Complicating the narratives: Amanda Ripley explains solutions journalism
By Sara Wanous
Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change, carbon fee and dividend, and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Check out recaps of past speakers here.
Climate change and so many other challenges we face as a society are incredibly complex. In the face of these intricate issues, our instinct is often to oversimplify them. What benefit might we find by digging into the complexities, instead?
Amanda Ripley, a journalist with more than 20 years of experience writing for publications including Time Magazine and The Atlantic joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s January 2019 meeting to explore just that. Amanda explains how “complicating the narrative” through the practice of solutions journalism can help us have more productive, satisfying conversations about polarizing topics.
Why solutions journalism is important
Following the 2016 election, while her colleagues matched a rise in polarization by doubling down on common journalism methods, Amanda said she felt a little lost. She was still dedicated to the mission of informing people so they can make educated decisions, but she felt that existing journalism techniques were having less impact than ever before. Amanda decided to push her comfort zone. Under the advice of David Bornstein, the co-founder and CEO of the Solutions Journalism Network, she spent months studying with people in professions that understand conflict differently than journalists.
Journalists are constantly covering conflicts, but usually through the same lens of identifying two sides of the issue and summarizing the conflict. Spending time with people who approached conflict differently, such as conflict mediators, psychologists, diplomats, and ministers, Amanda realized two things: people behave differently when they reach a point of high conflict, and traditional journalism does not help us in these situations.
“Journalists understand how to make you angry, how to get your attention, how to make you sad,” she said, “but there’s a lot we still don’t take into account when we try to inform the public, when we try to listen, when we try to be heard.” In order to get people to break through polarization just understand opposing viewpoints, we must adapt the techniques of journalism.
Lessons from the Difficult Conversations Laboratory
One place Amanda looked to see conflict differently was the Difficult Conversations Laboratory at Columbia University. This lab hosts and records “awkward, tense, and painful” conversations between strangers on highly loaded topics, then analyzes the recordings to see what we can learn about productive conversations.
Researchers at the Difficult Conversations Laboratory find that most conversations can be divided into two categories. The first are negative conversations characterized by exclusively frustrated and angry statements where people seem “stuck.” These conversations often played out like a “tug-of-war” between two deep-seated positions.
But the Difficult Conversations Laboratory sees more productive conversations too. These conversations still have their moments of frustration, but have other emotions like humor and understanding woven in. People did not often change their minds after these conversations, but they did ask higher quality questions and leave feeling more satisfied. While it is unrealistic to expect to change someone’s mind on a deeply held belief in one conversation or one article, Amanda says these interactions are important. “What we can hope for is for them to open their mind—people will not be open to new information if they don’t feel a little bit curious sometimes, if they can’t cycle out of negativity and anger, they can’t ask questions.”
After identifying the characteristics of a more productive conversation, the Columbia researchers set out to see if they could create environments where better conversations would happen instead of leaving it up to chance. In one study, half of the groups of participants were given traditional news stories, while the other half were given more complex readings on the same topics. This study demonstrated that when people had just read a more complicated analysis of the problem, they had higher quality conversations. This shows that one way to induce more productive conversations is to avoid oversimplifying something complex, and instead to recognize the intricacies up front.
Complicate the narrative
Amanda Ripley’s time studying conflict from different perspectives helped clarify her goal in journalism and a plan to achieve it. Ripley aims to build understanding and curiosity about different perspectives around traditionally polarizing topics. And to get there, Amanda says, “You can induce complexity and curiosity with complexity and curiosity.” These are some of the keys Ripley uses to unlock more complex narratives:
- Facts do not persuade
“I knew this too, but I didn’t really viscerally believe it—I was not persuaded by this fact,” joked Amanda. While facts are important, they must be preceded by trust, especially in contentious topics.
- Make people feel heard
Ripley explains, “People will not listen until they feel heard—literally or figuratively.” This means more than nodding and furrowing your brow while they talk. In conversation, this means utilizing motivational interviewing techniques like listening for people’s values and emotions and repeating them back. This lets people know you hear them and gives them a chance to correct you if you’ve misunderstood them. For journalists, this means making sure to include different viewpoints in the story in a credible way. Even if the goal is to debunk that view, stating it in the piece makes people feel heard.
- Ask better questions
Use better questions to get past the usual talking points and gripes and into deeper reasons for their beliefs. Some of Amanda’s favorite questions are:
- Create new identities
“It is hard to get rid of an existing identity,” Amanda said. “It’s easier to create a new one.” Instead of looking to persuade people to change their identity, it is better to try to unite around identities with shared values.
- Use visuals
Ripley referenced the work of Brendan Nyhan, a researcher of political behavior, on confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the idea that people look for points that prove their existing perspective and discount other facts. Using good visual aids, such as infographics or graphs, is a more powerful way to break this pattern and explain something difficult or new.
If we want to change the discourse around difficult issues, we’ll have to change our fundamental approach to those conversations. Approaching conflict from different angles can help journalists better inform and persuade, can help us connect and understand each other better, and ultimately can help build a more productive platform for talking about complicated issues.
Sara Wanous has been the Membership Coordinator at Citizens’ Climate Lobby since January 2018. She has a B.A. in Economics and B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from Chapman University and is pursuing a masters in Climate Science and Policy at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.