A few years ago, I had a friend – also a journalist – reach out to me regarding an issue she had with an assignment.
We used to work together, and stayed in contact even after she moved away, talking shop and helping each other when problems arose in our newspaper jobs.
Usually what we discussed were ethical issues about that work, and that was the case here.
My friend is not a blue-in-the-face progressive, but is definitely on the left side of the aisle – and she was given the assignment to interview an anti-immigration group in her area.
Given her political leanings, she struggled with the idea of doing the assignment and remaining unbiased and fair, and she asked me what to do.
Remember that they are people too, and treat them as such.
Too often we see ideological opponents as mere vessels for ideas we dislike, as if they’ve been possessed by an evil spirit and are acting against their free will.
We pretend that simply bashing them over the head with a hard enough argument (or shaming them into submission, which seems to be the preferred tactic these days) will exorcise that wickedness and clear them of their wrong-think.
Reality is much more nuanced than that, which is what I told my friend. Those ideas – the good, bad and the really ugly – come from someplace human. They don’t magically pop into existence, there is a core issue that leads people to hold certain beliefs. Those anti-immigration activists were people with their own fears, their own hopes, their own sets of loves and hates, wants and dreams. They have concerns, a root cause for their political ideas, and ignoring the cause of something and treating the symptoms is a surefire way for it to metastasize.
The real kicker, and the hardest pill to swallow, is that a person’s concerns don’t actually have to be legitimate or even rational – but they still have to be addressed, and this was indeed the toughest hurdle for my friend to vault.
In principle, she disagreed with this group’s perception of mass immigration as a negative – just thought they were flat-out-wrong. And she wasn’t happy when I told her that doesn’t matter.
People have concerns for rational and irrational reasons. Even if you vigorously disagree with someone, just because you think their concerns are unfounded doesn’t change the fact that they are very real to them.
And you have to address it. You have to have those tough conversations. Ignoring the problem and telling people not to discuss what worries them solves nothing, it only cements their position.