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To help reduce polarization, let’s re-envision news’ opinion sections

Many communities across the country today have unprecedented opportunity to converse with each other, understand one another’s views, and find workable solutions or approaches to the mutual challenges they face. At the same time, we all know this doesn’t always happen.

At API, we’re interested in the role opinion journalism can play in facilitating better civic discourse within and among communities. More specifically, we’re curious how today’s news media opinion sections can begin changes, small or radical, that support this goal.

Many opinion sections have sought to be a public square, a home for dialogue about where roads should go, what unites local residents together and what ailments are driving them apart. Some have no doubt succeeded more than others. Marginalized voices rarely graced many of these pages. Important issues may have been ignored. Moreover, as the world changes with technology, some opinion sections have kept the same models — and even language — that they were born into, often confusing many Americans.

At the same time, some opinion sections are thriving. New models are emerging. And some of the most interesting are inspired by today’s polarization, and a will to move past it.

In Nashville, The Tennessean is bolstering its opinion work with Civility Tennessee, a campaign to encourage civil discourse “not for the sake of observing niceties, but to challenge people to practice citizenship, which requires commitment and courage, listening and respect for diverse viewpoints.” In Richmond, the Times-Dispatch is ending endorsements and opting for other forms of guidance around political races. In Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has traded its traditional editorial pages for the Ideas Lab, a new effort to produce solutions-oriented reporting about challenges facing the region.

Editors can also learn from other models of supporting productive discourse that exist outside of opinion journalism. Capital Public Radio in Sacramento has brought diverse community members together to envision ways forward on local issues. Leaders in commenting systems, such as The Coral Project, have lessons to offer about constructive dialogue. And so do people who help spur better understanding removed from media altogether — groups like the National Institute for Civil Discourse, Better Angels and researchers on receptivity to opposing views.

But how can opinion journalism double down on these ideas? What are the best ways to create a more inclusive roster of opinion contributors, and how do we elevate perspectives from audiences that have been ignored? How can opinion editors actually help their audiences listen to and engage with different points of view? What are the best ways to do this with limited resources? In what ways do in-person events help? And in a reader revenue world, how does all of this contribute to news organizations’ sustainability?

API’s first Thought Leader Summit in 2019 will focus on how opinion sections can help facilitate better civic discourse within and among communities.

These issues are central to the conversation API will organize this week in Phoenix, Arizona, a state, like so many, that is no stranger to the dangers of polarized environments. We’re grateful to our hosts at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, who also have firsthand experience in how polarization intersects with opinion journalism.

And we’re thrilled that representatives from the above-mentioned groups, in media and out, are among those joining us.

After the event, API will publish a resource on leading this change, including steps opinion editors and their colleagues can take to emphasize better dialogue through and around their work.

This project is one extension of API’s work to create a culture of listening in news, an effort I’m aiding with my colleague Amy Kovac-Ashley. We’re grateful to have collaborators in Cole Goins, a media consultant and engagement lead at Journalism + Design, who is helping organize the day, and Luis Gomez, engagement editor for opinion at San Diego Union-Tribune, who will author the report that builds on our conversations.

At a time of high distrust of media — and of each other — it’s crucial that news organizations model and support civil discourse. We think opinion sections are an ideal home for this important work, and we look forward to learning from these top leaders working to make it a reality.

To follow the outcomes of API’s summit on opinion and commentary, sign up here. For questions please contact Kevin, API’s director of program operations and partnerships, at kevin.loker@pressinstitute.org.

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