BBC News is stepping up its solutions journalism efforts by creating conversations between conflicting groups, to tell stories of overcoming divisions within society.

After test-piloting the project last year, today (4 March) the Crossing Divides season returns to report more solutions-orientated stories throughout the week. Upcoming peak weeks will culminate throughout the year, earmarked for 10 June and later in autumn.

Emily Kasriel, head of editorial partnerships and special projects, BBC World Service, said this initiative recognises the appetite within young audiences to feel empowered in their media consumption and offers a new approach to reporting solutions.

"Our work with young audiences is a priority for the BBC," she said. "When they watch, hear or read a story, they want to know there is something they can do, they want to put agency in their lives.

"By telling lots of stories about problems and conflict, we are making people victims and portraying them not as people who are agents themselves and can take steps to understand the other side better."

A Crossing Divides event last week (27 February) offered attendees an early glimpse at the work in the pipeline, as well as words from Kasriel, BBC journalist Linda Adey working on the project, and director general Lord Tony Hall who spoke about the need for solutions journalism.

Big conversations are queued up on from stop-and-searches in London between black men and police officers, to the rivalry between Uber and taxi drivers in Coventry.

The latter example provides a solid guide of what this project aims to achieve in challenging assumptions. So powerful was the conversation, it moved one of participants to tears, yet both men left the room shaking hands but not changing their minds.

"I’m not looking for agreement," said Kasriel. "Sometimes reporters have produced stories with endings where neither side agreed — and that’s fine. We don’t want to, we want to find common ground and understand better the other side and the person behind the opinion."

Recognising that young people are demanding different types of journalism, Kasriel urges her colleagues to think more creatively and critically about this project.

"Journalists often talk to two opposing sides and that’s not new, indeed the whole point is that we are not talking about polarisation, we are talking about fragmentation.

"We don’t want to enhance the splits by just talking about two sides, in fact the world is fragmented and we have complex identities which come to the fore in different ways."

As part of the project, BBC has worked with BBC Local Radio and their recently recruited engagement producers for each of their 39 local radio stations, tasked to identify three of the most pressing divides in their communities.

Equipped with a background in mediating neighbourhood disputes, she encourages her journalist colleagues to play a more discursive role in the interviews.

"Sometimes it's interjecting, it’s recognising emotion, but sometimes it can be acknowledging complexity. Picking up on commonalities, getting response, but making sure it’s not just ‘let’s all be happy’, but ‘let’s try and understand each other’," Kasriel explains.

"If someone says something personal, you get the other side to respond to help them feel heard, because we know once you feel heard you lower your defences in order to be more able to listen to the other side."

But as well as looking at stories in the United Kingdom, the BBC is also turning their attention to divides overseas, in the US, Korea, Russia and Ukraine to name but a few.

Getting people into a room who would not otherwise has proved a challenge to Kasriel and her team, but not always out of reluctance.

"It is really tough, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes these people go home and are considered traitors for having had these conversations. That can happen.

"Therefore they might not feel safe, and so if they do take part in conversations, they may have to do it undercover or not made public."

She offers another example, this time in Brazil in the city of God favela, where intense street violence needs to be portrayed alongside the desire for peace and harmony.

"I very much wanted the piece to be kept in whereby we show the difficulties of elderly women who are lonely because they have lost people to the violence, and the young kids again who have lost relatives who might be in big families and not get the attention and love they deserve and need. So it shows the two working together to bridge the intergenerational divide and to serve a role in each other's lives.

"You’ve got this gorgeous scene of people basking in the love, but in there, a woman says that she can’t get there everyday to see the children because the violence is that bad. That is the reality which we want to communicate, because it’s rigorous journalism, not just inspirational stories."

Can solutions journalism boost newsrooms’ cashflow? Find out more at Newsrewired on 6 March at Reuters, London.

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