In early 2017, AL.com completed a fascinating project called Talking Politics, bringing together Alabama and California female voters in a private Facebook group, to have ongoing conversation and generate stories. The results are a hopeful glimmer in a moment when we’re focused on alienation and disagreement. We talked to the project’s creators, Jeremy Hay and Eve Pearlman of Spaceship Media, about how it began and what they’ve learned about encouraging respectful dialog.
Tell us about Spaceship Media
Spaceship Media is a California nonprofit so new that it is still using a fiscal sponsor because it does not have its own 501c3 status. We are two longtime journalists – Jeremy Hay and Eve Pearlman – who believe that journalism can and should be useful to bridge divides, and that that can be achieved by focusing on the needs, beliefs, and questions of polarized communities.
How did the project with AL.com come about?
We had one project going, our first, in a Bay Area suburb involving a police department and local students of color. It was going well and we were looking for our next one. The day after the election, we called Michelle Holmes at AL.com.
We knew she was a really inventive, innovative journalist. We described what we thought Spaceship could do with Alabama and the Bay Area, and she said ‘Yes’ right then and there.
How did you choose Facebook? What are the pros and cons of that choice?
The pros are it’s really robust. People don’t have to learn it, they already know how to Facebook as a verb, how to join, how to navigate the platform and so on. And because people are for the most already used to talking on Facebook, it’s a familiar environment to do what can be intimidating, talk to strangers about politics. Almost all the women in the Alabama/California Conversation were already on it. The cons, it’s not ideal for moderation. We found no good way to cross reference posts where similar, relevant conversations were taking place, to which a moderator might want to point people.
We also wanted to be able to insert original reporting and data into ongoing discussions and couldn’t easily. It was also tough to track all the conversations that sprang up and then sprouted new lines of discussion. We spent a lot of time tracking the conversation, unfurling threads, and trying to find what people were talking about.
What were the goals of the project?
We wanted to create and build a meaningful, fact-based dialogue between individuals from two communities that, in the long campaign and election season, showed limited ability to have reasoned conversations about the most important issues facing the country.
And we wanted to make our journalism as transparent as possible in order to build trust in us and for it to play a key role in not only informing that conversation but facilitating it.
How did it work?
This is the basic method, which we have found varies somewhat based on the project:
We identify communities that are at odds, that have stopped communicating productively. We find people who want to engage with the other community, or at least who are willing to look at the opportunity to do so.
We ask them four questions:
1) What do you think the other community thinks of you?
2) What do you think of the other community?
3) What do you want the other community to know about you?
4) What do you want to know about the other community?
We do it this way so that we start the process by listening closely, so that we are focused on what the public believes and needs and wants to know, rather than what we, as journalists, think the story is.
Then we set out to get the answers to the questions people asked about their counterparts. As we do this reporting, we work to make it as transparent as possible. We share how it’s going and what we are finding. And we invite feedback throughout: What are we missing? What additional questions should we ask? What did we get wrong?
We then use some combination of platforms — whether it’s Facebook or live meetings with groups — in which the results of our reporting can be shared and discussions can be held. One tool we also use is GroundSource, a fantastic text message-based survey and engagement platform.
We moderate the ensuing conversation and support it with reporting that arises from our initial interviews and questions that the conversation produces.
What is the role of the journalists in the conversation?
First, journalism drives the projects. Journalists source the project. A particular journalistic skill – holding opposing concepts and viewpoints in balance at the same time – is crucial to projects like ours that are about dialogue and engagement between opposed communities. And throughout, journalists deliver well-researched information and facts to inform the conversation. In the Alabama/California Conversation, we reported out information on immigration, Obamacare and welfare and social services that helped shape and further the discussion.
How did you go about recruiting?
Reporters in Alabama and the San Francisco Bay Area used their existing sources and basic shoe-leather reporting to find people who were willing to take part. We also did a call-out on AL.com and on social media. People were eager to participate.
Can you share the community rules you started with?
We did not set community rules. We only, in interviewing people before we opened the Facebook group, emphasized that it was about trying to talk to, listen to and understand people from the other community of voters. We were betting on people’s best selves, and that there is a genuine desire for a civil dialogue, and we won that bet.
Were your rules violated? If so, how and how was it dealt with?
We monitored the conversation very carefully. Since we had no rules, they of course couldn’t be violated. But we stepped in when passions ran high, or when there was name-calling, or when there was a situation where we worried someone might feel they were being ganged up on. We’d sometimes post a comment like, ‘Hey, can we help?’ – just a little reminder that we existed. More often, we’d just message someone personally and ask how they were doing. We’d suggest asking questions rather than going on the offensive. Sometimes they’d vent a little to us, which we were glad of, and which usually seemed to help.
What happened that you didn’t expect?
Several things, in no particular order.
First, we only had to step in on a handful of occasions, fewer than 10 times over the month in a conversation involving 45 to 50 people who between them made hundreds of posts and many thousands of comments.
Second, the veracity and accuracy of the reporting that we provided the group – on Obamacare, immigration and welfare rules and spending – was not questioned by either the women in Alabama or in California. And indeed it played a role in shifting the perceptions of women in both states.
Third, race came up repeatedly and the discussions about it were heartfelt, honest, intense, challenging and, after all that, people kept coming back to them and continuing them. It was inspiring.
Fourth, the women took ownership of the group immediately. They posted many times a day, on everything from questions about politics and policy, gun control and climate change to the size of government, race and immigration. And then there’d be sharing of family photos to recipes to news stories they wanted opinions about.
Fifth, the discussions were substantive. They proceeded through moments of heated confrontation, they were lengthy and they were overwhelmingly civil. And people kept reviving them, returning after several days or weeks to add their thoughts to the thread.
Sixth, women have formed bonds across partisan lines. In the last week or so, women started “friending” each other, and some started a cross country book club.
Seventh, there was a great interest throughout in having us do more reporting and information, more than we could handle, actually.
What advice do you have for someone else who wants to set up such a group?
Develop a relationship with your members – it helps if you like and respect them. Pay close attention. Listen carefully. Try not setting rules at the outset but establishing unstated norms through your moderation.
What do you hope will come from the project?
We hope that other journalists and news organizations will recognize that journalism with an explicit, society-building aim, that puts communities at the center of the process and invites them to fully interact in it, is serious journalism and that they will support it.
We hope that people will see it is possible for Trump and Clinton voters – and other communities in conflict – can have substantive, ongoing conversations about things they differ over. Many people said ‘No way’ when we told them what we were doing. We had our own doubts, too. So the fact that it worked and worked so well, gives is hope that projects like this will sprout elsewhere and that we will find support from people and institutions that want us to do more of this work.
What’s next for Spaceship Media?
We are a new organization so we are building a plan for sustainability and seeking funding and partners for additional projects. Our nation has many, many communities in conflict and we believe that journalism and Spaceship can help bridge those divides.