what you have heard back to the person to whom you are talking. The practice helps in two ways. First off, it lets you check to see if you are in fact hearing correctly. Journalists, like people in general, can be more awful at listening than they realize, and looping gives them a chance to double check their understanding.
The other thing looping does is show the interviewee that you are listening. They end up feeling heard. They know you are listening because you have repeated back what they have said in a succinct and compelling way. As a result, it also invites them to go deeper and tell you more. And if there is a caveat they disagree with, they can clarify and help you understand the nuances of their thinking.
Mastering these approaches can take practice, and I must learn more about integrating them into my work. But they can make a real-world difference. Consider The Richland Source’s interview with Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance, which makes explicit use of complicating the narratives questions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the tone of that article is very different from much of the coverage that Vance, known for writing the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy:” receives.
Make no mistake, conflict is central to both journalistic storytelling and leadership. But so much of the conflict that inundates social media feeds today is repetitive and unproductive. By surfacing complexity, practicing complicating the narratives is helping me understand new and interesting elements to conflict I never would have seen otherwise.
It gives me hope that even in this cacophony of division that we currently live in, there are stories worth sharing that can, if not bring us together, at least help us understand each other just a little more.
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