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On the Media, Dialogue & Deliberation

Recently a couple of news items have caught my attention as exemplary of what NCDD’s Dialogue Bureau concept aspired to achieve. Readers might recall that during 2004 and 2005, NCDD sponsored research into the feasibility of a service that would: 1) assist news outlets make better use of dialogue and deliberation techniques to augment reporting; 2) help dialogue and deliberation practitioners make better use of partnerships with news outlets; and 3) help track and promote dialogue and deliberation in the news.

This week, two news items caught my attention for their salience to how dialogue and deliberation can enrich the coverage of local and national issues. The first is the City of Portland’s Restorative Listening Project sponsored by the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement headed by NCDDer Judith Mowry. The second is the recent establishment of a National Commission on Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

In the case of the Restorative Listening Project sponsored by the City of Portland and carried out through numerous community-based discussions, I was impressed by the role the Oregonian played in presenting the many faces of an issue (gentrification) in the recent article, Speak. Listen. Heal. The article combines a brief overview of the ongoing process being used by the city to mitigate the human and economic legacy of gentrification in the city and provides deep personal insights into the experiences of 16 participants. A terrific example of how deep, ongoing community change efforts rooted in dialogue and deliberation can inform the journalistic process. In addition to a text article with interviews, the story online contains audio reflections of 16 residents and participants.

One is left, however, with a sense of how these participants now differ from the larger community – and how the naysayers understand the situation. Some, the story reports, feel the effort is misguided and won’t address or be able to tackle the underlying causes of gentrification. “Once your curiosity is ignited,” one of the project leaders is quoted “it’s not long before you’re able to see those systemic injustices and act on them.” And there lies the dilemma of every age: that movement from thought to action.

The second effort dovetails nicely: a newly formed National Commission on “Local News Loss” aims to “assess” the information needs of communities, and, according to Knight Foundation President and CEO, “then take a snapshot to see how they are being met. The Commission will offer creative recommendations to improve democratic problem-solving at the local level through more and better engagement with relevant news and information.”

Perhaps this will be an outstanding opportunity for dialogue and deliberation proponents to advance the case for new modes of information collection and dissemination that treat everyday citizens not only as “sources” of opinion, but truly expert in matters of local concern, especially when they’ve had the opportunity to weigh their views against those of others, as the Restorative Listening Project has demonstrated is possible.

Lars Hasselblad Torres
In 2004 and 2005, Lars ran a scoping study to determine whether a “National Dialogue Bureau” was a feasible idea. The Dialogue Bureau, if developed, would supply journalists with a “one stop” destination for the collection of views held by ordinary Americans who engage in dialogue about current affairs.

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