Listening to the Silence, and Reporting Back

How journalists can cover controversial issues differently

When journalists cover topics that have been (or still are) rooted in conflict and division, we often follow a rather prescriptive formula.

First, we build our narrative along a binary divide. In essence, auto-pilot mode kicks in and our initial course of action is to identify the “two sides” of the issue.

Then, in our attempt to understand and help make sense of the topic, we simplify. We strip out the details, use the most profound quotes and soundbites, and include supporting content that fits our story frame.

Our brains work through an onslaught of facts, descriptions, personal accounts, explainers, and “he said, she said” information and through selective filtering, we determine what stays and what goes. In the process, we inadvertently remove the nuance.

With endless stories of conflict and misunderstanding around the world, the communities we serve need nuance and context to help make sense of the issues directly impacting them. Journalism should and can provide that.

It should also provide empathy and transparency. The only way to tell the whole story is to accept that we won’t always know what the story will be nor how it will unfold.

Exploring contentious issues where people are entrenched in conflict and experiencing confusion, trauma, anger, or varied forms of suffering, means we must slow down. It is incumbent upon us to take the time to listen.

When we listen to understand, our sources share hard-to-access information. They share what’s personal and deeply embedded. That’s what enables journalists to build the narrative with the people involved, not around the people involved.

We at the Solutions Journalism Network first started this reflective process in 2018, when we commissioned research and published a powerful essay by journalist and writer Amanda Ripley titled: “Complicating the Narratives.”

We asked ourselves: “What if journalists covered controversial issues differently — based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious?”

In exploring this question, we found that journalists could benefit from the insights and strategies used by those who navigate conflict on a regular basis.

Learning from the work of mediators and psychologists can help journalists listen differently, go beyond (obvious or stated) positions to uncover motivations, incorporate diverse perspectives and experiences, and provide complexity and context.

The truth is, no matter how political (and polarizing) a subject like colonialism can be, it’s all about personal stories. The world has been slow to acknowledge that the challenges we’re facing today are rooted in the lived experiences, feelings, hardships, and intergenerational trauma of millions of people. To understand that and to identify a path forward, people need to feel heard first.

When the editorial team at Are We Europe reached out to us for guidance on this issue, they did not know what the issue would look like, particularly the end result. What they did know was that they were embarking on a difficult task and that the work ahead, at times, would be frustrating and complicated.

That is why we committed to support them. They were willing to surrender their idea of what an ideal issue could or should look like to create a space to explore, experiment, and listen.

When they commissioned all the pieces for this Unsilenced puzzle, they asked the Solutions Journalism Network to train their journalists in the Complicating the Narratives practice. They recognized the need to empower their contributors to listen deeply during their interviews, to capture the underlying motivations and values of their sources, to embrace complexity and nuance in their writing and photographs, and to challenge their own biases as journalists in an effort to tell an authentic story.

In this brilliant editorial adventure, Are We Europe proved that when we journalists actually listen, there is a melody that emerges from the silence that has existed for far too many years. It is the voices of those who desperately want and need to be heard.

About Nina Fasciaux and Hélène Biandudi Hofer

This image shows three people seemingly having a newsroom conversation while two horses in the background cross one another, their coats merging in zebra-like stripes.

Illustration by

Michael Marsicano