Dialogue in a Divided Democracy Summit

Journalists, elected officials and government communicators committed to concrete steps aimed at increasing trust and civility in public life following two days of intensive conversations at the National Press Club on March 25-26, 2019.

Hosted by the Club’s nonprofit Journalism Institute and facilitated by the National Institute of Civil Discourse, the “Dialogue in a Divided Democracy” brought together more than 60 people —news media leaders and the people they cover—for face-to-face conversations about the challenges facing key American institutions. PEN America and the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership partnered in the event.

Among steps participants agreed to take:

  • Engage in a practice of “radical transparency.” Journalists will open up newsrooms and their decision-making processes to the public and do a better job explaining the difference between opinion and news, as well as identifying more clearly “who is a journalist,” while elected officials will also commit to greater transparency and accessibility;
  • Provide better training for new journalists and congressional staff who work with the press and offer opportunities for them to get to know peers in other parties and across the journalism/politician divide;
  • Make more time to get to know each other and build relationships;
  • Take a series of steps to de-escalate danger and increase security for journalists and public officials alike;
  • Avoid inflammatory language.

These commitments represent the results of dialogues that began at a Monday night dinner followed by a day of small group discussions on topics suggested by a series of speakers.

“We didn’t agree on everything or solve all of our problems but we did agree that we want to keep working to de-escalate the hostility in public life and do a better job for the public that we all serve,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the NPC Journalism Institute.

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director emerita of the National Institute of Civil Discourse, described it as an important first step towards changing the political ecosystem.

“The experience brought renewed hope that we can rebuild the public’s trust in our democratic institutions,” she said.

The audience heard from authors of two recent studies that document the declining confidence of Americans in key democratic institutions: The Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, and The Democracy Project, a joint effort of the George W. Bush Institute, the Penn Biden Center and Freedom House.

Speakers cited a number of factors for the decline in trust and civility, including incentives for elected officials and media that reward speed and conflict — with a news cycle that offers little time for nuance, context, reflection or relationship-building.  “We should all think twice, or three times, before tweeting,” said Thomas O. Melia, WashingtonDirector of PEN America, and one of the dialogue’s facilitators, “and maybe eliminate comments about people altogether, and stick to issues and ideas.”

Former White House press secretaries Mike McCurry and Ari Fleischer pleaded for less breathless incrementalism in news coverage: “When you cover every pitch, you miss the game,” said Fleischer.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and former Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said the same lack of deliberation has cheapened discourse in the political sphere. “There’s a reward for snarkiness and nastiness and little for thoughtfulness and analysis,” Flake said. Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., raised concerns about political activists who masquerade as members of the press. “They use the title of journalist,” he said, urging reporters: “Hold those folks accountable too.”

Speakers from the world of journalism cited the collapse of employment in the industry — more than 25,000 newsroom jobs have been lost since 2008, according to the Knight Commission — as a major factor in the loss of community cohesion and urged a recommitment to local news. “I learned to be a journalist covering local news,” said Politico Editor Carrie Budoff Brown. “I don’t believe there are as many of those opportunities for reporters.”

Rick Hutzell, editor of the Capital Gazette, the newspaper in Annapolis that lost five employees when a gunman attacked the newsroom last year, said he has been heartened to find out how much his organization means to the community. Key to that relationship is a willingness to “keep talking,” he said.

“Lean into criticism,” he advised reporters. “Listen to what they are saying, even if they’re wrong.”

Several editors said they are having success working for non-profit news operations that enlist the community in identifying and dissecting difficult stories.

Resolve Philadelphia provides a platform for 22 local newsrooms to work “from the same bank of resources” on stories ranging from the reintegration of released prisoners into society, the city’s persistent poverty rate, and municipal elections, said Cassie Haynes, the program’s co-executive director.

Acknowledging that sometimes journalists have “acted like jerks,” Doug Oplinger said that as head of the journalistic collaborative Your Voice Ohio he urged them to act like members of the community. Journalists shouldn’t be afraid to say “I want the world to get better,” and offer ideas for solutions to the problems they uncover, said the former Akron Beacon Journal editor.

It was in that spirit that the National Press Club Journalism Institute decided to sponsor the Dialogue for a Divided Democracy, said Kathy Kiely, Lee Hills Chair of Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and an organizer of the program.

“Journalists are not enemies of the people. We are their eyes, their ears and their advocates,” said Kiely, who wrapped up her tenure as the Journalism Institute’s first press freedom fellow at the event. “We cannot and will not be neutral bystanders when the democracy in which we are so deeply embedded is at risk.”

With this summit, the Institute is launching an initiative to convene communities who share a commitment to building trust across differences in a divided democracy, and to growing journalism in the public interest, said Julie Moos, who joined the National Press Club Journalism Institute as Executive Director in January. “There is a coalition developing with a clear call to consistent action, and the public requires us to succeed.”