The emotions come out in a brightly lit room with a long table and comfortable chairs.
Strangers have come as volunteers to discuss the issues of the day. They know reporters are sitting behind a large, mirrored window, but they seem to forget that quickly.
After a few minutes of getting to know each other — first names only, please — they open their hearts.
The wife of a soldier — a medical specialist — talks about how there no longer is a fanfare when he leaves for his deployments. Bands and speeches are for entire units, not individual soldiers. He’s on his 10th. She stands in the airport line with him and their two children as others are overcome by their tearful goodbye.
Her emotional tale includes talking about the stresses his absence brings to the family and marriage — the worry, the longing, the missed family events.
But the worst is when he comes back, a homecoming that the public might think is a joyous event.
“Your husband comes home, he’s totally screwed up because of these atrocious things that they’ve witnessed, and because you’ve kind of done everything, they have a hard time fitting back in,” she said.
People who were strangers only a few minutes earlier offer comfort as she breaks down.
Behind the mirror, reporters who like to think they are hardened and worldly feel chills of emotion and wipe away tears.
Most people never have an opportunity like this. Focus-group participants can talk about the most important issues in their lives without fear of shocking or offending their friends and family. The anonymity gives them cover. Disagreements are expected. Open discussion of anger, envy, animosity and biases is encouraged.
In some cases, participants find other people feel the same way they do. They also hear the issues from different perspectives. They won’t part as friends or enemies. They will just part. But they leave behind their stories and emotions to be reported by the journalists.
The focus groups are part of the America Today project, a community effort to explore what divides us and to find ways to understand and respect one another. Topics include civility, the media, war, guns, crime, public vs. private employees, religion and student loans.
The project is controversial, especially in the newsroom. Participants were offered confidentiality, a concept that offended some reporters, who are accustomed to requiring people’s names or not using their information.
For many of the reporters watching from behind the glass, the experience was as emotional for them as it was for the participants.
The media were mentioned many times, and usually not in a flattering fashion.
At one point, a reporter who had seen most of the 11 sessions observed that most had something bad to say about the media, to which another reporter said: “We’re a unifying force.”
The first night was about civility and it started a trend: The groups were very civil to each other. There were impassioned disagreements and contradictions and plenty of emotions, but little name-calling.
There were tears, but nothing that could be described as shouting. There was laughter but very little that could be called sarcasm or bitterness. There were only a few instances when the moderator cut people short, and then only because time was running out and new subjects had to be explored.
Reporters also saw differences in the question-and-answer sessions. In a regular interview, a reporter will challenge a person on the facts or ask what might be considered a leading question to make sure all topics are covered. Focus groups are more about how people feel. Facts are secondary.
Focus group moderator Alice Rodgers never used the question “Why?” Instead, she would say something like “Help me understand …”
Comments ranged from humorous quips to lengthy expressions about a variety of issues, and Rodgers allowed some to wax, time permitting.
One mother controlled more than 10 minutes of a discussion about crime with an emotional description of how she learned her son had been shot and her experiences with police at the crime scene. The other participants sat motionless as she told of her horrors. Then the tears came. Spontaneously, people rose from their chairs, surrounded her and offered comfort. They held hands during a lengthy prayer.
Some reporters were distressed that the groups did not represent the diversity of the community. With the exception of a group of young people discussing student loans and an African-American group discussing crime in Akron, most of the participants tended to be older and whiter than the Akron area.
However, diversity was not a goal; inspiring conversation was.
Many people volunteered through appeals in the Akron Beacon Journal. Recruiter Amy Merrill-Boren of Decision Point Marketing Research organized them and rounded out the groups from her database. Given that many raised their hands for a discussion of civility, it’s not surprising that nobody defended name-calling or raised voices.
Reporters who witnessed these events are being assigned to tell the focus-group stories. Many have expressed concerns about how they can cover the rich collection of issues from the two-hour sessions in just one story. That may not be possible. Other stories may grow out of what citizens said. Reporters also will do more traditional reporting to explore issues and questions raised by the groups.
And in the end, there is an acknowledgment that there are topics yet to be explored, such as climate change, health care, bosses vs. workers and the role of government. That will happen later.
Dave Scott was present for all six nights of the focus groups. He can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com.
America Today project seeks citizen input
This project opens journalism to a two-way street. In the hope of learning what you’re thinking and getting citizens more involved in our stories, we’ve added an interactive experiment: We are offering you an opportunity to answer some of the same tough questions we are posing to citizens in the America Today series.
In addition to the traditional Ohio.com comment page, the newspaper is partnering with the Civic Commons, an online organization that encourages respectful and informed debate of tough issues from a variety of perspectives and experiences. Below are the two opportunities to express yourself on these questions:
How did we as a nation get in trouble economically?
Whom do you blame?
How do we as a nation solve our economic problems?
What are you doing differently to get through the downturn?