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They want to fix the broken conversation in media

Why do men buy sex? That’s being discussed in a Swedish TV show. The aim is to nuance the debate. The result is the opposite. Divides grow when opinionated commentators, a politician, a former prostitute and a police officer are bumped together in a studio. But there is growing movement that is trying to change the media. Swedish version also published in Dagens Media

The week before this TV show, a famous entrepreneur and a well-known right-wing politician are caught when visiting a brothel. Social media is overflowing with hate and divide. It’s illegal to buy sex in Sweden.

The prostitute and the police have eye opening experiences to share. But they never really get a chance.

- I only have one minute to explain this, don´t I? the police officer asks the TV facilitator.

Instead the discussion is dominated by the politician and the opinionated commentators.

But that’s not the idea behind Sweden Meets. The original aim is to let people from different groups discuss in nuanced way about issues that upset and divide. It should reduce growing gaps and be a contrast to simplified conclusions, aggressive language, and blaming.

The name of the show, Sweden Meets, was born in a project that Swedish Television (SVT) tested in the fall 2019. SVT matched people with opposed views so that they could discuss "burning issues beyond blame and personal attacks", as SVT's media director Jan Helin said before the launch.

It shows a growing will to change in the media. The idea that a media company match people with opposing beliefs comes from the German liberal media house Die Zeit. Zeit Online has built a digital platform, My country talks. It’s exported it to media companies in over ten countries. They have also arranged a Europe Talks in 33 countries with 30 000 participants and 15 media partners.

- When we brain-stormed we called it a political Tinder. It was shortly after Trump had been elected, when the Brexit debate was gaining momentum and ahead of upcoming elections in France and Germany, says Sebastian Horn, deputy editor in chief at Zeit Online.

- We talked about having lost contact with parts of the society. We asked ourselves if we really understand our country, Sebastian Horn explains.

So far, over 60 000 Germans have meet in pairs. Those who are matched have to have different opinions about five of seven questions which Zeit Online formulated on a topic. Sebastian Horn see potential:

Zeit’s surveys suggests that people understand each other’s views better after the one-on-one meetings.

The Swedish professor in theoretical philosophy, Åsa Wikforss, is critical.

- I call this a social experiment. It is wrong to believe that if you match people with widely opposite views it would solve something. There are signs that it might in fact increase polarization and conflict, contrary to what is intended. It depends, of course, how you do it. Setting up a classical debate in a TV-studio is not the way to do it, says Åsa Wikforss.

- We know that people who are identified with a group have a harder time absorbing the views of others. When we get divided, we stick even more to the opinions of our own group. And we easily dismiss things that come from the other side, says Åsa Wikforss.

Åsa Wikforss has written the book Alternative facts – about knowledge and its enemies. Debates in the media between victims, opinion makers, and experts make her upset.

- Fierce public debates are provoking the worst in people, even among researchers and experts. Debates rigged by the media do generally not promote the fruitful dialogue needed to spread knowledge and get closer to the truth, says the philosophy professor.

Medias go to-method is to find people with different views who can give short and simple answers to complex questions. The goal is honorable, to help people understand by simplifying.

- It’s a bad idea. Especially when a person with deep knowledge debates with one who primarily has a lot of opinions. It creates a false balance. It can give the impression that there are two equally well-founded and reasonable positions on one important issue. That is not the case when one side is based on real knowledge and the other is just an opinion, says Åsa Wikforss.

Populist politicians and special interest groups tend to exploit this media logic. They seek conflicts. They seem increasingly prepared to represent a radical stance, to make hair-raising personal attacks.

Many believe that it is social media and new alternative media that drive the simplification of complex issues. An aggressive use of language and extreme opinions increases the digital reach. Followers get a simplified world view in an aggressive and spiteful way.

Algorithms draw those who try to understand into a bubble where they can get their opinions confirmed. And people automatically search confirmation of their own beliefs, according to psychology research.

The traditional media also seems to develop into closed bubbles. Swedish right-wing conservatives and nationalists have lost trust in traditional media. Social democrats and liberal people in Sweden, on the contrary, trust traditional media more and more. There are similar trends in the US and other countries.

A counter movement is started. One theme is Complicating the Narratives. They try to reform the journalistic approach with the aim to change the media’s ways of working.

Amanda Ripley is a strong voice for the Complicating the Narratives movement. She writes for the Washington Post, New York Times, and The Atlantic, among others.

The movement is looking to fight so-called “emotional polarization”. They play down the idea that more facts and objective knowledge actually can reduce polarization and conflict. The aim is not to change people's opinions per se, but to change the rhetoric and intensity of the broken conversation.

With methods that conflict mediators and psychologists use, they want to re-establish media's lost trust among large groups in society. They also hope that traditional media can become the fireplace again where most people want to gather. If it succeeds, it can become a good business case too, says advocates for the movement.

An American network called Solution Journalism is trying to get traditional media to use these insights and methods. They seem to have gained a foothold at schools of journalism. But traditional newsrooms are stuck in old ways of working.

- We need to go in with a method similar to Anonymous Alcoholics. For a newsroom to change their way of working, they must admit that they have problems. Admit that diminishing trust is caused by something real. Realize that chasing and arguing with someone about fake news doesn't solve the actual problem. It just makes people even more upset, says Allen Arthur, online engagement manager at Solution journalism in New York.

Amanda Ripley has written a manifest for editorial boards and others that organize meetings between groups with widely opposing opinions. In short, it's about what journalists can learn from mediators, lawyers, rabbis, and others “who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths.”

Here are the ideas, methods, and questions that Amanda Ripley is promoting It’s smart reading for anyone trying to bridging divides.

Some survey results about trust and widening divides in media consumption US

- 13% trust the media "a great deal,"

- 28% trust the media "a fair amount"

- Democrats, 69% trust media

- Republicans, 15% trust media

- Independents, 36% trust media

Source: Gallup


2016: 22 % Mistrust media 2017: 17% Mistrust media 2018: 22% Mistrust media 2019: 28% Mistrust media Germans who occupy a middle position in trust ("partly, partly") is smaller than ever before. More and more people feel compelled to take a stand themselves in the face of an ever more polarized debate culture. Source: Mainz research group


In Sweden there has been an ongoing debate about the “politically correct media” which, for instance, are accused for hiding effects of immigration. The debate and activities in social media seem to have polarized opinions about the traditional media.

Traditional, authoritarian and nationalistic voters

- Sweden Democrats, 28% trust media

- Christian Democrats, 44% trust media

- Conservatives, 58% trust media

Green, alternative, left and liberal voters

- Center Party, 74% trust media

- Social democrats, 76% trust media

- Liberals, 78% trust media

- Greens, 94% trust media

Source: Kantar Sifo/Medieakademin Some American initiatives for bridging divides Solution journalism Bridge the Divide Make America Dinner Again

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