Tag Archives: media

Choose The Field

A Metaphor From The Midwestharvesting-metaphor-2

When thinking ahead to the harvest, you first need to decide where you will plant the seeds you want to sow. To some extent you will be constrained by geography. As you assess the field you will also need to consider the suitability of the available land and climate for different types of plants. For example, it is easier to grow wheat and corn in the Midwest than rice or cotton. There are other questions to ask as well: has the quality of the soil been depleted by past crops? Has the soil been weakened from the use of fertilizers designed to boost short term growth? In planting, as in politics, overuse of any one technique generally leads to poor growth and diminishing returns at harvest time. Worse still, the soil may be poisoned by overuse of herbicides or pesticides.

As we consider our political field, there are also limits on what we might do. Our representative form of democracy sets some constraints as does the constitutional separation of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. There are different levels (local, state, or national) on which our political discussion is occurring. Certain issues and problems align with certain branches or levels of government more so than others. Each of these levels, though, informs and affects the others, and so their interactions must be studied and understood.

Regardless of the level at which our field is located, there are many past actions and trends that have depleted and poisoned our political soil. At least three of these could be remediated through dialogue.

The first trend that could be remediated is the categorizing of broad groups of individuals, whether by location, education, race, culture, or economics, into the “them” that threatens the “us”. This stereotyping has been an intentional focus of “wedge politics”, a strategy designed to maximize the returns (in votes and dollars) for both of the dominant political parties. The heated, polarizing, and partisan language used by many political leaders, which is repeated through social and other media, is as poisonous to our democracy as herbicides and pesticides  that leach into soil and water. Such language strangles the growth of new ideas, restricts our ability to consider facts that are different from our preconceptions, and makes it easier for us to deny the humanity, aspirations, interests, and needs of others. The dangers of “Themification” are summarized well in this Ted Talk by Dick Simon. We have moved away from the “united we stand, divided we fall” sentiments that grace many of our public spaces, towards a “what’s in it for me and my tribe” focus.  By doing so we have limited our ability to plan for and take pragmatic steps toward a future that might benefit us all.

The second poisonous trend that could be remediated through dialogue has been the rise of a passive notion of citizenship.  We elect our “gladiators” and sit back to cheer or jeer.  Too few of us engage in the the hard work of informing ourselves, working through the competing choices, or getting directly out into the arena. The media and political parties have been only too happy to lend their support to feeding this “blood sport” of politics by handicapping the players, and focusing much of their effort on raising money in order to “win” the most current “contest”. This approach has eroded both our individual and collective capacity for the critical  analysis that most complex problems require. Instead of identifying and engaging voters on the difficult trade-offs involved in finding solutions, the parties and media are more likely to present “slices” for consumption – dividing complex problems into a series of isolated issues.  These “slices” are often then supported with data that are incomplete or taken out of context, and are argued as if there were a single definitive “right” or “wrong” answer.  This way of presenting what are, in fact, complex issues is highly misleading.  Framing these issues in simplistic either/or terms also ignores the reality that the analysis of most complex issues requires reasoning within multiple systems (e.g. information, values, interest, experience, etc.) and some element of subjective judgment. These fundamental flaws in our collective reasoning are  rarely discussed and often go unnoticed. As we fail to consider the integrative effects and trade-offs across issues we miss opportunities both to identify and to work together to implement solutions for our common good.

The third poisonous trend is the rise of a “bullshit” and celebrity driven entertainment culture that has infected both our news and our ability to reason together.  What do we mean by a “bullshit culture”? In his best-selling book from 2005, “On Bullshit” , Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt attempted to provide a framework to describe communications made with no objective factual constraints or boundaries.  He characterized these as statements “unconstrained by a concern for the truth”, or “bullshit”.

Consider the following quotes:

The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides . . . is that the truth values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to support the truth nor to conceal it. ” (55)

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A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers the statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all of these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man or the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (55-56)

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[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” ( 61)

The leaching into our political sphere of a tolerance for, and even admiration of, bullshit as a means of discussing serious political issues, has further eroded our ability to think critically about and solve the problems we face as a country.  In a culture that often mistakes celebrity — conferred by the ability to entertain or simply attract publicity– for character or merit, this tolerance for bullshit as political speech is even more damaging.

So, what harvest do we want? Do we want a “government of, by, and for the people”? Do we even believe that is possible? Our current political soil neither nurtures the sense of community that many citizens say they want nor promotes pragmatic problem solving for the common good. Taken together, the above trends have led many to believe there is no way even to discern what that common good might be, and so feelings and affiliations take the place of hard facts and critical analysis in making decisions. If we aren’t willing to change or challenge these trends, we will continue to be disappointed in our political harvest.

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We have a workbook that can help you assess civic health in your community, and other resources for building dialogues.

