Since the US election, news organisations have looked for ways to bridge the gap between journalists and their audience and between groups of people with opposing views, to help facilitate productive conversations and tear down echo chambers.
In Seattle, public radio station KUOW started experimenting with the speed dating format as a way to connect groups mentioned in the news with listeners who wanted to get to know them by asking questions face to face.
Since launching the 'Ask A...' project in February 2016, KUOW has facilitated eight discussions, with groups including Muslims, Trump supporters, immigrants, transgender people, police officers and, most recently, Seattle newcomers.
"At that time Trump was talking about a Muslim ban, so I wondered if he knew anything about this community and I began to think more broadly about the rest of us. How many of us know Muslims well enough to talk about politics and religion? Given that sometimes if it's a professional relationship, conversations don't get that deep," said Ross Reynolds, executive producer, community engagement at KUOW, who spearheaded the project.
"It occurred to me that maybe KUOW as a public radio station could help facilitate those kinds of discussions, so part of the idea is also putting an average citizen into the role we often get to have as journalists, of having permission to ask questions."
The events typically bring together 16 people – half of them ask questions and half answer them – enabling them to have consecutive conversations of eight minutes each before moving into a group discussion and concluding with a shared meal.
The meetups have little or no moderation from the organisers, although those asking the questions are sent a short primer beforehand on how to shape the conversation in a productive way, by "avoiding to use loaded language and maintain a questioning rather than argumentative tone".
They also receive some information about the people they will talk to, such as first name and the person's background, to get the interaction going when they meet face to face.
To recruit the participants, KUOW has worked with local community groups and organisations, such as the Seattle Council on American-Islamic Relations and the city's police department. Listeners have been invited to take part both online and through radio call-outs.
The topics for the 'Ask A...' events have been chosen based on which groups of people are "being portrayed in a certain way, usually in a negative light, by politicians, the media or the public", Reynolds said, and with whom KUOW listeners might not necessarily be familiar.
"For example, there was a big controversy around the use of bathrooms by transgender people, or Trump supporters were being perceived by most of our liberal constituency here in Seattle as being out of their minds, or immigrants were being perceived negatively because of the Trump administration's attitude against immigrants and newcomers.
"So we chose groups that were in the news and that had somehow been othered, that our listeners might have been interested in having some first-hand contact with.
"I think it's a basic human need that we all want to be known in our own terms, rather than have ourselves defined elsewhere."
After the pilot initiative in 2016, KUOW secured a $50,000 grant from the Amazon Catalyst programme at the University of Washington to make 'Ask A...' a regular initiative as part of the station's community engagement efforts. The organisation held six events in 2017, and also conducted research to find out if the approach had "moved the needle" in terms of public perception.
Participants had to fill out three surveys: one before they attended the workshop, one immediately after, and another one three months after the event. KUOW looked at their short and long-term understanding and empathy of the groups they spoke with.
The findings showed that on average, the knowledge, empathy and views of those asking questions had increased after each workshop, and lasted throughout the following months.
Some of the events have also resulted in written stories and audio pieces featured on the KUOW website. The station is now also focusing more on how this material can be collected and shared more effectively with listeners.
The third season of 'Ask A...' will launch in March and the organisation is in the process has also developed a toolkit, so that local groups and other news outlets can recreate the workshops in their communities.
Reynolds is also exploring the idea of testing a virtual version of 'Ask A...' events using technologies such as Skype and virtual reality, to make it more accessible regardless of people's location.
"We feel that particularly among the public radio audience, which is very civically engaged, a large number of people would like to find out more about these groups, but there's no place to do that.
"There are 400 people who applied and 117 who attended, which is a relatively small number, so we are thinking about how we can expand this and have more people involved."
This article was updated on 15/03 with a link to KUOW's 'Ask A...' toolkit.
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