Colleague of the Week: Sue Lani Madsen


Here’s an idea that deserves to be spread far and wide: a Depolarizing Within workshop customized for the media. That doesn’t mean new news to write about. It means something for journalists and editors to do something about, personally.

“We think this is a teachable moment, with trust ratings in the media being so low,” says Sue Lani Madsen, the Braver Angel behind the concept. “It would be a chance for them to think about and talk about the words that are used that often inflame as much as they inform.” She explains that most media people are steeped in the doctrine of their apparent objectivity. They’ve been taught that their profession is, by its nature, non-biased. That’s what they think. But it often doesn’t play out in reality.

The concept of media people working to depolarize themselves will soon to be piloted in Washington state, where Sue Lani, Red, co-chairs Braver Angels’ communications commission for the state and is one of six co-chairs for the Central/Eastern Washington Alliance. “We want the media to talk about the words they use – to think about their choices of words and how others may perceive them.”

This initiative might sound like something thought up by a fierce foe of the media – someone who regularly uses the term “fake news,” perhaps. But Sue Lani is herself a journalist, and a dedicated, persuasive, and highly articulate one at that. Although much of her working life was spent as a licensed architect, about seven years ago she began a second career as a freelance writer for local publications in the east of Washington state. “I’ve always consumed newspapers,” she says. “I wrote my first letter to the editor when I was eleven!”

Her work as a columnist for The Spokesman-Review, in Spokane, was at their invitation to try to provide rural and conservative balance. “I really am looking to see that there is balance,” she says. “I try to be a good translator of rural and conservative points of view. Participating in Braver Angels events – where we get nuanced discussion – is very useful to me in writing my columns.”

The idea of a DPW workshop for the media resonated immediately with Braver Angels’ national leadership. Now Sue Lani is teaming with Lorraine Howell, Blue, in Seattle to bring the idea to life. Together, they are assembling a group of about half a dozen to go through the current DPW slide deck to see how best to customize it for journalists and media, with an emphasis on words, phrases, and expressions and on questions asked and not asked. It’s a topic that has been on her mind for a while, as this 2020 column indicates.

The intent is to launch the DPW-Media program next January – after the craziness of the 2022 elections and before the next election cycle kicks up – piloting it in Washington and hopefully getting some significant local media figures to participate. Assuming the program is a success, it could (and probably should) be rolled out nationwide, with outreach to America’s leading journalism schools.

A definitive regional objective of the program is to help bridge the “Cascade divide” – the cultural chasm between the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan sprawl and the farmland in the east. “I live in a county that has four people per square mile,” smiles Sue Lani. “I don’t think people in downtown Seattle understand why our concerns are different.”

Sue Lani joined Braver Angels about 18 months ago after observing a debate about voter activity in the 2020 election. It wasn’t long before she was invited to join the state communications commission as the Red Co-Chair – a role she was quick to accept since she already knew her Blue counterpart-to-be and had great respect for him.

Then, when she stepped into one of the three Red chairs for the Central/Eastern Washington Alliance this summer, she entered another world altogether. She points out that the alliance is very new – formed during the pandemic – and it remains almost entirely reliant on Zoom because it spans a region that takes four hours to drive across.

Now though, Sue Lani and her co-leaders are talking about what comes next – in particular, how they can meet and engage in person. “We’ve got more options for meeting now,” she says. “We’re looking to community festivals and county fairs; we want to figure out a way to have a presence there.”

Plans are underway to field a Braver Angels booth at the family-focused Spokane Valleyfest weekend at the end of September. One of the stipulations of the fair’s organizers is that every booth must have an activity for children, so Sue Lani and her colleagues are exploring all sorts of fun things, such as competitions for building things out of Lego or Duplo blocks.

Now, all they have to do is get loads of red blocks and the same number of blue blocks…

More to explore

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