Back on Track

It’s been a busy few months.  Sarah’s daughter got married and, along with other matters, we have been working on a very interesting project with the Kettering Foundation involving the media and democracy. Sarah has also been working through a local nonprofit on dialogues about youth and education, using another Kettering sponsored guide. We sponsored some calls looking at the role of trust in dialogue, and most recently facilitated a dialogue on issues relating to the EPA’s 111(d) regulations.  Subsequent posts will summarize ‘lessons learned’ in all of this work. As we get back on track with regular posts we want to start by  sharing one from Brad Rourke of the Kettering Foundation.  In his post, Brad summarizes a problem often encountered in public deliberation – lack of agreement on what the issue is, why it matters, and who should be involved.  He also provides a  graphic that is very useful for analyzing whether there is sufficient agreement to compel the community to act, and if not, where to begin the discussion.  As we pointed out in our earlier post on the data to wisdom continuum, one reason public deliberation efforts often fail to gain traction, or even result in increased polarization, is that they focus prematurely on specific solutions without engaging citizens on the component parts that would help build understanding and awareness.  Creating more safe spaces for exploratory dialogue, and providing for citizen driven interaction, would help promote more effective public deliberation.

Engaging With The Media – After Your Process

Today we continue our discussion on working with the media, focusing on what you can do after the “meeting” part of an engagement process has ended to help ensure that progress is made and that the work done during the process is not ignored.  Here are some steps to consider.

  • Release a report that summarizes the work done and connects it with other actions, events, or ongoing processes in your community.  For example, if the City Council must vote on a recommendation, state how that recommendation will be put before them and when it will be considered.  As another example, if recommendations affect something like an existing plan, explain the process for amending that plan.  Planning for and explaining how recommendations will be integrated into critical processes like budgeting helps to place progress on the recently completed engagement within the context of other ongoing government actions.
  • All of this can be worked into a transition plan that lays out the details of the implementation process.  Establishing priorities with consideration given to limited resources and stating expected time lines can be very useful in helping the media form reasonable expectations.
  • Make sure information is readily accessible to the media so that it can be referred to as reporters are working on related issues.  For example, you could have a web portal where key documents can be reviewed and downloaded.  You can also provide summary updates online as your time line unfolds using a simple form like the visioning Accountability Tracker used in Columbia, MO.
  • You need to be proactive in ensuring that the media appropriately places decisions made or actions taken in the long term context of your engagement process and plan.  You can of course prepare press releases that place those actions within the context of the engagement process.  If possible, you should also brief new reporters on the history of your engagement process and plans and periodically check in with others on emerging issues and how they relate back to recommendations made or to guiding principles that were established through your process.  This makes it more likely that media reports will place actions taken in an appropriate context that helps to educate the public.
  • Continue to inform and involve those who took part in your engagement process.  The participants from an engagement process will generally have at least a passing interest in seeing how their ideas move toward implementation and can become valuable assets for tough problems.  You can, for instance, create a listserv and encourage participants to sign up and stay in touch.  If kept informed, these citizens will often correct misinformation on media related blogs or write letters to the editor that promote ongoing productive dialogue.  If you have a media partner, it may be possible to link requests for input and comment with media reports and share both the blogging platform and the data received.
  • As with other phases of engagement, it is worth thinking about how the media works, laying out “themes” that help you respond when issues arise.  Since media reports are often written to suggest controversy where none exists, project “failure” of government to be efficient or responsive, or illustrate government “rejection” of citizen “demands”, you might, starting with your final report, lay out mitigating themes.  One such theme would be that “government can’t do it all (or do it alone)”.  Emphasize that the implementation of recommendations is an ongoing and evolving process and that decisions on how and when to move forward on a recommendation will factor in realities such as budgets and limits on staff available.  Invite help from the community in establishing priorities between competing demands and procuring additional resources needed.  Referring back to these themes as issues arise will help both the media and the public better understand the interrelationships and trade-offs between issues and the rationale behind decisions made.

Engaging With The Media – During Your Process

Today we continue our discussion on engaging with the media, focusing on working with the media to inform the public during an engagement process.  Here are some steps you can take during an engagement process to effectively work with the media and communicate with the public.

  • Once you have begun an engagement process, work to recruit and train a variety of “public ambassadors” who are active in the process.  These should be people with connections to the diverse audiences that exist in your community.  A good ambassador will bring up their involvement with the process as a normal part of conversation with members of the public and be available for media interviews.  These ambassadors can also bring back questions they are hearing from the public, and serve as an early alert system for misinformation.  Note that it isn’t the role of an ambassador to argue positions.  Instead, these ambassadors serve as advocates for the process itself by encouraging participation, explaining the schedule, and promoting dialogue.
  • The development of regular channels of communication should also be a primary focus early on in your engagement process.  To build channels of communication, you should regularly supply reporters with background information that provides context for emerging issues in addition to updates on the process.  Reporters who become experts on particular issues can be very helpful in promoting productive dialogue by highlighting the complexities and intersections among issues. Informed reporters are also less likely to be affected by those who seek to bypass or distort your process with information that is partisan or otherwise skewed.
  • Even though both ambassadors and reporters can help inform and involve the public, you should also be prepared to provide regular reports directly to the public.  You should be prepared to make regular reports directly the public through your website, e-mail alerts to those who have signed up, and newsletters that are sent out with utility bills or otherwise.  In your reports, in addition to providing information on the current stage of the process, you should summarize why you started the process, how you got to where you are now, and where you plan to go in the future.  By providing this detailed information you can help community members connect with ongoing actions, even if they haven’t previously been involved.
  • Information can also be made available to the community through faith groups, community hubs such as senior centers, barbershops, day care centers, or schools.  Providing information on an ongoing basis helps build consciousness and context.  This helps the public more effectively interpret and respond to media reports that are sporadic or sensational.