Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Paper in New Hampshire is applying conflict-mediation skills to increasingly irate submissions of opinion-page content

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The increasing animosity of opinion content submissions has prompted the Laconia Daily Sun in Laconia, N.H., pop. 16,581, to make some innovative changes over the past year in an attempt to increase local civility and bridge political divides.

The paper began considering the issue seriously after a well-known local candidate submitted a letter denying that the Holocaust had happened. The paper's founder, Ed Engler, had established a tradition of printing almost every letter to the editor he received as a means of elevating local discourse. After much discussion, the paper's leadership decided to print the letter, triggering widespread outrage. "It was painful evidence that Engler’s commitment to publishing as many letters as possible was no longer advancing a healthy dialogue among readers, if it ever had," Digital Editor Julie Hart writes for the American Press Institute.

About the same time, the paper won a grant from the nonprofit Endowment for Health to explore how civil discourse affected community health. It allowed the Sun to hire a new "solutions journalism" reporter who would write only about the critical issues facing the community as well as how other communities (or groups within the community) were addressing the issues, Hart reports. 

The Solutions Journalism Network trained the paper in practices such as "looping," an active-listening technique in which one person restates—without opinion—what they heard from their conversational partner, Hart reports. Editors at the paper realized looping could help with their opinion-page problem after two regular letter writers, who hold opposing political views, had lunch one day and heard each other out, Hart reports. They co-wrote a letter to the editor sharing what they discovered when they focused on listening instead of trying to change the other's mind.

Managing Editor Roger Carroll and others at the paper were "encouraged by the civility we’d seen when the writers came out from behind their names on a page and had a discussion face-to-face," Hart reports. The editorial staff and SJN staff decided to co-host a virtual roundtable discussion in May with frequent letters to the editor writers, instructing participants in the looping technique to help them listen while withholding judgment. "The group told us they learned a lot, and saw how these tactics could aid them in communicating more constructively in their contributed content," Hart writes.

The Daily Sun is still tinkering with its opinion page. It recently decided to stop printing all political cartoons and are using the space for local commentary. "We continued to re-evaluate our opinion pages, establishing guidelines around length, topic and frequency of contributions that are meant to focus the content on issues of public interest instead of personal attacks on other writers," Hart writes. "We published a policy that encouraged contributors to write in the third person, rather than take personal potshots in the second person, as too often happened."

The paper still believes printing letters serves a valuable function for the community, especially with the changes they've made. At the very least, the staff hopes hope to provide an opportunity for people to read constructively stated viewpoints from people who disagree with them, Hart writes.

"For other small papers considering changing the format of their opinion pages, consider ways to model constructive dialogue between groups in your community," Hart writes. "Maybe that means changing your editorial submission guidelines, offering training in looping, or dedicating your opinion section to local issues and reducing national political content."

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