On delivering nuanced messages in a soundbite culture
Jul 14, 2009
By Dan Van Ness
"Trendy 'restorative justice' schemes to stamp out bullying at schools 'do not work'," the headline trumpeted. The article by Laura Clark on Mail Online (the website of the Daily Mail) began in the same vein:
"Trendy 'no punishment' approaches to tackling bullying are not working in many schools, a researcher warned yesterday.
"More than 600 schools use 'restorative justice' techniques which allow bullies to escape punishment if they face their victims and apologise.
"But a Cambridge University academic told a conference the approach has been 'widely exaggerated' as a remedy for bullying."
This was a surprise to me, since many studies have shown that restorative justice can be very effective in dealing with bullying. I began to suspect that the was an instance of a reporter or headline-writer eager to generate sales by generating controversy.
Confirmation came in the fourth paragraph of the story. "The method was unlikely to be successful unless schools also encourage pupils to adopt strong values and an anti-bullying culture, warned Dr Hilary Cremin."
So I contacted Dr. Cremin and asked for her response to the article. Here is how she responded:
I am very pleased that you were able to read between the lines of this Daily Mail report. I had refused to talk to them, and did not once use the word fashionable or trendy in the press release that the university issued. I was not even entirely happy with that!
I have spent my career (over 20 years) promoting and researching peer mediation and restorative approaches in schools, so it is not very likely that these words would come out of my mouth! I have pasted a link below to the university website, that is much closer to the original press release....
There is always a balance between involving the press and raising awareness of restorative practice and being misrepresented in ways that are ultimately harmful. The only consolation is that I have been misquoted before, and these things are quickly forgotten. I have also been able to publicise restorative approaches in ways that have really helped to spread the message.
I did a search of the Mail Online site using the word "trendy" and noted that for a few days at the end of June and beginning of July, the schools in Britain were apparently exceptionally trendy:
Trendy teaching is 'producing a generation of history numbskulls' (by the same author and published the same day as the article on restorative justice, July 2)
Schools ditch recorders for trendy ukeleles (different author, published July 1)
Prince Charles's adviser slams trendy courses that make knowledge 'a dirty word' (also by Laura Clark, published June 29)
According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, trendy can mean fashionable, up-to-date or "marked by ephemeral, superficial, or faddish appeal or taste <trendy ideas about success>."
Words like that eliminate the need for (and even the possibility of) meaningful conversation about a topic. They invite polarization. They cut off the opportunity to explore freely the implications of a nuanced argument.
I suspect we in the restorative justice movement may use that tactic ourselves sometimes. It is not likely we would dismiss someone's ideas with the word "trendy", but we might with words like "disrespectful," "coercive," or "punitive." It's something to think about.
By the way, for tips on working with the media, check out these resources.