A workshop bringing together people on all sides of the gun debate in America for a two-day workshop, followed by a Facebook group lasting a month, in order to facilitate a dialogue on the issue
Problems and Purposes
‘Guns: An American Conversation’ was a course organised by a number of media organisations in order to facilitate dialogue between opposing sides of the debate on gun rights in the United States. The course aimed to bring together people on all sides of the issue in order to see if common ground could be found. On the 24th March, the course coincided with the ‘March for Our Lives’ protest organised by survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, campaigning for greater gun control (Montgomery, French and French, 2018).
Background History and Context
Every year in America, 124,760 people are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, unintentional shootings or by police intervention. 35,141 people die every year from gun violence (Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 2018). Yet Gun Control is a controversial and polarising issue in the US as the constitution protects the right of Americans to own guns.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project was led by the media company Advance Local, which owns a number of local media outlets across America. Advance Local teamed up with a number of other media organisations including: Spaceship Media, the Newseum, Time Magazine and Reveal from the Centre of Investigative Reporting. Spaceship Media is an organisation that works with other media companies on its concept of ‘dialogue journalism’. These organisations came together to organise the two-day workshop in the Newseum in Washington DC and the subsequent month-long Facebook page. In addition, another organisation, Essential Partners, was brought in to moderate the workshops and coach the participants on effective discussion. Essential Partners offers workshops or consultation in order to improve dialogue between groups on a number of divisive issues. Therefore, they were selected given the divisiveness of the topic in question and their experience with such polarising issues. The project was essentially a journalism project, and the organisations mentioned all share a commitment to improving quality of dialogue, particularly for divisive and salient issues, such as gun control. This explains why they have all come together on this issue.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The project began with a workshop for 21 participants from varied backgrounds, over two days from the 24th-25th March 2018. Following this, the project expanded, as 130 more people joined the original 21 to take part in a month-long Facebook group that was moderated by some of the organisations previously mentioned. The participants came from all across America, and from different perspectives in the debate on gun rights.
Advance Local put out an advertisement in a number of its local news organisations, which received over 900 responses. Applicants answered a questionnaire detailing some personal information as well as the applicants’ views on guns and their personal experiences. From the respondents, the participants were selected by the organisations involved. While it is not clear what criteria was used to choose from the respondents, it appears that those chosen were picked based on their personal experiences and views on guns. The advert asked for people with strong views on the issue of guns, but also those willing to understand other points of view. Advance Local paid for travel, food and accommodation for those travelling to Washington DC, but there was still the barrier of having to be free that weekend and having the time for the Facebook group. As the workshop only took place on one weekend, it is unlikely that anyone dropped out. The month-long Facebook group had some people drop out although it is not clear how many, and some were removed according to the moderators prerogative. There is also the possibility that some participants may not have participated as much as others in the Facebook Group, although moderators attempted to nudge some people to participate more.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
In the two-day workshop, participants were initially given coaching on effective dialogue by the moderators, for example how to avoid marginalising words. They shared their own experiences with guns, and the participants had various discussions in groups of different sizes including as a complete group of 21. The participants worked to better understand those on the opposing sides’ point of view. Moderators from the media companies helped to guide these discussions. The workshop used the concept of ‘dialogue journalism’, a concept developed by Spaceship Media which describes the process of identifying and bringing together opposing sides of a debate and facilitating discussion between them (Spaceship Media, 2018), essentially the idea of this project. The focus was merely finding common ground between the opposing sides, and creating a dialogue rather than looking for solutions to gun violence at this stage. The workshop was not involved in the protest for gun control occurring in Washington DC at the same time.
After the workshop finished, the 21 participants, plus 130 others, were added to a Facebook group in order to continue the discussion. Again, moderators helped to facilitate the discussion, provided statistics and reporting at necessary junctures, and set up one-to-one conversations online with some participants when they thought it would be necessary. Moderators also had to ask some participants to leave the group. The conversation was moderated at all times by a team of moderators.
