A workshop for “Guns: An American Conversation” is one of the dialogue-based projects in which Spaceship Media has been involved.

Using Dialogue Journalism to Bridge the Divide

TAKEAWAY: Dialogue journalism, pioneered by Spaceship Media, looks to affirm the role of reporters as essential to a free society by introducing a new brand of journalism to bring people together, not just chronicle their differences.

The mid-20th century publisher of The Washington Post, Philip Graham, made famous the saying that “the news is the first draft of history.” Journalists in a free society write that first draft and have long done it under difficult, even heroic circumstances. But what comes next? The chants of “Fake News!” that arise with any story that does not fit a certain narrative has done direct damage to the profession of journalism and collateral damage to Americans at large. Countless hours of airtime have gone into questioning the validity of facts, the nature and motive of journalists, and the role of the news media in society.

Spaceship Media, founded in 2016 by journalists Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay, is defining how journalists can write the ensuing “drafts of history” in collaboration with those who are living it. This small, California-based company offers a seven-step method that puts the skills of journalism to use by larger groups of people on both sides of an issue. These skills include curiosity, attentive listening, the vetting of information and the willingness to ask direct questions as useful in bridging the divide and restoring trust in journalism as a whole, and the motives of people with differing opinions. 

Spaceship Media termed this approach “dialogue journalism.” At its core is a seven-step methodology for identifying divides and creating sustained, constructive online conversations among communities. The first three steps of the process are: 

  • “The Build”—where a topic is identified and a conversation approach is determined.
  • “The Gather”—where there is a mapping of each community’s opinions and perceptions of each other.
  • “The Welcome”—which brings together a mix of community members from both sides to a neutral space and provides them with a non-narrative set of facts and figures relevant to the conversation.

From there, the next three steps, termed “The Experience,” “The Carry,” and “The Nourish,” take place over a longer but defined timeframe. During this period, the conversation is closely monitored and supported with facts and research to help the conversation stay grounded, respectful and productive. 

The final step is “The Share,” where the Spaceship Media team works with newsroom partners to uncover stories shared in the conversation and explore relevant issues with the community.

This seven-step approach has now been applied to a number of critical national topics, including gun violence, immigration, education and agriculture. On that last subject, Spaceship Media teamed up with Minnesota Public Radio on a project called “Feeding the Future.” Through a Facebook group, Minnesota’s large-scale conventional farmers met with smaller-scale organic farmers to talk about food policy, sustainable agriculture, the effects of climate change, and the misperceptions each side has about the other. Minnesota Public Radio translated these findings into stories about the challenges facing each side, including the obstacles facing those who wanted to enter farming. 

Dialogue journalism approach has been applied to national, regional and local issues. In one project, Spaceship Media opened a dialogue among residents of Fresno, California, where Shaw Avenue was long seen as the boundary between Fresno’s wealthier neighborhoods and its poorer ones. Working with The Fresno Bee and the NEWSCo/Lab at Arizona State University, the Spaceship Media team designed and managed a long-term conversation called “Crossing the Line.” This conversation was moderated by Bee reporter Brianna Calix, during September and October 2018, and engaged residents both north and south of Shaw Avenue, with the goal of determining and capitalizing on common ground. The jury is still out on long-term change, but Fresno residents came to understand the historical basis for the north-south divide, including the effects of redlining and disinvestment in South Fresno, and the city’s current pattern of placing facilities in South Fresno, such as a meat rendering plant, that were unwanted in North Fresno. Both sides did agree that the best Mexican restaurants were largely in South Fresno. 

Spaceship Media continues its drive to engage communities in conversation. One of its larger-scale programs, The Many, took place in a closed Facebook group and focused the conversation on thousands of women across the U.S. through personal stories and political issues. In addition, the Spaceship Media team is adapting their seven-step methodology for use by businesses. While The Dialogue Project has focused on business approaches that may help in community conversation, Dialogue Journalism might help businesses better understand, and connect with, their stakeholders.