Innovative Journalism Can Take Public Conversation to Scale

We have barely begun to use major media and journalism – both old and new forms – to scale up the impact of powerful public conversations about public issues beyond the rooms and online forums where those conversations take place. Our societies urgently need innovations and development in the area of public conversation journalism in order to bring collective intelligence and community wisdom into our policy-making and into the everyday activities of ordinary citizens and organizations.

In this post I want to highlight the most remarkable public conversation journalism I’ve ever seen and explore some of the kinds of work public conversation journalists do and could do.

A few weeks ago 122 members of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation created, edited, and rated 95 ideas about what they’d like to see and do in their national conference in October 2014 (and you can see the results here). To my surprise and delight, an item I contributed ended up in third place:

Explore the best examples we can find where
major media have partnered with dialogue and
deliberation efforts to actually “scale up” public
dialogue and deliberation to the regional, state,
and national levels – or which contained lessons
and best practices to help us do that in the future.

Thanks to these results I’ve decided it is finally time to share a major research project I’ve been working on over the last 15 years. I posted the last pieces of that work online last month. So now a major new resource is available – a thorough examination of what I believe is the most potent example of media-sponsored public conversation on public issues in North America and possibly the world. This initiative – all but unknown even to specialists in the field – was undertaken in 1991 by Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s leading newsweekly in collaboration with Canadian TV. The resources now available online include the entire 40 pages of Maclean’s coverage, the complete CTV documentary video, detailed interviews with four of the major players, and my own descriptions and analyses (see

What Maclean’s and Canadian TV did

These two major media innovators convened 12 Canadians whose extreme diversity reflected the diversity of their deeply divided country. They then charged these ordinary folks with articulating a shared vision for Canada. They were given two and a half days to do it. Maclean’s provided a team of leading-edge negotiators from the Harvard Negotiation Project – led by Roger Fisher, co-author of the classic negotiation handbook Getting to Yes – to help them.

The intense conversations that resulted were remarkable all by themselves. But the coverage provided by Maclean’s and Canadian TV was unprecedented and, I believe, has never been surpassed in the quarter of a century since. It generated widespread lively conversation around the country for months – and awards for Maclean’s.

Despite the fact that it happened more than two decades ago, I find this remarkable event teeming with potential lessons for all of us who want to “scale up” public dialogue and deliberation. We know that that can’t be achieved by centrally organizing millions of people into high quality conversations; there just aren’t the resources for doing that. We need some kind of catalyst that can trigger hundreds of self-organized, spontaneous conversations, including some with potential for real impact.

Maclean’s and Canadian TV provide important clues. They designed their coverage in ways that closed the gap between the small facilitated conversation and its mass audience. They didn’t provide the usual coverage to be witnessed by passive observers keeping up with the latest news. Their coverage was actively, intensely engaging. Like reality TV today, the Maclean’s/Canadian TV coverage drew millions of readers and viewers into intimate and often dramatic interactions among twelve radically different Canadians who included a few people much like themselves as well as others that they strongly disagreed with. Because of the brilliant design of both the interactions and the coverage, these journalists showed us how to vicariously engage an entire country in a higher form of conversation and a renewed sense of political possibility.

As I noted in my book Empowering Public Wisdom, a major unlearned lesson in this effort was that Maclean’s and Canadian TV didn’t repeat this process every year after that. If such a journalistic engagement of the entire country in high quality conversation were to be done on a regular basis, any country doing it would find itself thinking more clearly and creatively about its affairs than it had ever done before and creating a political force field which would profoundly influence politicians, news media, educators, businesses, and government decision-makers, as well as ordinary citizens.

Once it became part of the political culture, such collective thoughtfulness and due attention to diverse views and information would make all the difference in the world. That was, after all, the dream of democracy in the first place: an informed, conversant citizenry engaged together in crafting their collective lives and future.

The fact that we have today new ways to do that – conversational technologies as well as digital and telecommunications technologies – makes it even more important to understand what pioneers in the field did that we can now build on to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

Public conversation journalism

The field of journalism – its theory, practice, and business models – is in upheaval.

The primary source of this disruption – the Internet – is widely recognized: Journalists, who were once the gatekeepers of news and current information, have been bypassed by millions of bloggers, citizen journalists, and community and issue activists using the web and modern communications technology to share what’s going on and what they think about it. This explosion of participatory information-sharing has many blessings for democracy. But it also has limitations, as many valuable journalistic standards have been ignored on the way to greater freedom and participation. The field is now rife – or perhaps ripe – with angst and creative conversation and experimentation. Among the most creative efforts to engage with this issue is Journalism That Matters, catalyzed for over a decade by NCDDer Peggy Holman and a handful of colleagues.

To this rich transformational soup of modern journalism I want to add one more ingredient – an innovative manifestation of journalism’s time-honored contribution to informed citizen engagement in a vibrant democracy: I call it “public conversation journalism” – journalism that has a professional commitment to do things like these:

  • Report on public conversations on public issues – before, during, and after – as legitimate community news.
  • Sponsor major public conversations on public issues, like Maclean’s did.
  • Welcome op eds that promote or usefully comment on public conversations about public issues.
  • Profile public conversation participants from various angles including who they are (to entice audience identification with them and thus trigger a vicarious experience of their views, their passions, their transformations) as well as their personal human interest stories and their infectious enthusiasm.
  • Profile the issues being discussed (background and framing) to deepen and contextualize the public conversation.
  • Provide multi-media coverage (print, video, even journalistic drama like Multiple Viewpoint Drama and Playback Theater).
  • Feature conversations that include well chosen, inclusive diversity such as we find in the Maclean’s initiative, Citizens Juries, WIsdom Councils, and Deliberative Polling (which convene cross-sections or random selected members of a population) and/or in “whole system” stakeholder conversations such as Consensus Councils and Future Search Conferences.
  • Provide truly transpartisan coverage – that is, coverage that includes a broad range of perspectives that move the viewer or reader beyond the reductionist, obsolete, and deeply adversarial standard of “both sides”.
  • Cover the very real drama of citizens problem-solving together, that may include but goes way beyond “the debate”.
  • Help the public understand the character and dynamics of different kinds of conversation – productive and unproductive, creative and uncreative, informed and uninformed, vibrant and restrained, diverse citizens and “the usual suspects”, colaborative and adversarial, etc.
  • Cover – and even provide forums and structure for – the social media generated around quality dialogue and deliberation.
  • Cover the actual results of public conversations on public issues – the immediate and longer term impacts on participants, communities, decision-makers, etc. – and publicize when good public conversational work gets taken seriously or ignored.
  • Cover efforts to institutionalize public deliberations, to build a “culture of dialogue”, to promote citizen engagement, etc.

I hope journalists and professionals in the fields of citizen dialogue and deliberation and public engagement engage in thinking together about how to bring about this powerful new kind of collaboration among themselves and their colleagues. I hope to hear from you about earlier and current experiments in such collaboration, including any details we can all learn from and questions and challenges you now face. I have heard of some work in Australia along these lines, and a number of people have noted that South Africa’s Mt. Fleur scenario initiative – which, intriguingly, happened one year after the Maclean’s initiative – included remarkable publicity by major news media.

There is SO much to learn and try out here…

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