ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Hélène Biandudi Hofer is helping journalists move beyond the tit-for-tat reporting all too common when covering complex issues.
She manages the Complicating the Narratives Initiative through Solutions Journalism Network.
Below is Adam Chodak’s interview with Biandudi Hofer Thursday.
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Adam Chodak: Before we get into what you’re doing lately, I want to get your reflections on what’s been going on…
Hélène Biandudi Hofer: I have had people ask me that and I’ve talked about that with colleagues and fellow journalists and journalists of color and it’s a hard question to answer in that I think we all process things based on our own experiences, our own stories, in different ways and so for me, I was numb for a long period of time and I think over this past weekend is when it really struck just in terms of the personal pain that I felt and continue to feel as a person of color and I’m trying to think of journalists out there trying to cover this story and the many challenges that they’re facing and I’m thinking about my family. And I have family on all different spectrums and by that I mean law enforcement and others they’re divided politically and so it’s just a lot to take in so that’s my long of way of saying it’s taking time to reflect and I’ve realized that I haven’t found an easy response to that question.
AC: You talk about the challenges of journalists. One of the challenges is interviewing people about this and I was fortunate enough to learn from you, you’re talking about complicating the narratives. What does that mean?
HBH: So, as we watch these protests and we watch some of this coverage, what we’re hearing in terms of news reports, what we’re seeing and reading, there are examples that are not like this, so this is not the situation where it’s all the same, but you see simple narratives, simple stories, that lack of depth. To the protester, “Hey, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you wearing a mask? Are you scared of getting COVID? What do you think about what’s going on?” And that’s it. And what Complicating the Narratives is trying to do is to totally switch that. We’re working with journalists and we’re showing them our tools and our techniques and our strategies that we can use as journalists in this craft that are taken from psychologists, experts in conflict that work when it comes to difficult conversations, discussions around a crisis that will work to not simplify and not make the news so black and white because that’s not the way that it really is, but that there’s complexity and it’s OK and it’s healthy to show that there’s complexity because that’s reality, that paints an accurate story and that’s what audiences really need to see, especially right now.
AC: One of the tools that I really like that I’m going to take away as a journalist, but I think most people can take away when the talk about difficult issues, especially race relations, is looping. So if you could explain that to people, that would be great.
HBH: Looping is a technique, one of many, used by mediators in particular, conflict mediators and it comes from the Center for Understanding and Conflict and it’s a listening and communication technique where the sole intent is to understand where the person is coming from. So it’s not about debating, it’s not about arguing, it’s not about talking at someone, it’s not about fixing anything, it’s solely about listening. So what it looks like is, there are four steps to it. First, you ask someone a question, and then you listen to their response. First you ask and you listen and you listen trying to understand where they’re coming from, trying to grasp the reason why they feel a certain way. And then you summarize, you say this is what it sounds like you’re sharing with me and based on what you just said and you summarize, you check in to make sure you got it right. That’s the third part, the check-in, did I understand that clearly? Is that right? Did I miss anything? And they might say, “No, what I meant to say was this and this is how I’m feeling. This is why I’m scared. This is why I’m fearful.” And the fourth step is to correct what we got wrong. Usually we listen and we have this running narrative and we all do this our thoughts are constantly going and we’re thinking about what we want to say next, we’re thinking about trying to prove them wrong or correct them or share our side, we quickly turn it to ourselves, that’s not what looping is about, it’s really about listening to understand someone’s perspective because when you do that when you show that you’ve done that, you demonstrate understanding, there’s this interesting thing that happens where you building trust and the person across from you kind of reflects. It’s an interesting thing to have someone reflect back to you exactly what you meant, not parroting what you said and that builds trust, that shows understanding and they are more likely to then tune in to hear what you have to say about something.
AC: You talk about red flags. What are those?
HBH: So there might be a word that pops up such as “infuriating” or “animals” or “fearful” or “hate” and other words that we hear and we’re hearing it now about the protesting now too and the demonstrations that are taking place in all different ways and that’s usually a signal that there’s more. You don’t just take that at face value when someone says that and you so you loop that, you say wow, I hear the intensity and I can tell based on what you just said and the word that you used and I’m curious about that, what does that mean when you say it, what does that mean to you when you use it and that usually at that point you’re getting deeper and you’re avoiding that surface level, you’re not satisfied with that first-layer response. When you tune in to those red flag words and inquire, it gives that person a chance to go deeper and share more and it usually comes from a place whether it’s a personal story, whether it’s a fear or something else.
AC: Does this work in every day life?
HBH: When I talk to journalists about everyday looping I always use personal examples of conversations that I have with my brother with my mom, I have 2 bonus sons, with them, my husband, neighbors, it works in every single scenario, I had a call about a project today and I could tell the person wasn’t feeling comfortable with something and so I looped them and just to make sure I clearly understood what it was and where they were coming from and what was bothering them and that helped because it opened up the conversation more. I had more understanding. I had more understanding as well and I think that type of a thing, it can be used in any scenario with any profession, hands down.
AC: What else would you like to add?
HBH: I think as journalists in this really charged, heated, difficult period that it’s imperative for us to think about when we approach stories and people and our audiences that we really work hard to step away from, we’re under pressure, there’s a lot going on, we’re burned out, we’re dealing with a pandemic on top of racial inequalities and inequities, but to really get present with ourselves and ask ourselves why we’re doing this and in that space, realize that when you simplify a story and we simplify people, we’re not accurately projecting the many, many layers behind that person, the many, many layers of an issue and when we acknowledge that, it’s OK to not know all the answers and to take longer to listen to somebody to understand them and to ask meaningful questions and to probe and you really come out with a fuller more accurate story of what’s going on and we need that right now more than ever.