Journalism Canada

A couple of summers ago I was back in Alberta for a funeral when I found myself sitting in the back of a limo with several guys from my hometown in the northwestern corner of the province.

Almost all of them work in oil and gas and some of them knew that I had become an environment reporter — so it was no surprise to me that I was the recipient of a certain amount of side-eye.

The conversation I had next, though, is one I’ve recited more times than I can count since that chance meeting.

It started with one of the guys testing the waters. “You’re not one of those anti-oil people now, are you?” he asked. “No,” I responded, promptly explaining my thinking on the future of oil (which definitely can’t be summed up in a sentence).

I can’t remember the conversation word for word, but I know I talked about extracting Alberta’s fossil fuels in a more responsible way and maximizing the benefits for all Albertans. We found we actually had quite a lot to agree on.

Next, this old friend from high school started telling me how he worried about the amount of water being withdrawn by the fracking industry from local rivers. Some of the local creeks were being sucked dry, he told me. As someone who spends a lot of time out on the land hunting and fishing, that deeply disturbed him. He asked me to come up and look into it sometime.

This man is deeply conservative. He works in the fracking industry. He cares about water. He cares that the media never seems to pay attention to the issues that impact his daily life. He cares that rural residents don’t seem to have much of a voice.

In other words, he’s complicated. Like most of us.

From reading the news and following the antics of politicians, you’d think most Canadians are full of yes-or-no positions on complex natural resource issues.

The debate is commonly split into two “sides” and then each side becomes a caricature of itself. Are you pro oil or anti oil? Are you pro Trans Mountain or anti Trans Mountain? Are you pro fracking or anti fracking? This type of thinking does a disservice to all of us by driving us further away from understanding one another — and locking us into intractable conflicts.

What about the coal miner who is concerned about global warming? Or the Indigenous people who mourn the loss of clean water, but work in the oilsands? Or the people living with the aftermath of the Mount Polley spill who want justice, but insist they aren’t against mining.

It’s all a lot more complicated than the media often likes to portray.

Recent polling by Abacus Data indicates climate change is now the most polarized subject in the country when looking at regional differences. When asked: “How much of a problem is climate change?” just 25 per cent of respondents in the Prairie provinces say it’s a “very big problem” compared to 44 per cent of respondents in Ontario and Quebec — the largest opinion gap of all the issues put before Canadians.

Battling climate change is a wicked problem, to be sure. The number of people and opinions involved, the economic changes required and the social and cultural ramifications are immense. The impacts of a shifting economy will be felt disproportionately by certain parts of the country and the impacts of a warming world will be felt disproportionately by other parts of the country (and the world).

But we’re not going to get anywhere on climate change — or any other important issue, for that matter — if we can’t find some common ground despite regional and ideological differences. And as much as you might want to say “I’m right and you’re an idiot,” that isn’t going to help us much either.

“What if journalists covered controversial issues differently  —  based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious?”

American journalist Amanda Ripley delved into journalism’s role in an increasingly polarized world for an article published by the Solutions Journalism Network in June. She came to the realization that there is one group benefitting from the mounting tension: politicians.

“As politicians have become more polarized, we have increasingly allowed ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults instead of exposing their motivations,” Ripley writes. “Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation.”

Through months of research, Ripley set out to answer one big question: “What if journalists covered controversial issues differently  —  based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious?”

Through interviews with conflict mediation experts and psychologists, Ripley was able to distill six key pieces of advice for journalists reporting on polarizing issues.

This is the big one:

“The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter  —  particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.”

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of joining Ripley and about 25 other journalists for a conflict mediation training in New York. We collectively grappled with big questions like: how do we tell “complicated” stories that allow for contradictions and expose people to the “other side” without giving oxygen to fringe groups and opinions that aren’t based on facts?

There’s no doubt that part of what drives highly polarized news coverage is that news organizations are often rewarded with clicks for writing sensational, outrage-inducing stories — and clicks drive advertising revenues in the traditional business model. Thankfully, that’s not our business model at The Narwhal

As a non-profit, we are driven to serve the needs of our readers — who support us directly — first and foremost. This opens up the opportunity to prioritize a different set of values: how can our stories contribute to healthier public conversations? How can we portray Canadians in all of their complexity and steer away from the caricatures we so often see in the media? How do we slow down, take a step back and write about the systemic issues in a way that might lead to solutions?

Of course, we want people to read our work — but not at the expense of sowing division.

Let’s be clear: committing to portraying complexity doesn’t mean he said-she said journalism and it doesn’t mean false balance. It does mean resisting the urge to tie stories — and people — up in a bow.

More than anything, complicating the narrative is about slowing down, being less reactive, listening more and asking better questions.

“We are complex beings who wake up every day and fight against being labeled and diminished with stereotypes and characterizations that don’t reflect our fullness,” writes Brené Brown in her book Braving the Wilderness.

Canadians of all stripes deserve to see more of their fullness reflected in the media. They deserve stories that truly help to explain the world we’re living in — stories that are thought-provoking and informative in equal measure.

It’s a big challenge, but we’re committed to fostering a more complicated conversation.

We’d love to hear how you’re battling polarization and division in your own life and work. Please send your thoughts and stories to editor@thenarwhal.ca. If you grant us permission, they may be used in future reporting.

If you value journalism that complicates the narrative, please sign up as a member of The Narwhal. We are non-profit, ad-free and made-in-Canada. Join the 1,000+ readers who support The Narwhal!

Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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