When I think about the word “conflict,” it’s hard not to think of journalism. I learn about most conflicts in the world and many even in our own country through news coverage of them.
But with the speed and aggression at which information barrels at us today, it’s sometimes hard to stop and think about the type of conflict I’m seeing, and how journalism plays a role in that conflict, or not.
Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley has done everyone who works in journalism a service with her new book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. The book weaves narrative alongside findings from social science to help people understand the difference between “good conflict” vs. “high conflict.” Not all conflict is bad; a good deal is healthy and important. High conflict, as Ripley defines it, is a type of “us vs. them” conflict that ensnares individuals and groups around the world across endless dividing lines. It’s conflict, she writes, that “becomes self-perpetuating and all-consuming, in which almost everyone ends up worse off.” Yet Ripley’s book is not just descriptive of these seemingly intractable conflicts. It also outlines mechanisms through which real people exit high conflict, lessons many people can apply both personally and professionally.
I think journalists should find the book practical, and hopeful. Many will also know Ripley from her popular 2018 essay, “Complicating the Narratives.” Written in the wake of the 2016 election, that essay explored specifically for journalists how humans behave when divided, and what journalists might consider changing about their craft as a result. It also inspired an entire training initiative from the Solutions Journalism Network, the nonprofit for which she wrote the essay.
Over the past two months, I emailed with Ripley about what she thinks about journalism and what it needs in 2021. I could see how her insights were helpful for individual stories — and I wanted to ask her about what the science meant for beats. For news organizations. For journalism’s reach in an age of social media.
We ended up imagining bold experiments, and ways to get started. Our conversation is presented below, lightly edited for clarity.
Loker: Solutions Journalism Network published your Complicating the Narratives essay almost three years ago. To me, that piece’s virality demonstrated that many people, including journalists, were thinking about news’ role in a highly divided time in America and the world. Even today, the essay is being read and widely shared. For journalists reading this Q&A, what have you learned since then?
Ripley: There are two things I would add to that piece if I were to do the 2.0 version right now.
First, I now realize that so much depends on your audience. In such a polarized, siloed news environment, the first step to Complicating any Narrative is to ask yourself: “Which narrative?” What is my audience’s dominant narrative about this conflict and the “other side?” What about that narrative, based on good data and rigorous reporting, is not true? Where are the blind spots? What is getting missed or obscured because of the fog of high conflict? The answer is going to be really different depending on the news outlet, but it’s a key step that I should have included.
Secondly, I’d investigate the way that intractable conflict tends to make journalism relentlessly (and often inaccurately) negative. A few years ago, an Israeli conflict researcher told me to expect this distortion here, but it’s only now that I see how apparent it is — across major media (more than local) and across the partisan divide. It is another way in which we do journalism without regard for human psychology. I heard Shamil Idriss, the head of Search for Common Ground, on a podcast the other day, and he said that people all over the world need three things: security, dignity and hope. What if we ran our conflict stories through that prism? How can journalism help people with those needs? Pummeling audiences with negative stories about a one-in-one-million chance of something terrible happening (without putting those odds in perspective) is just as damaging and distorting over the long term as outrage-inducing stories. Audiences are left feeling fatalistic and hopeless (or they tune out altogether).
There should be a Fear and Loneliness beat, since fear and loneliness lie underneath so many of our high conflicts.
Loker: When I first read the essay — and even after an early workshop — I mostly thought about these ideas in context of individual stories. Looping and active listening would make for better interviews. Leaving details in a story that don’t fit a predictable binary would help the storytelling in a particular article. But as time has passed and after reading your book — I’ve thought more about the “levels up” from stories — beats, reporting teams, entire news organizations and the wider systems in which we encounter news.
Can we talk about that for a moment? How, for instance, might a news organization structure a beat that makes conflict healthier and not worse? What would a beat look like, not just a story?
Ripley: Oh I love this question! In high conflict, journalists can be incredibly helpful by investigating the understory of conflict — the thing that it’s really about (which no one talks about). So could we create beats designed to dig into that understory?
I’ve been thinking there should be a Fear and Loneliness beat, since fear and loneliness lie underneath so many of our high conflicts — from immigration to the resistance to reopening schools or taking vaccines. Also: conspiracy theories.
We spend a lot of our time as journalists focused on facts, strategy and ideology, but in high conflict, those things matter far less than emotion. You still need facts! But facts about fear and loneliness will prove much more illuminating than who/what/where/when facts.
