The free press has been a staple of our democracy since our nation was founded, and journalists have long been respected as a vessel for bringing crucial information to the people. In our modern digital age, saturated with resources and information, it can be hard to discern reality from speculation, fact from fiction.
We need journalists now more than ever to make those distinctions. I sat down — virtually, of course — with David Plazas, director of Opinion and Engagement at USA Today Network Tennessee, to discuss the unique challenges journalists face in today’s world, and how we can all do better to communicate with civility during such divided and polarizing times. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
The period we’re currently living through is often referred to as the most divided time in our country’s modern history: Does that ring true to you?
I think every era is unique. I started as a journalist in 2000, covering the Bush vs. Gore election, and you had the “hanging chads,” and people thought it was the most divided time they had ever seen. So all of it is a matter of context, and just a matter of perspective.
Certainly the toxicity in discussions has risen with social media, but that’s always been around. If you look historically, there’ve been all sorts of attempts to defame different people; there are terrible things that people have done to try to delegitimize systems. There’s even a book that talks about the fact that social media has technically been around for thousands of years, not in the computer, but documents that have been transferred and shared.
I think what’s unique about this era is that we have people who have decided that they’re going to selectively choose to engage with folks and selectively choose to ignore others who don’t fit their mind frame, and that’s dangerous in a democracy.
In our last interview with you, you touched on the rise in people’s intolerance toward hearing opposing viewpoints. How has this affected your work and the landscape of journalism as a whole?
It has definitely affected us. When you have a sector of society that is believing messages that the media is the enemy of the people, or that journalists have no credibility, that’s challenging. It takes one conversation at a time, and it’s tough to scale. It’s important for us as journalists to be very cautious about how we use social media. I include myself within those who have been guilty of getting into Twitter feuds thinking it will change anything, and it doesn’t. In fact, what do change things, often, are private conversations that later can be taken public.
But we do have to create spaces for public disagreement. As an opinion journalist, I can speak my mind; but I also do so strategically because sometimes I don’t always have to speak and it’s better to listen.
What I’ve found through measures like Civility Tennessee, being involved in efforts like Bright Heart, and even having conversations with people on my podcast is that people are craving these moments of conversation and discussion, but oftentimes are afraid to get involved because they don’t want to be bullied or they’re tired of people being mean to them. Fortunately, I operate in a space where I have the tools to address meanness and bullying; but it takes a lot of daily discipline.
As the director of Opinion and Engagement, you have the freedom to share your thoughts on a wide range of topics, which I know comes with a fair amount of backlash and disagreements from all sides. How do you deal with the criticism? Do those criticisms ever turn into civil conversations?
They can. One of the things I’ve found is that a lot of people who send criticism don’t expect me to respond, and I do. I always try to respond at least kindly, and even if it’s something that’s caustic, I respond to say, “I appreciate your reply, and here’s where my position actually is.” Very rarely do I have to just cut off people, and say this person is not worth dealing with; but it has happened because there are some folks who are unrelenting. So I have to cut my losses because there are other things I have to do in a day.
What advice would you give to anyone trying to communicate with family members with civility surrounding polarizing topics?
I asked our readers back in 2017, prior to the official launch of Civility Tennessee, and ahead of Thanksgiving and the holidays, how they were going to approach these subjects. I got so many letters, and we published as many as we could in print and all of them digitally. They talked about issues of not starting fights unnecessarily, taking the time to listen, be a role model, and I think that’s the main thing. Be the role model; be the person that you want to emulate. It’s the Golden rule – respect the other. Sometimes things can get a little bit heated, but that’s OK. I think discussions on politics are tense naturally, and on religion they’re tense; but imagine if we took the time to just listen for a little bit.
There has to be that reciprocity, too, the other person also listening, because I think that’s one of the problems that we have in our discourse today is that not everybody’s playing with the same set of rules. A meal is a wonderful place to have those exchanges, and to just maybe talk first, before talking about politics, about the things we’re thankful for. And if that’s not possible, then avoid politics altogether, because again, that’s a choice.
I come from a family where we were taught from a very early age how to discuss politics and religion at the dinner table. I’m a preacher’s kid, and it was very good training in this day, where sometimes you have to learn to breathe in, and breathe out, so that you can really understand and seek to understand, because too often we’re quick to react and quick to have an opinion that’s not maybe fully formed.
It’s made me a much deeper thinker over the last three years of doing this civility work because, when you take a moment to listen and to reflect and not just go at something, it also makes your arguments much, much better.