You’re sitting down to an interview with an important source. As a journalist, you know your job is to try and understand his or her perspective, and to represent it as fully and genuinely as you can. But as your source starts to talk, the difference in your values becomes painfully obvious. As the interview drags on and the divide grows wider, your good intentions ebb and your blood pressure rises. How can you possibly make sense of this worldview for your readers?
Your source’s values may not be as foreign as you think, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. Haidt, who’s spent 25 years studying morality in different populations around the world, argues that while value systems vary wildly from culture to culture and person to person, all share the same six foundations: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Though political liberals tend to emphasize care and fairness and conservatives tend to value loyalty, authority, and sanctity, we all have at least some regard for each foundation. “The two ends of the political spectrum rely upon each foundation in different ways, or to different degrees,” Haidt explains.
This notion of common moral foundations, I’ve found, is a surprisingly useful reporting tool. It can turn an apparently unbridgeable political or religious divide into a simple difference in emphasis: a prioritization of loyalty over care, for instance, or fairness over authority. Haidt’s taxonomy makes it easier to see the similarities among different worldviews, and—perhaps most importantly—see how all of them can be sincerely and passionately held.
We’re never going to agree with all of our sources, nor should we feel obligated to. But we do need to see the world as they do, at least for a little while, and The Righteous Mind is a valuable guide to doing just that.