by Kevin Beasley
In 2018, Spaceship Media worked with Advance Local, Essential Partners, and other organizations to create a nationwide discussion between persons with very different opinions on the topic of gun control. Describing their approach as dialogue journalism, Spaceship Media and their partners recruited individuals with diverse attitudes and political beliefs about guns to participate in the conversation. Kicking things off, 21 of the 150 Participants met in person at a conference in Washington, D.C. where they discussed their opinions on guns and personal safety in Guns – An American Conversation. The conversation then moved to a closed Facebook group where all 150 members communicated with the help of moderators for one month.
Eve Pearlman, Co-Founder of Spaceship Media, felt the need to “get to the heart of the most difficult divides, places we feel like you can’t even touch.” Her aim was to dig deeper into the current issues that people were talking about. The idea for the guns project came to life after the Parkland Shooting in Florida, which was the deadliest high school shooting to date. Overall, the goal of the project was to get people with varying viewpoints together for a civil discussion about gun control.
Tools and Technology
Funding for the guns conversation came largely from Advance Local, an organization consisting of 10 media groups. The conversation itself took place almost entirely in a closed Facebook group. Moderators helped facilitate the conversation by providing prompts and de-escalating conversations that turned contentious.
A few participants actually changed their opinions on gun control. One participant in particular, Alexis Intili, was a strong supporter of gun rights when the project started. However, she now swears that she feels the change and believes that automatic weapons should be banned – a view she did not at all have at the beginning of the conversation. After the project ended, some participants started their own local gun discussion groups. The project also sparked the “Heart to Heart” program, an initiative to get willing individuals with diverse perspectives on guns engaged in a conversation. Heart to Heart paired individuals based on self-submitted survey responses and then helped facilitate a conversation.
Spaceship Media has launched several dialogue journalism initiatives. One example is Officers and Students, a project where high school students and police officers were paired up and spent time together to share their viewpoints around bias, law enforcement, and the black lives matter movement. The organization’s philosophy is “careful listening and empathy are vital to supporting meaningful civic dialogue and easing polarization.”
To keep the conversation civil and safe, Advance Local provided daily moderators from 4 am to 11 pm across different time zones in the U.S. Another major resource were the participants themselves. Continuing the conversation required participants to remain civil and non-hostile.
Here’s What Worked
1. Moderators to Keep the Conversation on Track
Moderators worked carefully to ensure that the conversation did not enter hostile territory. In an effort to maintain peace, the moderators would once a week post non-gun-related conversation starters to lighten the tone of the group that was otherwise engaged in difficult conversation around guns.
2. A Successful Exchange of Ideas
A conversation participant, Melanie Jeffcoat said that “I felt like for the first time, I got to know somebody who thinks very differently. And okay, I’m having a real conversation with a dues-paying NRA member, and I like them.” By carefully recruiting only individuals who were willing to listen to others, the conversation was able to successfully play out.
3. Access to The Platform
The conversation took place on Facebook because Eve it is an accessible medium. She was right and participants were able to communicate across the country and periodically throughout the day. Limiting the dialogue to being in person would have presented time and distance constraints.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Avoiding the Hierarchy
Not all of the participants were able to attend the in-person D.C. workshop, which Eve feels created a hierarchy in the project. In the future, she would like to have all the participants receive the same type of preparation before going into the conversation.
2. Finding the Right Size
Logistically, keeping a dialogue where 150 people feel engaged is a difficult task. Some voices felt louder in the project, which was possibly due to the sheer volume of participants.
3. Circling Back
It would be impactful to know more about the long term benefits of the project. Building long term check-ins into the initial model may provide insightful information as to the power of dialogue journalism.
To learn more about this project, say hi to Eve Pearlman on Twitter, send Spaceship Media an email, read about it on Advance Local Alabama’s website, or check out this book about the project.