If you had a Fear and Loneliness beat, what kinds of questions might you ask? I am guessing you’d turn more often to researchers who study collective emotion. But you’d also ask the public different questions, right?
Loker: Tell me more about that for a minute. There’s a high conflict. You’re interested in understories, or maybe Shamil’s points on security, dignity and hope. Which sources and questions might you turn to less, and which sources and questions might you turn to more?
Ripley: Sure! Let’s take an example pulled from the headlines. Today, Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (someone who fits the definition of a classic “conflict entrepreneur” —who exploits conflict for her own ends) compared mask mandates to forcing Jews to wear a gold star in Nazi Germany. Every major news outlet in America did a story repeating her claim and then quoting from various Republicans and Democrats who condemned her words.
A story like this illuminates nothing, I think we can agree.
What might be more interesting? Well, what is the understory of this conflict? What compels a conflict entrepreneur to traffic in grandiose analogies? Well, maybe we could widen the lens —by looking at other examples throughout history. We could flash back to 2004, when the animal rights group PETA created a “Holocaust on your plate” campaign, displaying images of emaciated concentration camp prisoners alongside images of factory farms. We could call one of the many scholars who have studied that campaign since then. What was the impact? Did it “work”? For whom?
Or we could cite Dana Milbank’s book Tears of a Clown, about media personality (and conflict entrepreneur) Glenn Beck. In his first 14 months on Fox News, Beck and his guests alluded to Hitler 115 times, Nazis 134 times, fascism 172 times, the Holocaust 58 times, and Joseph Goebbels 8 times. That’s kind of incredible!
We could call up historian Edna Friedberg at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and ask why this appropriation of the Holocaust happens so often — and what the effects are, over time. Here’s what she wrote about this a few years ago: “Careless Holocaust analogies may demonize, demean, and intimidate their targets. But there is a cost for all of us because they distract from the real issues challenging our society, because they shut down productive, thoughtful discourse.”
What do you think? Would you read that story?
Loker: I would personally read that story. And I can also imagine being frustrated that a story like this is a rarity, likely overshadowed by an entire section of “us vs. them” content in the very publication it resides in.
To what extent do you think this kind of story or beat can survive or make an impact at a standard news organization?
Ripley: In a perfect world, you’d want every reporter who covers controversy (which is every reporter) to understand conflict better — and routinely investigate the understory, widen the lens and amplify complexity. And you’d want every editor to be fluent in these ideas when they are assigning stories and writing headlines. But I don’t think that’s realistic, based on the conventions of most newsrooms… It’s hard to get people in any legacy organization to do things differently.
Traditional journalism doesn’t work in a hyperpolarized country. Doing more of the same (just more righteously) will only polarize us further.
But maybe if you put one of your star writers on the fear-and-loneliness beat (or the understory beat), and their stories got huge engagement, then you’d have a proof point. And that could inspire people and start to change the norms of a newsroom.
Or not! It’s a hard problem, no doubt. Easy for me to preach about what should be, as a freelance writer with no one to manage, no sections to fill, no ads to sell. Kind of obnoxious of me, really. But I do think my distance from the newsroom helps me see some realities more clearly. In a way I couldn’t when I was on staff.
Traditional journalism doesn’t work in a hyperpolarized country. Doing more of the same (just more righteously) will only polarize us further — and weaken the impact of good work. Already, The New York Times has way less influence on national politics than it did when I was a kid. Because, rightly or wrongly, it’s no longer believed to be telling the truth by about half of American voters.
It’s a wicked problem. But one thing I know for sure is that being useful as a journalist in high conflict requires a much more sophisticated understanding of human behavior.
Loker: Do we need an entire news organization focused on helping us navigate high conflict? What would that look like?
Ripley: Well, I know it’s impractical but I do fantasize about starting from scratch. It might be the only way to rebuild trust with the public at the national level, given how much distrust exists. When Gary Friedman, the lawyer featured in my book, wanted to change the way the law is practiced, he and his colleagues didn’t work to reform the system from within. No, they started a new game entirely. They started seeing both parties in a dispute together, in the same room: divorcing couples, feuding neighbors, corporate executives and their employees. This was considered insane at the time! But they did it anyway. They took the whole thing out of the old, adversarial, us-versus-them mold, which was no longer working for a lot of people, and invented something totally different. Something in which regular people had more control than their lawyers did. And now, conflict mediation is a more effective, less expensive and less painful way for many millions of people all over the world to resolve conflicts.
And okay so now here we are: the adversarial, us-versus-them, top-down traditions of journalism aren’t working for many people anymore, either. So what would it look like to do something totally different? To give the public more control than they have now and do journalism based on how people actually behave in conflict? Put another way, I’d like to make journalism designed for human consumption. Kind of like behavioral economics did for economics, as David Bornstein once put it.
That’s the fantasy: to create the news outlet I desperately want to read but cannot seem to find.
Loker: Discovery of this kind of reporting, whether a story or beat or new org, is another interesting factor. Your book discusses how social media speeds up conflict. How does this kind of reporting win the battle on social media? Can it?
Ripley: I don’t know, Kevin. Does it need “to win the battle on social media”?
I’m not sure it needs to win over Twitter, for example. On other platforms, there are lots of reasons content goes viral: because it’s surprising, because it’s hopeful, because it’s useful, because it’s delightful. Enraging and frightening are two easy buttons to push, but they ain’t the only buttons in the human psyche.
[Social media] platforms reward conflict entrepreneurs. What would it look like to reward decency instead?
Loker: Yes, that’s a good point, and I think all the journalists who are seeking to engage people not on Twitter will appreciate it very much.
While we’re on the topic of social media, journalists have the ability to communicate with the platform companies and try to influence them. Which “buttons” should a journalist want those platforms to push?
Ripley: Right now, these platforms are rewarding conflict entrepreneurs. What would it look like to reward decency instead? In every case of “good conflict” I have seen, people create rules of engagement — norms for how they will disagree. This is what happens with rival gangs, warring factions, feuding couples. It’s all the same. You need guardrails. So I’d ask social media users to come up with these rules and opt out if they disagree. Then create a process for what happens when people violate these rules (as they will). Highlight examples. Tweet out suggestions. Create rewards (such as blue check marks) for users who consistently disagree with decency —who manage to speak their mind without degrading themselves or the other person. Who apologizes? Who listens? Who uses aggressive, dehumanizing language? These are not that hard to detect with sentiment analysis. Why couldn’t platforms help us with this, with our permission? We forget that these things are designed by humans, and they can be redesigned.
Loker: One of the compelling ideas for me was how Gary Friedman, the premier conflict mediator you mentioned earlier, slowly got stuck in the Tar Pits of conflict himself. He appears to not even realize it. What kind of conflicts do you think journalists might not realize they’re in, if any? In what ways might journalists be susceptible to this, or with who?
Ripley: We’re all susceptible to high conflict. It’s very hard to resist. Especially when we get attacked personally or humiliated publicly on social media or any other platform. Humiliation is one of the four causes of high conflict, and there’s a lot of it going around right now. But it also can happen whenever we feel merely rejected or distanced from our own group (and we all have many groups/identities, besides “journalist”). It might come in the form of blowback that makes us feel ostracized by our political allies — or our neighbors or coworkers. Whatever the case, humans respond in a very predictable way to ostracism: first, we may try to ingratiate ourselves with the group that is rejecting us. If that doesn’t work, we withdraw and can become aggressive. Usually, this crystallizes the us-versus-them mindset, and it’s easy to fall into high conflict.
It’s a hard problem. For myself, when I feel this wedge open up between myself and people I want to (or used to) feel connected to, I try to first notice what’s happening. I try to remind myself that it’s normal to feel dissonance because of that gap. Humans want to feel allegiance with their tribes, especially in times of conflict. It’s a very primal need. But that dissonance doesn’t mean that I need to take action to make it stop. I don’t need to demonize these critics — or stop saying things that will get me “in trouble” again. That would be giving in to the magnetism of the conflict.
Instead, on my best days (which are not every day!), I try to recognize that we’re all in this conflict. We are not separate from it. So of course, journalists who work to stay open and curious are going to get pushback. But that’s our job. (And P.S., even if I weren’t a journalist, I’d rather live in good conflict than in high conflict. It’s just better for the soul.)
Loker: Ok, last question: Say there’s a journalist who finds value in your Complicating the Narrative essay, and now High Conflict, and wants to use the ideas intentionally in her journalism. But she’s not the editor. She’s concerned she needs more newsroom support. What are one or two early steps might she take — things that could lead to early “wins,” if you will — that might garner interest from her editor and colleagues?
Ripley: I would pitch ideas that “widen the lens” on the conflict. Those are the easiest ones to make work, in my experience. So if your audience is in conflict over a Confederate statue, let’s say, maybe do a story about the history of conflict over statues in your state — going as far back as possible. What happened then? Why?
Or consider a story about conflicts over iconography in other countries. This is a good way to come at a polarizing conflict “sideways,” so to speak — and revive curiosity where there was none.