Mission possible

October 1, 2017 -- Living City

Mission possible
Living City’s goal of building bridges is more timely than ever

By Susanne Janssen

The world has changed a lot over the last 50 years. When Living City was first published, interracial marriage was still a crime, just to mention one example. Most of the population in North America still lived in communities that were ethnically and culturally homogeneous.

Technological progress, migration, changing values and family structure are only some of the forces that have undergone significant alteration. They have impacted our communication patterns as well: we’ve moved from printed newspapers, radio and color TV to streaming on the Internet; face-to-face talking and written letters have been substituted by phone calls, emails, social media posts, text messages and tweets.

The myriad of possibilities hasn’t led us to be more connected or to communicate more easily with people from very different backgrounds. In fact, people today seem more divided than ever, preferring to remain in their own camps and communicate only with those who hold similar views. This has a profound effect on our personal lives and interpersonal relationships.

The media has certainly contributed to this development; but can it also be reversed by media? In other words, can a small magazine encourage people to dialogue again?

How did we get here?
Let’s take a look at the roots of division and distrust. The amount of available information has increased tremendously, disseminated through hundreds of TV channels and radio stations, plus local and international newspapers and magazines. Now the Internet offers a multitude of options from all over the world.

Since people have less time to read in a stressful, complex world, and need to make a choice out of all these options, news tends to become shorter, often reduced to sound bites, offering simplified content that tends to be more personal and colored by personal opinion. Once journalists were taught that news consisted mainly of facts, and that opinion belonged in a commentary, now both are intertwined. Blogs and instant videos bring skewed personal views and emotions instead of a neutral reporting of facts.

At the same time, most media outlets express their slant openly without making the attempt to appear well-balanced. In the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, even major media outlets made a conscious decision to support one candidate or the other, increasing the polarization. Faith-based media outlets also want to be seen as a strong voice for their religious tradition, to reaffirm their vision of truth in an age where everything seems to be relative.

People once trusted the media
In all of this, what is missing is a belief that media tells the truth. Every year since 1972, Gallup publishes polls on how well people believe the media does its job “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.” Positive views peaked in 1976, with 72% saying they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in media. That was in the wake of widely lauded examples of investigative journalism about the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. While Americans’ trust in the media stayed in the low-to-mid-50 percentiles through the late 1990s and into the early years of the new century, it has fallen slowly and steadily since then, bottoming out at 32% in September 2016.

This is the manifestation of a profound crisis in the field of communications: we have access to more news than ever, but we do not know what or whom to believe anymore. We are able to communicate through more channels, but we often lack time to think critically, to sort through the strong opinions, and to talk and listen to people with whom we disagree. Some forms of media even contribute to widening the gap between people with different opinions.

Can we make a difference?
So what can the media contribute to bring people together again? Can media encourage people to be agents of dialogue and unity?

That is the fundamental question for us at Living City. Some may wonder, can a relatively small monthly magazine make a difference?

I believe strongly that it can.

Living City’s reason for being is not so much about how many people read one article or another, or who thinks positively or negatively about the content. Our goal is not only to show in its articles that dialogue is possible, but also to enable readers to better engage in dialogue themselves.

Personally, I realized that my way of answering questions, which I thought was straightforward, cut off any future conversations with a person. I understood that I had to change my behavior in order to dialogue with people who were raised in a different culture, where more words are needed to first build a relationship.

Admiring how some people really make a difference while emphasizing different aspects of the Gospel helps me to stay humble and open to others. Dialogue is much more than an exchange of ideas between people of different convictions, political views or religious beliefs — it is a lifestyle.

The necessary requirements — listening, being open to see the world from others’ perspectives, being humble, being a lifelong learner, being merciful and not judgmental, just to name a few — are skills that we have to develop every day anew. Needless to say, I feel the urgency to live out the spirituality of communion, building bridges with those who think differently.

Calling for communion
Looking at how the U.S. and many other countries are experiencing the same challenges, we need bridge-builders more than ever. We speak of a society of competition, a society of polarization, of optimization, but we haven’t up to now been called a society of understanding, compassion and communion. Media, with its influence, can contribute to bringing these values back in style, and that is something we try to do at Living City.

For the first time in history, people find themselves immersed in an incredibly diverse environment surrounded by more possibilities and choices, but also by more expectations. On the other hand, there are fewer shared values and beliefs that unify a nation or a group of people. In this situation, discourse, tolerance and acceptance are more needed than ever. Entering into dialogue invites us to learn or relearn these skills.

Living City aims to contribute to this needed change in our culture: from the limiting focus on the individual only to an understanding of people as a community. Sharing the gifts of our various faith traditions in order to collaborate for a better society can help us make significant strides along this way.


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