Escaping Silos and Talking to Strangers

Defining Journalism’s Role in Democracy

In this time of hand wringing over the future of news the notion that quality journalism is essential to a healthy democracy has become almost cliche. The platitude shows up again and again, often with little definition, defense, or explanation. Of course, journalism should inform, it should engage, it should speak truth to power. But too often, our overtures about media and democracy fall flat because we don’t make the case for how journalists can actually be agents of democracy. If we believe that journalism has a role to play in helping citizens govern, then we need to define that role more clearly and call on journalists to live up to those standards.

In the most recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, the editors have begun to do just that. Their piece, “Escape the Silos,” takes a look at one part of American democracy and explores “How the press can help rebuild the American conversation.” They write:

“What’s true about food is true of ideas: they get better when they’re adjacent in the pan. Ideas—particularly political ideas—are meant to be shared, to redefine themselves over the blue flame of discussion. Consumed in isolation they taste bland. Kept too long they get rancid. That’s a problem in America, where we increasingly live in separate information silos. In uncertain times the tribes gather close. People don’t talk to outsiders.”

But what’s the role of conversation in America democracy? There is a hint in that last line about talking to outsiders. In her book, Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen argues that one of the keys to renewing our democracy is to inspire “habits of citizenship.” Allen is particularly interested in the habits of everyday experience and how they shape the way we speak, think, and act. She believes that at the core of our relationship to others, to our community and our democracy is language, particularly writing and speaking. “Naming the unnamed, metaphors change language, and with it politics,” Allen writes. “They allow a speaker to lead an audience onto new conceptual terrain.”

Escaping Silos and Talking to Strangers

The editors of CJR see a role here for journalism to help facilitate this conversation, to help us talk to others: “The battered mainstream press has a mission here that can frame its work and maybe even energize it: helping to rebuild the democratic conversation. The key is not some namby-pamby civic sewing circle. Rather, the press should work toward the kind of earned authority that provides some common factual ground.”

If language, writing and journalism are to lead us to a “new conceptual terrain,” we clearly need that terrain to be built on factual grounds. This is vital to building trust, an issue of concern to journalists and citizens alike. Allen writes:

“As for distrust of one’s fellow citizens, when this pervades democratic relations, it paralyzes democracy; it means that citizens no longer think it sensible, or feel secure enough, to place their fates in the hands of democratic strangers. […] Within democracies, such congealed distrust indicates political failure. At its best, democracy is full of contention and fluid disagreement but free of settled patterns of mutual disdain. Democracy depends on trustful talk among strangers and, properly conducted, should dissolve any divisions that block it.”

Right now, the editors of CJR assert, our media isn’t helping the situation. Discussing the ideological fracturing we see online at sites like the Huffington Post and on cable news channels like Fox and MSNBC, they write, “a massive retreat into ideological niches […] doesn’t help the nation address its challenges.” Indeed, this sentiment was echoed this weekend by satirist and media critic Jon Stewart. At his Rally to Restore Sanity, Stewart closed on a serious note:

“The country’s 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic.”

This year’s midterms elections have brought all of this into stark focus. In CJR, the editors end on a hopeful note: “Civic discourse won’t be rapidly repaired in the wake of an angry election like the one that just ended any more than PoBoys will become an art form in Arkansas. But the press can best help rebuild the forum that makes democracy work by being its best self.” They outline what this best self might look like – all good suggestions – but I think Allen is also instructive here.

Friendship and Collaboration

Allen suggests that if we are to begin talking to strangers and rebuilding trust, we need to start from a base of friendship. She is not naively arguing that we should all be friends, but instead, that “only the concept of friendship captures the conjunction of faculties – the orientation toward others, knowledge of the world, developed practices, and psychological effects – that must be activated in democratic citizenship.” Within journalism, collaborations (between newsrooms, journalists, and citizens) and community engagement efforts are perhaps the closest thing we see to Allen’s notion of friendship.

For Allen, “Friendship is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and diferences.” The collaboration trend that has swept through journalism over the past year marks a fundamental shift away from the competitive drive that has marked newsrooms for ages. When journalism collaborations work, they produce new kinds of stories that couldn’t have otherwise been told. In essence, they create a whole that is greater than its individual parts. Allen writes, “the metaphor of wholeness can guide us into a conversation about how to develop habits of citizenship that can help democracy bring trustful coherence out of division without erasing or suppressing difference.”

This is in part why the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy saw collaboration as central to fostering “informed communities.” In their call to action, we see echos of both CJR and Allen: “To thrive in a democracy, America’s local communities need information ecologies that support both individual and collective community life. They need accurate, relevant news and information to fuel the common pursuit of the truth and the public interest. […] Community discussion, collaboration, and accountable public decision making could make life better in every neighborhood, town, and city.”

The editors of CJR argue that journalism is vital to democracy in part because it can build the foundation and create the forum for a new kind of American conversation. It can help us move beyond our silos, establishing new kinds of trust, engaging our communities in new ways and teaching us how to talk to strangers. It can, in short, help make our communities whole.


  1. Joy Mayer says:

    Great post, Josh.

    I don’t think too many journalists would argue that the abstract idea of collaboration is an attractive one. The problem is that collaboration brings with it shared control, which means journalists have to actively hand over some of their control over the product, to other journalists (sometimes competitors) or to non-journalists.

    The same is true of conversation. Who would argue with the need for better community conversation? But conversation involves as much listening as talking, and we’d have to be willing to adjust our agendas, thoughts and plans based on what we hear. Otherwise, we’re not really listening.

    Digital tools offer a real opportunity to eavesdrop on our communities, to actively engage people in conversations and then to amplify what we’re hearing. And if we want people to conversate with us, we need to figure out how to be authentic, credible individuals, stepping out from behind our brands to earn the community’s trust.

    Joy Mayer, Reynolds Journalism Institute

  2. Jake Ellison says:

    As a 22-year veteran of journalism I shared this idea (well read in Seattle): “What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution – journalism” ( )
    Please give it a read and let me know what you think of creating a “Seal of Approval” for quality journalism the way organic farmers did with the “Organic” label.

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