Monday, 12 January 2009

Does Media Commentary Change Minds?

This ran in my Reuters AlertNet blog in January 2009. I think the date was the 12th, but I'm not 100% sure. The original disappeared in early 2011 unfortunately.

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I wonder: am I wasting my time? No, that's not the self-pitying observation of a middle-aged man fast approaching another birthday in a couple days time. I mean, professionally, am I putting too much effort into the wrong things?

In my job, I am supposed to be helping to move the public debate -- or at least elite opinion -- in the direction of policies that will assist in the peaceful resolution of conflicts. In trying to do this, I spend a lot of time writing, editing and placing op-eds and commentary articles in media outlets around the world. Now, I've just read an opinion piece that tells me it might not be worth it.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor today, Jonathan Zimmerman asks, "Do opinion pieces ever change your opinion?" He cites his own incoming email over the years as well as some scientific evidence suggesting the answer may be negative for most readers.

Until I read that, I was having a pretty good week. We just did the numbers and found out we published about 160 op-eds in major outlets in 2008, and this year Crisis Group has already produced quite a number of comment articles on Gaza, appearing in the US and in a number of European countries. To top off my good mood, I learned the "Go-To Think Tanks 2008" survey placed Crisis Group first among 407 nominated think tanks in "Best Use of the Media (Print or Electronic) to Communicate Programs and Research". This judgement by our peers about our media reputation certainly must include a positive view of our op-ed work, on which we spend a good deal of time.

But are those of us in the business of policy advice all overestimating the effectiveness of opinion pieces? Following the vitriol on all sides in the endless web commentary on Gaza, I cannot say I see much that is changing anyone's mind. The extension of the frontline online seems only to be entrenching opinions if anything. Are our more balanced op-eds going to break up that scrap and help show sense to anyone?

Ultimately, despite Zimmerman's challenge, I have to hope so. I have to think that commentary can be persuasive. How can I let his op-ed change my long-held belief?

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