It may be no coincidence that newspapers have taken a tumble as politics have sunk into hyperpartisanship and gridlock.
Nobody likes to be associated with dysfunction — newspaper readers included.
So as an editor, I have a vested interest in putting citizens back in touch with their politics and, by extension, their community newspaper.
One approach has been to convene groups of citizens in structured conversations about key issues like immigration reform, health care and bullying. Such deliberations, with sponsors like the National Issues Forum and, locally, NAU’s Philosophy in the Public Interest, seek to help citizens make sound public judgments on difficult issues by listening to and learning from each other, not politicians.
The idea is that when you build relationships in deliberate conversation, you find common ground, which can lead to a common purpose and action for change that solve community problems.
But what about those people who can’t get out to such meetings but might participate online? Are there meaningful ways online to explore different viewpoints without the visual and verbal cues that make face-to-face conversations more spontaneous and responsive?
The Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, is seeking to answer just those questions, so that’s where I found myself recently, beta-testing a module that rolled a poli sci multiple-choice exam into a video game. Eight of us plugged into an online immigration reform program full of informational videos that then required us to rank various policy options and their tradeoffs — there was none of the simplistic yes/no thinking so common in online polls. A virtual moderator then led us in a chat room exchange, and icons representing our choices migrated around the screen as we mixed and matched our choices.
When we had finished, the choices with enough support and consensus wound up in the center of the screen — the “common ground.” I was more than a little surprised that a group of journalists, academics, librarians and community activists could put even one option into the center, much less three or four.
What seemed most promising to me was the potential to adapt the game, called Common Ground for Action, to local issues and to mobilize dozens — perhaps hundreds — of citizens to participate online before a meeting, say, with the city council on student housing. Instead of coming to the lectern one-by-one with separate pleas, they could arrive with an action agenda built on deliberated common ground.
Also promising was the presence in Dayton of two skilled Flagstaff moderators prepared to field test Common Ground almost immediately. Blaise Caudill of Arizona Deliberates, an offshoot of Arizona Town Hall, and Andrea Houchard of Philosophy in the Public Interest will be recruiting players soon. Look for your invitation online.
Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at email@example.com or (928) 556-2254.