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The World is Watching You, The Netherlands

Cathrine Gyldensted — Geplaatst op vrijdag 17 februari 2017, 10:21

Opinie Four weeks and it will be election day in the Netherlands. The world is watching, according to Catherine Gyldenstedt, director of constructive journalism in Zwolle. She analyses the work of Dutch journalists and has some advice. Are Dutch journalists asking the right questions?

We are a month away from your national parliamentary election and the world is watching you. 

Pundits in many countries have begun to write and talk about you. On air and on print they ask what will happen when your electorate go to the voting booths on March 15th, 2017.

You are the “Ground Zero” of a string of European elections which can change Europe forever.

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This article in Dutch
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Inspired by Brexit, Donald Trump, the right wing in all its varieties, are on the march and are more popular amongst the people than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

No matter whether you are a believer in the European Union or a you would rather see it dissolved, these are polarizing times where whole populations in several nations are split in two divisive camps.

Those for - and those against.
For the status quo - against the status quo
For the EU - against the EU
For refugees - against refugees
For globalization - against globalization

Do you remember our shared astonishment when the Brits voted for Brexit?
We woke up that morning and could not believe the news. Could it really be true that they wanted to leave? How could they defy all the notable, prominent voices across politics, academia, culture who recommended to stay in the European Union, and go with the feeble few who wanted a Brexit?

How could we, the media, miss what the real story was, we asked ourselves. Reflection began.Was it because we live in our elitist echo chambers, forgetting what are the worries of real people who feel they are threatened on jobs, possibilities, a good future? Time passed, we reflected, everybody made their opinion known. Not many newspaper columns was without suggestions on how to prevent this from happening again.

Then came November 9th. The morning after the US Presidential Election. Outrage, shock and disbelief in most parts of western media. Trump had won over Hillary.

Again: We had missed the real story and severely underestimated the wants and concerns of voters living in

- The Rust Belt,
- The Bible belt,
- Fly-Over Country

So, here is my question to you: Will the same happen here?

Have you covered `The Real Story`? Or are you too busy reporting from the camps of the politicians, who throw mud at each other?

Have you paid attention to the real concerns of your citizens and dug deeper than a “we do not like immigrants and people from the outside are taking our jobs” rhetoric?

Usually, such statements come from people who feel their closest way of life threatened and that uncertainty is being exploited by politicians from both left and right, who freely voice their strongest opinions, which we happily cover in the news media, mostly without any critical thought to what we are contributing with, as long as it is a good fight.

This is one of the effects we get from the conflict criteria, which we all learn by heart in journalism school. We report from the fringes in search of the harshest statements and people who criticize the other side, which in effect means that we facilitate a polarized conversation, where important and real nuances are lost. All becomes black and white, which helps politicians who thrive when voters believe black and white is the way the world is.

In my work with innovating journalistic methodology, we draw from psychology and sociology research. Let me introduce you to three applications that makes a difference, if applied to your election coverage.

1. Counter polarization
2. Ask other Questions
3. Use “The Rosling”

In short: CAR.

Let’s look at the C:
When studying the dynamics of polarization, it´s important to understand what fuels it and what role does media play in the growing polarization, if any? Here in the Netherlands, Bart Brandsma do high-level trainings how to counter polarization and when reading his latest book “Polarisatie: Inzicht in de dynamiek van wij-zij-denken” you understand clearly what create polarization: Both negative, but also positive generalizations fuels polarization. A dehumanization of the other side or overtly positive portrayals. The “Us against them” thinking feeds polarization. Brandsma has identified the active elements in polarization:

First there are the ´Pushers´: Those who have created the pole to which they belong, and through word and deed trying to recruit more to the point. We know who they are, right?
Geert Wilders vs. Radical imams vs. those who want Islam eradicated from western countries.
Trump vs. all those who voted for Hillary.

Then there are the so-called ´Joiners´: They are not as active, verbal and visible as the ‘pushers’, but they vote for the party or support the movement that the ´pushers’ have created.

In the middle we have the majority. Bart Brandsma call it The Silent. Which is exactly what it is: The great silent middle ground. This is where you will find your well functioning muslim citizens who do not make their voice heard, but just go about their day, work and life. This is where the majority of your citizens belong. Those who are not for nor against refugees. Those who do not really, know how they feel about it all. The Unresolved.

The danger arises when the poles grow due to the silent middle shrinking when people move to either one or the other side. If the middle ground shrinks to nothing, we are looking at what civil war would look like if illustrated graphically. Take a close look at the model above and try if you can see what I see.

It is almost a perfect map of the classic sources we use in journalism. We interview ‘pushers’ and ‘joiners’ - but never the silent middle. We report from the poles, because doing that, we believe, represent for and against a case. Which is the way journalism school taught us to create balanced coverage.

But in reality, we interview sources belonging to the poles, the extremes, which can hardly be called balance, but rather reporting from outliers.

That’s not all. According to the Brandsma model is a fourth player - the so-called ‘Fueler’. A Fueler provide fuel to the poles by giving ‘pushers’ air time or reporting on their actions and doings. Both negative and positive publicity provides fuel. Therefore journalism acts as a ‘fueler’.
How can we counter this, if wanted?

A regional TV and Radio station on Denmark, DR Funen, have successfully kept the usual sources representing the poles, (politicians) out of their coverage of substantial topics, while give the middle air time instead. DR Funen is experimenting with keeping our usual suspects - the politicians and people in power out of the studio and away from the microphone. The result is not boring coverage - on the contrary it provides new perspectives, stronger interaction and engagement from citizens. It also foster more respect and humility from politicians, when they finally are invited to respond on the ideas, views and experience coming from citizens.

But, is anti-polarization something that interest people? I would say yes. Just recently, a video with a depolarizing message swept the globe: The All that We Share” video from Danish TV2 triggered a tsunami of support worldwide. The 3-minute video has had more than 200 million views and has been shared 4.8 million times throughout 26 countries including Scandinavia, EU, Russia, the US, Canada and Australia.

The A in `Asking other question`s is about getting into contact and facilitating a more civil discourse between people or groups who oppose each other. You all know the power of the questions, we choose to ask. What are you honing in on? The differences or where we are the same? The New York Times made a bold experiment just after Trump got elected. They took advice from a mediator and facilitated bold interviews where Hillary voters interviewed Trump voters - and vice versa. A dad voted for Trump, his gay son voted Hillary.

Now, because of these nineteen unusual questions they suddenly get wiser about the other. Take a listen, it´s quite remarkable and moving. How can you use questions of this type in your election coverage?

`The Rosling` is all about using data to get an overview of whether we are experiencing progress or setbacks. Hans Rosling, who passed recently was a globally recognized voice, a statistician, and Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. By using longitudinal data Rosling showed us how world progress is real when it comes to for example health, poverty, education, corruption. Rosling’s overall message was that the state of the world is much better than the media says. “You can not use the news media if you want to understand the world,” Rosling famously stated when he visited Danish Broadcasting in 2015.

So, how can the use of solid data sets give us a better opportunity to judge if a something, a story topic, has seen societal progress or setbacks?  Use data to create infographics, explaining the news, so you go from covering incidents to covering context. Use data to acknowledge the big picture. If there is progress, remember to report on it, too. It can easily be done in conjunction with coverage that also covers problems.

In a world where we are drowning in information, but starving for wisdom, we need election coverage that makes us wiser, portrays the world accurately and does not feed the growing polarization in Europe.  I hope the Dutch press will decide to lead the way.

The world is watching.

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