Journalism to Energize Citizen Deliberative Democracy
by Tom Atlee
Practitioners and advocates involved with group process, dialogue and deliberation, public engagement, and deliberative democracy are aware that ordinary people, under the right conditions, are capable of generating public policy guidance that is at least as wise—and often far wiser—than what we typically see produced by government bodies. Such forums facilitate productive reflection and interaction among diverse citizens—often informed by fair briefings and diverse experts—to come up with creative responses to major public issues that make sense to a very wide spectrum of their fellow voters.
By promoting such wisdom-generating public conversations journalists could enable communities to step beyond unproductive special interests and polarized debates to co-create their own shared stories of what is happening to them now and how they will shape their future.
The journalists’ role would be vital at every stage. They would make everyone in a community aware of public wisdom–generating conversations before, during, and after they happened. Citizens would know why such a conversation was happening and what it was about. They would know who was participating—perhaps they would even attend an event at which future participants were selected with some fanfare. They may have been invited to prior and follow-up public conversations in person and online. They would know what the experience was like for participants because those participants would be interviewed by news media. They would have opportunities to say what they thought about it all. Thanks to news media, they would know if and how the recommendations were followed, who was involved, and what the successes and failures were.
This is an expanded vision of journalism, but solidly within its tradition of empowering democracy. Public wisdom–generating processes are extremely empowering to citizens and whole communities. The stories of participants make great human-interest features. The engagements themselves are dramatic, because heat is generated when we have diverse ordinary people coming together to discuss hot issues. News outlets love conflict. But deliberative conflict is different from the usual conflicts that preoccupy the mainstream news media. Hot conflicts that evolve into creative solutions are very different from hot conflicts that are chronic, suppressed, or violent. Journalists can show citizens what a profound difference working together can make in our politics. Not because they are biased, but simply because they objectively report instances where people actually work well together on important national and community issues.
An exemplar of this type of reporting is the 1991 “People’s Verdict” experiment done by Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s leading glossy news weekly. Maclean’s devoted forty pages to describing their remarkable initiative—PDFs of which are available online at co-intelligence.org/S-Canadaadvrsariesdream.html. Perhaps most significantly, Maclean’s devoted half a page to each of the dozen citizen panelists scientifically chose to collectively represent the diversity of Canada—including a picture, so that readers could pick who they identified with and who they thought was an “enemy.” They then provided twelve pages covering the actual conversation—a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, blow-by-blow account of the conflicts and the ultimate healing and collaboration—including photos of every stage, from arms folded in opposition to former antagonists hugging. Other articles in the issue described the process of participant selection, the facilitation method used, and background about the issues that were discussed. The group’s final agreement was printed on pages colored like old parchment, with the signatures of all the deliberators at the bottom of the last page, like those of John Hancock and other Founding Fathers at the bottom of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Robert Marshall, Maclean’s assistant managing editor, noted that past efforts—a parliamentary committee, a governmental consultative initiative, and a $27 million Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future—had all failed to create real dialogue among citizens about constructive solutions—even though those efforts involved four hundred thousand Canadians in focus groups, phone calls, and mail-in reporting. “The experience of the Maclean’s forum indicates that if a national dialogue ever does take place, it would be an extremely productive process.”
Well, that dialogue did take place. Following Maclean’s July 1, 1991 issue and the related hour-long Canadian TV documentary, spontaneous national dialogue and forums cropped up across Canada organized by schools, churches, and many other groups. Citizens had energy to actually heal the country and confront the country’s issues together. But then the prime minister was ‘hammered’ in a few of the forums and accused the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of fixing questions to make him look bad. He became a critic of the process, suspecting impure political motives by the process’s advocates. In the end political agendas and personalities held sway, maintained their business as usual patterns, and the country as a whole returned to politics as usual.
Notice the several varieties of public participation we see here. We see the wisdom-generating archetypal participation of diverse voices in the mini-public convened through wise selection of typical participants. We see an often transformational vicarious participation of the broad public witnessing the deliberations among people they identify with and people they see as opponents unfolding in both print and broadcast media. And we see the direct mass participation in spontaneous and organized dialogues around the country. Another form of participation not present in the Maclean’s case, but present in other initiatives, might be called crowdsourced participation, in which hundreds or thousands of individuals offer their input, usually online.
In the midst of this appreciation, I want to focus for a moment on the biggest thing that was missing from the Maclean’s initiative: iteration. Imagine what would have happened in Canada if Maclean’s had done this same exercise again the following year. And the next year. And the next. Imagine that it had also reported on all the subsequent conversations, conflicts, citizen engagements, and activism that came out of those exercises. Talk about a catalyst! Nothing in such a repetitive exercise would violate objectivity or principled news reporting. But it would be a profound expansion of journalism’s primary function of promoting an informed citizenry and responsible, answerable leadership in an engaged democracy.
Versions of this could be done in any community, as well as at state and national levels. All it would take is journalists stepping into this new story of a more potent role for democratic journalism.
Citizen deliberations can produce excellent results—real public wisdom. But most of the public, if they have not been through those deliberations, can remain oblivious to that wisdom, or even can be swayed by well-financed public relations attacks into opposing it. Here again, the role of journalists is essential. They can help the public understand what went into the formation of that wisdom (as was done by Maclean’s) and can help increase general public respect for, and attention to, and demand for well-designed and realized citizen deliberations.
This should be seen as a major element in the emerging new ecology of journalism that will bring new life both to the profession and to democracy itself.
Edited from Chapter 8 of Empowering Public Wisdom by Tom Atlee
About the Author:
Tom Atlee was born in 1947 and raised in a progressive activist family. Involved with the peace movement from an early age, he first experienced potent community self-organization and collective intelligence on the cross-country Great Peace March in 1986. Atlee founded the Co-Intelligence Institute in 1996 as a nonprofit think tank to further his research into these phenomena. The author of The Tao of Democracy and Reflections on Evolutionary Activism, he blogs and writes for alternative journals. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.