When the Facebook group concluded, the original 21 participants were interviewed for a number of promotional videos and articles about the project written by journalists working for some of the organisations involved, such as Time Magazine and some of Advance Local’s regional media outlets. Information and videos about the project are widely available on these media companies’ websites as well as YouTube. Time Magazine produced a ten-minute video about the project, which, at the time of writing (5/12/18), has 10,268 views on YouTube. This suggests a broader outreach beyond just the participants, although it is a relatively small number of views in comparison to other videos.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
In terms of impact, there was little in terms of coming to a solution on the issue, and the project has had no impact on legislation. However, this was not the intention of the project; it aimed to facilitate dialogue between two sides of the debate and therefore, the scope of its impact is likely to be smaller. Even so, aside from the publicity created by the media companies involved, the wider reach appears to have been limited. It appears that while the outlets involved have been keen to promote the project, it has not received significant attention from other sources. Spaceship Media works on a number of other projects which are similarly divisive and thus the lessons learned here could be applied elsewhere to other topics.
The project appears to have a much more significant effect on the participants involved. From the interviews that they gave afterwards which were reported by several of the media companies, it is clear that many of the participants had a positive experience and benefitted in some way from having discussions with people on the opposing side of the debate. One participant who came to the project not wanting to listen to the other sides’ point of view listened and by her own assessment realised there was more to the issue than she previously thought (Montgomery, French and French, 2018). However, whilst they may have found some common ground, based on some of the accounts, it appears that none significantly changed their views on the matter. Some became more open-minded and willing to listen to the other side of the debate, and some of those involved in the Washington DC part have remained in contact with one another (Montgomery, French and French, 2018). This suggests that while there may not have been many tangible impacts, those involved were in some way inspired to continue the dialogue and work to find common ground on the issue. There is less information on how those only involved in the Facebook group responded to the project, as the focus of the media companies involved appears to be the reaction of those who went to Washington DC. In addition, one of Advance Local’s local media outlets, MassLive Media, conducted a similar two-day workshop in Massachusetts not long after the initial project (Montgomery, French and French, 2018).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
‘Guns: An American Conversation’ is arguably a good starting point in finding a solution to gun violence in America. In terms of its scope and aims, the project was limited, and perhaps we should not be too critical given that it represents a starting point rather than a way to find solutions. Certainly, a project like this involving just 150 people was unlikely to have a lasting impact on gun laws and the American political system unless those involved were legislators. It is clear that it had a positive impact on those involved, but the scale of the project was too small to have a lasting impact on the wider population. Therefore, it is clear that this model of deliberation and dialogue represents a promising opportunity and suggests a way to a solution for the gun issue in America. The project was intended as an experiment and thus should not be criticised for lacking an immediate impact. It should be used as a useful model in order to find solutions. However, this method appears to be more effective in finding common ground rather than finding solutions, so should perhaps be used just as a starting point. Perhaps a two-day course was not sufficient given the breadth of the issue at hand.
There is an issue surrounding whether this would be an appropriate method for the wider population. For this kind of project to have a lasting impact on gun violence it would likely require a huge number of participants on a much larger scale and probably some input from those in congress or government. This would obviously be difficult to organise, expensive, and may not even be feasible. Furthermore, it would require more significant media coverage than merely the outlets involved. Whether these companies retain the will to continue this campaign is unclear, although some of media companies, such as Spaceship Media and Essential Partners, are committed to these types of project, which suggests they have the will to continue the project. In addition, the project may have worked well given that the participants were self-selected, and therefore were clearly willing to work constructively and listen to the other side. This is unlikely to be the case for the entire population, so it remains to be seen whether this kind of project would be appropriate for the wider population who may not all be as willing to have constructive dialogue with those on the opposing side of the issue.
Clearly the gun issue is divisive and salient in American politics as evidenced by the march which took place on the same weekend, making this project extremely valid and promising in the current political climate. It is evident that the techniques used in this project worked well based on some of the accounts of those involved, so to follow on from that the challenge would be how to translate that into real change which should be the ultimate goal for all those involved.
Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (2018) Key Gun Violence Statistics. Available at: http://www.bradycampaign.org/key-gun-violence-statistics (Accessed: 3rd December 2018)
Montgomery, B, French, K.B., French, T (2018) ‘From Banning Them to Embracing Them, a Group of Americans Got Together to Talk About Guns’, Cleveland.com, 28th June. Available at:https://www.cleveland.com/nation/index.ssf/2018/06/from_banning_them_to_embracing.html (Accessed: 5th December 2018)
Spaceship Media (2018) About. Available at: https://spaceshipmedia.org/ (Accessed 3rd December 2018)