Conflict-mediation reporting techniques for a crucial election year

By Catherine Komp,

NC Local Newsletter Editor

Local news and information organizations face a number of challenges in reaching the public during this critical election year. There’s news fatigue and avoidance, dis- and misinformation, mistrust and of course, polarization.

A new Meredith University poll on voter attitudes found 83% of respondents think the country is more politically divided than in the past, and just 12% think the country will be less divided five years from now. Meredith University Poll Director David McLennan says the polarization we’re experiencing today is what political scientists call “affective polarization.” 

“This is the idea that our differences are more about identity. Republicans dislike Democrats because they perceive them as culturally radical and Democrats dislike Republicans in a similar way,” wrote McLennan.

There’s also the role of “false polarization” or when the portrayal of a divide is exaggerated, misrepresented or misunderstood because issues are framed in simplistic “us versus them” coverage. 

Jaisal Noor

“We’re so polarized right now, we don’t see each other as people with different viewpoints. We see each other as enemies and the demonization is palpable,” said Jaisal Noor, a Baltimore-based journalist and Democracy Cohort Manager with Solutions Journalism Network.  

Jaisal is a former colleague of mine and he recently posted about using psychology-informed questions to approach polarizing topics. I was intrigued, so I called up him to learn more.

“Journalism basically hasn’t kept up with what we know about psychology and how our minds work,” said Noor, describing the “Complicating the Narratives” framework he’s been using that was developed by journalist Amanda Ripley in 2018. 

Ripley had come to the conclusion that “traditional journalism doesn’t work in a hyperpolarized country” and set out to find new approaches. She spent months speaking with psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and others to learn their strategies for navigating conflict. 

“They have this whole book of tricks that most journalists never learn that are healthier and more interesting actually, than the ways most journalists cover conflict,” said Ripley in this Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) video

SJN built upon Ripley’s original research to develop a Complicating the Narratives training initiative, toolkit and fellowship. Here’s a snapshot of the framework’s four pillars:

  • Listen Differently: Sources with different or strong viewpoints will need to feel heard first before considering opinions that counter their own. Use “looping” to develop trust, help focus a conversation, and develop understanding.
  • Go Beneath the Problem: Get to deeper motivations (and show you’re listening differently) by using psychology-informed questions like “What is oversimplified about this issue?”, “What do you want the other side to understand about you?”, and “What do you want to understand about the other side?”
  • Embrace Complexity: By exploring the complexity of issues, you’ll make audiences more curious about the topic. Include context (historical, geographical) and go beyond “both sides” or “two choices” binaries. 
  • Counter Confirmation Bias: Use a bias-check exercise before starting to report on a divisive topic; ask sources questions to help them consider perspectives counter to their own; create inclusive spaces for community members to discuss complicated topics.
Amanda Ripley

When practicing these four pillars, the end-goal isn’t to get everyone to agree on issues but to replace “high conflict” (prone to contempt, superiority and violence) with “good conflict” (which allows for openness, curiosity and complexity). Ripley wrote a book about it and launched Good Conflict, which provides training and support to news organizations, educators and others, and produced this terrific Good Conflict toolkit.

Jaisal Noor says the impact of these approaches could be profound as it helps communities move past simplistic headlines and noise that “takes up all the energy in the room.”

“Because if it’s a subject like Israel/Palestine or crime, things that evoke emotion, you’re not going to have a meaningful conversation with someone unless you are able to get past that and dig into people’s motivations and get them to think about why they feel that way,” said Noor. “If you’re covering topics like this, it’s worth trying to get deeper, build a relationship through the interview and ask questions no one’s been asked before. Do something new and work to a common understanding and a deeper understanding for your audience.” 

SJN’s Complicating the Narratives toolkit includes short videos diving deeper into the four pillars; PDFs to help you learn looping techniques and psychology-informed questions (in English and Spanish), as well as story annotations and case studies

You can also find examples of how journalists are using this framework through the work of SJN’s Complicating the Narrative fellows and Good Conflict’s “Test Kitchen,” with many topic areas and guides relevant to issues happening across North Carolina:

💡The KLC Journal trained Kansans from diverse backgrounds on “looping” and paired them up to interview each other on immigration. They used these conversations to inform their coverage of immigration and demographic change. 

💡 Fort Worth Report shares a conversation with a physician and a reverend who disagree on abortion, but not in ways you might expect; and the Rochester Beacon asked faith leaders open-ended questions about abortion in an effort to spark deeper listening.

💡 100 Days in Appalachia’s Ashton Marra is developing a style guide and best practices to compassionately and empathetically cover addiction and recovery, and Will Schick of Street Sense Media interviewed dozens of journalists, advocates, government officials and people experiencing homelessness to create a reporting guide covering terms, compensation, finding sources and informed consent.

Interested in your newsroom getting training on these approaches? Fill out this request form for Complicating the Narratives and learn about Good Conflict’s services.


Have you used these frameworks in your reporting or community engagement? Where and how could they be applied in North Carolina? Let us know at

NC Local News Workshop