University of Oregon journalism students are highlighted in the academic article “The Generative Dialogue Framework and the Pursuit of Better Listening by Journalists: A Design-Centered Approach for More Constructive Conversations with Audiences” published in Digital Journalism last month for their work testing a new framework for engaged reporting through small-group dialogue.
Students in Andrew DeVigal’s Engaged Journalism class worked with Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication and Seth Lewis of the University of Oregon to test out Generative Dialogue Framework (GDF) – a tool that the authors say could “help reimagine the future of engaged journalism.”
GDF is a toolkit that guides journalists through hosting small-group conversations as an alternative to the more traditional interview process. The framework is structured to help participants share their personal thoughts and stories on an issue, engage with each other, and understand one another’s point of view.
As a community engagement tool, GDF encourages journalists to listen deeply to participants and craft stories that address their needs and concerns, rather than pursuing interviews that confirm a predetermined story angle.
“The aim is to create an ambient atmosphere of constructive dialogue and mutual understanding,” Dimitrakopoulou says. “Such practices have the potential to help journalists engage in deep listening to become more empathetic with the communities they work with.”
The Digital Journalism article centers around the potential for GDF to be used in journalism schools, to teach future reporters both about community listening and design thinking, which is fundamental to the framework’s design.
In the winter of 2021, 17 students in DeVigal’s engaged journalism class used the GDF to host small-group conversations with folks across the U.S., asking them about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and their perspectives on the new vaccine. Then, students wrote news stories based on their reporting. (You can read three of those stories off to the right of this article.)
A core principle of GDF is using creativity as an entry point to dialogue. At the start of group discussions, participants were asked to draw images depicting their experiences with COVID-19. Drawing, Dimitrakopoulou says, promotes memories, demands personal and authentic engagement, and can help people open up to one another.
One group’s drawing exercises resulted in pictures of a clock, a stick figure with a bottle of wine and a roller coaster. Student journalists say the exercise helped them spot a common theme: participants felt simultaneously overwhelmed and grounded by the experience of living through a global pandemic.
Another student journalist reported that the drawings helped break down tension around the polarized topic of COVID-19 and the vaccine.
“I could tell one or two of my participants came in defensive, and they were ready to defend their viewpoints,” one student told Lewis and Dimitrakopoulou. “Starting with this a little bit creative, allowed for connection, softened their exterior a little bit and allowed them to listen better.”
After the creative exercise, student journalists led participants through exercises that explored how folks were responding to information about the virus and vaccine, and how much they trust the organizations sharing that information.
The framework is designed to enable conversation participants to shape the storyline, rather than simply follow the reporter’s agenda. And when facilitation is working effectively, researchers say, the group dialogue becomes a safe space where participants allow themselves to be vulnerable and authentic.
“As the reporter, whether or not you agree, this is the best way to get the most honest, reliable information… It’s incredible how much you can learn about people and about the world when you let them speak their mind,” one student told researchers.
DeVigal’s engaged journalism students spent an entire term working with the GDF framework. Students attended training sessions to learn basic facilitation skills, studied the GDF approach in detail and participated in GDF discussions to get a feel for the framework. Then they paired up to host GDF dialogue sessions of 75-90 minutes with small groups of 4-6 adults each from around the country.
Researchers found that GDF helped students engage with conversation participants “with more nuance and intentionality” than they might have done through conventional reporting methods. Students reported that recruiting a diverse range of participants helped them understand and empathize with viewpoints different than their own. The GDF format also proved a useful tool to get past knee-jerk reactions to questions about COVID-19, students said, and allowed folks with varied perspectives “to really speak their mind without feeling invalidated.”
While some students reported that the group-dialogue format was useful for spotting trends among participants, others felt that the format limited their ability to dive deep into any one participant’s story.
“I felt like it was a great leaping-off point for a story, but not necessarily structured in a way where I could dig deep into one specific person,” one student told researchers.
GDF was created as a ready-made tool for journalists to host productive discussions without intensive training in facilitation, but researchers acknowledge that recruiting participants and setting up the conversations is a time-intensive process. Students in the study had an entire term to set up and host their GDF conversations, and we’re already familiar with community engagement work.
Though time could be a barrier to moving GDF from journalism schools to traditional news environments, Dimitrakopoulou argues that engagement-focused newsrooms are already making time to have small group discussions. Hosting those with the GDF framework, she says, could help make those conversations more productive and allow them to be hosted online instead of just in-person.
Moving forward, the researchers hope there are opportunities to refine the GDF as a tool for teaching journalism students how to engage communities and learn through better listening.
“Ultimately, a more design-centric, open-ended approach to information gathering in communities could be a real plus in the way we think about and teach journalism,” Lewis said. “Through further testing in educational settings, we can begin to imagine how such a tool might be applied by journalists and other professionals seeking to build a more reciprocal relationship of trust with the public.”
By Sami Edge, SOJC ’16