by SOJC students Jordan Brenner and Sam Nguyen
Started in 2018 as a response to the growing polarization in the U.S., Civility Tennessee is a campaign “that seeks to model, promote and encourage civil discourse on issues of the day.” The first year of the campaign primarily held in-person and virtual events that covered topics ranging from gun violence to teaching children to be civil to voter security, engagement and turnout. In addition to hosting events, the campaign also maintains a small and active closed Facebook group. The campaign was not planned to last longer than a year, but due to public demand, the project has continued into its fourth year. In 2019, Civility Tennessee was awarded the USA TODAY NETWORK’s Transformation Journalism Award and the On Point Purpose Award.
Organization Background: The Tennessean is a daily newspaper that is based in Nashville, TN and part of the USA TODAY Network. The paper circulates throughout the Middle Tennessee region as well as parts of southern Kentucky.
- To encourage conversations that are civil and respectful, even if they are hard.
- To enhance civic participation in important conversations of the day.
- To help promote voter registration efforts.
- To increase news literacy and enhance trust of The Tennessean and sister publications.
Project Resources: The project started off with an in-house advisory committee that included a multimedia producer, marketing professional and digital executive. Plazas is the main staff member for Civility Tennessee. Most of the heavy lifting happens when the campaign holds in-person events. Plazas has collaborated with marketing teams and other partner institutions to organize these events.
Tools & Technology:
- Facebook Live was used to present virtual events on topics of the day with special guests. Plazas moderated the conversations.
- Partnerships with the Nashville Public Library, Vanderbilt University, Belmont University and Lipscomb University helped build the campaign’s audience and added to the campaign’s legitimacy by having experts as guests.
- Watch time for virtual events exceeded the average watch time of other videos on the Tennessean website.
- In-person events were RSVP’d to capacity. The Vanderbilt debut event in January of 2018 was reserved to capacity at 120 people. The largest event occurred at Belmont University, which brought in 1,200 people.
- Writing about civil discourse approaches to specific topics yielded above average page views and engagement time. The Tennessean set 1,000 page views as a benchmark for success of opinion content; Civility Tennessee content yields 3,000-6,000 page views. The average engagement time is 30 seconds, whereas Civility Tennessee pieces drew as much as 90 seconds.
- While it was originally intended to be a year-long project, public demand has kept the campaign going into its fourth year.
Here’s How it Happened
Identifying the Problem: The idea for Civility Tennessee first started as a challenge set by USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee Editor Michael Anastasi for the Tennesssean’s opinion and engagement director David Plazas in late 2017. Anastasi challenged Plazas to create a years-long project focusing on civility. Plazas accepted the challenge.
Defining ‘Civility’: While civility is often equated with being ‘nice’ or ‘polite,’ the Civility Tennessee campaign went with a slightly different definition. Civility comes from the Latin root ‘civitas,’ which focuses on the duties of citizens. Drawing from this idea, the project called on citizens to actively participate in challenging conversations with each other while also listening to each other.
The Ask: The campaign first started with a column titled “Is civility in America possible anymore?,” written by Plazas. In the column, Plazas asked readers how to address the increasing polarity in the U.S. The plentiful reader responses showed Plazas that people did want to engage in conversation.
Talk to Those Already Doing the Work: Part of the research for the Civility Tennessee project included talking to local leaders of the nonprofit Braver Angels, which aims to depolarize American politics through bringing people with different political views together in conversation. Plazas worked with Braver Angels for the soft launch of Civility Tennessee in 2017 and members of Braver Angels have written guest columns for the Tennessean. The National Institute of Civil Discourse was another source used during research for the project.
Official Launch: On Jan. 12, 2018, Civility Tennessee was officially launched and announced.
Events: The Tennesean launched both virtual and in-person events and campaigns to promote civil discourse and human-to-human engagement. Events covered issues such as racism, gun violence, sexual assault, voter turnouts, and more. Additionally, they were able to host several guest columnists to broadcast their thoughts on the surge of white supremacy in America among other things.
Here’s What Worked
1. Identifying topics and speakers that resonated with the audience
Plazas says that the campaign focused on local or statewide issues rather than national issues because national issues tended to be more divisive. Moreover, local and statewide issues, such as transportation and voter registration, resonated more with the community because they were more tangible.
2. Making a concerted effort to include rural and urban communities with programming
While the Tennessean is based in Nashville, the Civility Tennessee campaign deliberately chose to take a statewide approach to reach both Tennessee’s urban and rural populations. In order to build trust between the urban and rural communities, Plazas says that they approach conversations trying to find common ground and validate the participants even if they disagree. Partnerships with colleges in cities outside of Nashville, such as the University of Memphis, Lane College, and Cumberland University, also helped draw in both urban and rural populations.
3. Working to create an inclusive culture of publishing guest columns
One of the goals of Civility Tennessee is to make it the “ultimate place for conversations” in the Nashville area, as well as the state of Tennessee. The campaign publishes columns with a variety of opinions that may contradict. Plazas says that representation of underrepresented communities plays a part in fostering civility.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Improving the Definition of ‘Civility’
Plazas mentioned that the word ‘civility’ was not chosen because it was the perfect word. He mentioned that it was initially the word that they could use that would “cause the least amount of fear.” The word ‘civility drew some skepticism and criticisms saying that ‘civility’ meant acquiescence or appeasement. While the term was imperfect, it was able to set the tone and mission for the campaign early on in the midst of an era of tension during the 2016 election.
2. Increasing moderation for Facebook group
Plazas is the principal moderator along with other staff members who act as administrators. While Plazas checks the page daily and shares posts regularly, he has not had to take a heavy-handed approach to moderating the group because members have been respectful for the most part. Plazas understands the complexities of running a civil online forum on Facebook. He pointed out, “I have seen how ugly they can get, and I’ve seen that most open groups that need to talk about tough issues become especially misogynistic and racist. I get a lot of trolling, that comes in.” There was one particular story that stuck out to Mr. Plazas. In his words, “It still hurts my heart to this day, but there was one particular person who got into the groove, and was so angry that people wouldn’t accept his position on the Second Amendment, and he got so mad that he went on this tirade, and I went in and had to personally, you know, delete all of that.” It was an especially tough decision because Mr. Plazas believes that even when folks are being rowdy, there is knowledge to be derived from that.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- Podcast: When in-person events were cancelled in March of 2020, Plazas started a podcast called Tennessee Voices. The podcast consists of 20 minute-long episodes where Plazas talks to leaders, innovators, and thinkers who wrote guest columns for the Tennessean. Plazas says that the podcast provided an opportunity to model civil discourse.
- Closed Facebook Group: Civility Tennessee maintains a closed Facebook group with about 400 members. Two-thirds of the group members are female and nearly half live in Nashville. Plazas says that the Facebook group was started as an experimental laboratory where people could feel safe to engage in conversations. Participants who join the group must agree to engage in civil discourse and are able to use the space to start conversations about whatever issues that are important to them. The Facebook group has also acted as a way for Plazas and others to share the resources and connections that they have with others in the community.
To learn more, feel free to reach out to David Plazas, or check out the following to learn about the project: