From the Vault: Astros Parade Response Shows Social Media Threats Can Start at a Young Age

Editor’s Note: As I was working on my content schedule for the next few months ahead of the return of Major League Baseball, I came across a column that I wrote on November 7, 2022 but never posted.

Through the years I have written several columns that for one reason or another were never posted. As part of a semi-regular series called From the Vault, I will occasionally dust off these written but never posted columns and allow them to see the light of day. So, without further ado, fresh from my vault, here is the column that was originally meant to post on November 7, 2022. Sadly, many of the issues addressed are still relevant today.

The other day the Houston Astros defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in six games to become the 2022 World Series Champions.

It is the first title for the Astros since a cheating scandal tarnished their 2017 World Series crown like a line of trash cans littering a pristine alley.

Having given up my Astros fandom years ago, I did not plan to write anything about the Astros winning the World Series aside from perhaps a quick mention about how nice it is that Dusty Baker can finally call himself a World Series winning manager after a quarter century of falling short.

My desire to avoid writing about anything Astros related all changed when I saw an article from a local television station about two students getting arrested for making threats on social media related to the Astros World Series celebration parade.

First, a little background. Numerous school districts in and around Houston cancelled class on the day of the parade to allow students and staff to attend the parade.

The University where I earned my MS in Sport Management even joined the school skipping party, which I found to be particularly odd.

The fact that a parade for a winning sports team is considered worthy of cancelling school and other events, but we still do not have a national holiday on election day to ensure that everyone who chooses to vote can vote really says a lot about the priorities in this country. But that is a column for another day.

Today’s column is about two students at two different intermediate schools within the same district who felt slighted that their district did not see fit to cancel classes like so many other districts did.

I am in no way minimizing the role that sports can play on a young person’s life, or even the role it plays on an older person. One of my very first public speaking experiences captivating a crowd was leading a Super Bowl rally in front of my entire elementary school when I was in second grade. Many decades later, it is still a very fond memory.

The two students in the suburbs of Houston will likely not have fond memories of the steps they took to show their fandom for a sports team. The students took to social media and made comments about the district being open.

The comments were deemed to be terroristic threats which led to an increased police presence and other heightened security on campuses throughout the district.

Now, some people reading this will likely say that they were just “boys being boys” who they took things too far.

Of course, in a state where many students have taken actual violent steps on campuses like engaging in mass shootings, one does not get to have the luxury of saying they were just “boys being boys,” or even “girls being girls.”

Others may respond by saying that “everyone knows that social media speech isn’t real speech so no harm was done.”

To that I will say, many of the actual events of violence that occur on school campuses, grocery stores, synagogues, United States Capitol complexes, etc., first involved threats, or boosting on social media.

Still others will say, “sure the threats are bad and they shouldn’t have done it, but they will grow out of it.

To that I say, kids who post threats on social media can turn into adults who post threats on social media. One can also look at how comments made on social media regarding a certain rally in Washington D.C. back in 2020 had real-world consequences.

The social media genie is never going back in the bottle. Attempts to regulate content and try to limit threats and violence will continue to fall short leaving people to police themselves with what they say and do.

As I have said many times, as a journalist I am a huge proponent of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the protections it offers regarding free speech.

What I am not a fan of, is people trying to use the First Amendment to justify hate speech and generally abhorrent rhetoric that has no place in a civilized society that claims to have been formed on “Godly principles.”

Unfortunately, hate speech will continue to fall under free speech and people will be left to monitor and censor their own speech by deciding what should and should not be said in a civilized society.

That is a very sobering and troubling thought.

This all brings us full circle back to the two middle schoolers in a pair of Houston suburbs who saw nothing wrong with posting a threat on social media because they did not get their way regarding having school cancelled, so they could go see a bunch of baseball players in a parade.

They will likely be charged as minors and will go about their life’s as if nothing happened once they turn 18.

For the rest of us, social media will continue to allow hate and threats to fester in the darkness like a rat hiding in a corner waiting to strike.

As a proud member of Generation X, I, like the generations before me, can recall a time before the internet and social media were the de facto communication methods.

The generations that follow will have had access to tablets and social media in many cases from the crib to the grave.

A failure to instill responsible means to use and regulate that technology among people who don’t know of a world before social media is critical to ensuring that a civil society does not morph into a society embroiled in a civil war.

That is the problem with threats made on social media, they have a nasty habit of sneaking into the real world and becoming actual events where people can be injured or even killed.

For a platform that calls itself a social media, there is definitely a lot of anti-social behavior going on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to curl up with a nice book and forget about social media for a while.

Copyright 2023 R. Anderson


Remembering former UCF President John Hitt

The other day I was saddened to hear about the passing of former University of Central Florida (UCF) president John C. Hitt.

President Hitt, who was 82-years-old when he died, became UCF’s fourth president in 1992 and retired from the post in June 2018. He was a transformational figure at UCF. Over the course of his 26-years at the helm, President Hitt ushered in an era of explosive growth and opportunity both in terms of facilities and enrollments.

While many buildings were added to the UCF campus during President Hitt’s tenure, perhaps the most visible one is the on-campus football stadium affectionately known as the “Bounce House.”
Photo R. Anderson

President Hitt, transformed the UCF campus on the Orange and Seminole County lines from a commuter school withering in the shadow of larger universities like Florida State University and the University of Florida, to the second largest university by enrollment in the country.

UCF’s enrollment tripled from 21,000 students to more than 66,000 by his retirement.

Enrollment was not the only thing that grew during President Hitt’s tenure at UCF. Under his watch, UCF opened a College of Medicine and created momentum for the ultimate construction of an on-campus football stadium.

To celebrate his 20th year leading UCF, the on-campus library, which was the first building on campus that was open to students, was renamed in his honor.

The oldest building on the UCF main campus open to students, was renamed the John C. Hitt Library to celebrate former college president John Hitt’s 20th anniversary at the school’s helm. Hitt, who died February 21, 2023, went on to serve as UCF president for 26 years.
Photo R. Anderson

While much will be said over the coming days about President Hitt’s legacy, my association with him is a little more personal.

During my time as an undergraduate at UCF, I created a student newspaper called Knight Times, which I ran for three years with the help of some very dedicated staff and friends.

Eight months after forming the paper, I wanted to do something that both set the paper apart from our better funded competitors, and also showed that we were not afraid to go to the top.

To accomplish that goal, I decided that I wanted to interview President Hitt.

In 1997, I had the opportunity to interview President Hitt for a two-part series of articles for Knight Times, the student newspaper I founded and operated while enrolled as an undergraduate journalism student at UCF.
Photo R. Anderson

To my surprise and delight, he accepted the offer and a two-part series about his vision for UCF’s future was created.

For President Hitt, the interview was likely just another appointment on his calendar that day.

However for me, it showed that not only had Knight Times arrived in terms of being taken seriously, but I had shown that I could score big interviews as a journalist.

I have interviewed thousands of people in my journalism career. I even had some pretty high-profile interviews during my time as editor in chief of my high school newspaper.

However, my interview with President Hitt was the first time that I felt that I had scored the interview through my own efforts and was being taken seriously as an equal to journalists who had been in the field longer than I had.

Knight Times lasted an additional two years after my interview with President Hitt ran.

The visions President Hitt outlined in that interview have lasted much longer.

At the time of my interview, President Hitt was in his fifth year at the helm. However, even then it was clear that he had a strong sense of where things were headed as noted by the quote from the interview below.

“If I had to look out and see what my fondest dream 15-20 years from now it would be that we would be recognized as the premiere metropolitan university, that we would be a Research One according to the Carnegie Commission’s classifications, and that we would still be regarded as having a lot of concern for an excellence in undergraduate education,” Hitt said.

That desire became a reality in the years that followed drawing attention from some pretty powerful figures along the way.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush once said that it was his belief that, “Walt Disney and John Hitt have done more to transform Central Florida into a vibrant, dynamic place than any two people.”

In addition to being focused on growth, President Hitt knew that it was attention to the students that really mattered as referenced in another quote from that 1997 interview.

“A lot of people around the country see campuses where faculty members won’t cooperate together or with the administration. We don’t have that here,” Hitt said. “We have a real good community atmosphere here. We have got a pretty darn good situation here at UCF and we are proud of it.”

Two and a half years after my interview with President Hitt, our paths crossed once again as he handed me my diploma on the graduation stage inside the UCF Arena signaling the end of my time at UCF, and the beginning of the next phase of my professional journalism career.

Speaking as one of the thousands of Knights who benefited from your leadership, we are pretty proud to have called you our president. Charge On, President Hitt, and thank you for granting me that interview so many years ago.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to read some more articles from the Knight Times archives.

Copyright 2023 R. Anderson

Shooting at Michigan State University Shows How Vulnerable College Campuses Are

Earlier this week a 43-year-old man killed three people and injured five others on the campus of Michigan State University.

The shooting, which occurred on the eve of fifth anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, marked yet another example of what appears to be a uniquely American problem related to the use of guns to create mass casualty events on soft targets like schools, places of worship, grocery stores, parades, and a slew of other events where people gather.

As of February 14, 2023, there have been more mass shootings in America than there have been days of the year.  In January 2023 alone, there were 52 mass shootings that left 87 dead and 205 wounded.

Let that sink in for a moment.

This is not a column about repealing the Second Amendment, or creating a movement to take away people’s legally obtained firearms.

This is not a column about the move in some states to loosen laws that seem to make it easier for individuals to gain possession of guns and ammo.

Following a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, TX in 2019, instead of cracking down on guns, Texas made it easier for people to get guns by eliminating burdensome gun permitting and training requirements that had caused citizens to have to wait a few days to get their guns and also show that they took a course to know how to responsibly use them.
Photo R. Anderson

This is also not a column about lawmakers who fail to act to pass simple legislation that could make it harder to get and use guns to kill citizens just trying to go about their daily lives.

No, this is a column about the sad fact that everyday people are unprotected from falling victim to senseless gun violence in the most prosperous country in the world.

While no one is immune from falling victim to the plague of mass shootings, for this column my main focus is mass shooting events on college campuses which represent a small fraction of the hundreds of mass shooting events that occur in America each year.

Since 1966 when a gunman killed 15 people and injured 31 at the University of Texas in Austin, in what many consider the first mass shooting event in America, there have been 12 mass shootings on college campuses where over three people were killed leading to 99 deaths.

Prior to the Michigan State shooting, the most recent college shooting was in 2022 at the University of Virginia where three people were killed and two were injured.

Colleges and universities from sea to shining sea serve as both institutions of higher learning, as well as soft targets for would be mass shooters to prey upon.

Last year, while visiting the University of Florida to be inducted into an Honor Society, I found myself on high alert looking in the shadows for potential threats as I walked the sprawling campus.

Like many other colleges and universities, UF is a large campus that acts like a mini city surrounded by various homes, businesses, and infrastructure with no walls or gates to funnel visitors through central entry and exit points to control who comes and goes.

Like many other colleges and universities, the University of Florida is a large campus that acts like a mini city surrounded by various homes, businesses, and infrastructure with no walls or gates to funnel visitors through central entry and exit points to control who comes and goes. The same is true for Michigan State University making it nearly impossible to fully prevent mass shooting events from occurring on campus.
Photo R. Anderson

The same was true for Michigan State University where it appears the gunman entered a publicly accessible building on the edge of campus and opened fire before opening fire in another publicly accessible building full of students.

It is impossible to fully secure a college campus. So, the blame for the shooting does not fall on Michigan State University.

During my tenure as the Public Information Manager for a college, I constantly drilled myself on how I would respond to a crisis communication event on campus. Many of my colleagues thought I was crazy to spend so much time cooking up responses to scenarios that they assured me would never occur.

Then the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred and we found ourselves faced with the need to evacuate the campus for fear that the highly explosive oil tanks that surrounded the campus would be the next target of the terrorists.

Although, the oil tanks and the campus remained unscathed, from that moment on, my “hope for the best but always plan for the worst strategy” did not seem so farfetched to my previously doubting colleagues.

Although the campus I worked on was small, it was spread out with numerous unsecured entry points. It also lacked armed security officers. While thankfully it never happened, it would have been very easy for someone to walk in off of the street and start shooting.

Unfortunately, like many campuses both then and now, there is really no way to prevent an individual from bringing a gun inside a classroom and creating a mass casualty event.

Of course, in Texas and other states, the response to mass shootings by some lawmakers would be to say that the armed good guys in the classroom would take out the armed bad guys.

There is so much wrong with that statement, but I will leave that for another column on another day.

Like I said, this is also not a column about lawmakers who fail to act to pass simple common sense legislation that could make it harder for people who should not have access to firearms from getting and using guns to kill citizens who are just trying to go about their daily lives.

Since it appears most are unwilling to take proactive steps to prevent gun violence, that leaves us in the category of reacting. Throughout my career in public affairs and strategic communication, I have always held firm to the practice of being first on the scene to deliver credible information while also being transparent about what I do not know during a fluid situation.

There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t have that information right now, but I will bring it to you as soon as I do have it,” in the heat of communicating in a crisis.

It is a far worse crisis communication blunder to say nothing at all as a scene unfolds leaving unqualified experts on social media to fill in the voids left by the silence of the official sources.

Based on what I have seen so far, the Michigan State University response to the shooting should be hailed as a textbook example of how to respond to an event.

Multiple jurisdictions worked in harmony with a clear command structure to secure the scene and protect all people on campus. Additionally, regular updates were provided to the media and other concerned individuals while the scene was still active.

That is a stark contrast to what occurred during the 2022 Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, TX. The Robb Elementary response should be added as a case study to every crisis communication and law enforcement practitioner as a prime example of what not to do during a mass shooting.

As great as the response at Michigan State was, the simple fact is something needs to be done to stop these mass shooting events from happening.

As a crisis communicator, I was pleased to see the transparent way that the incident at Michigan State was handled.

I will be more pleased if a day comes when crisis communicators and law enforcement personal do not have to respond to calls of shots fired at campuses where people are just trying to learn, or stores where people are just trying to bring home some groceries to feed their families.

America has twice as many firearms per 100 residents as the next country on the list of Top 10 gun owning countries.

We should be better than this.

And yes, I know that there are people who may not know anything else that is in the United States Constitution, but they use the Second Amendment as their lodestar allowing them to collect an arsenal of firearms.

Again, I am not suggesting that the government come and take away everyone’s guns. However, we should not be willing to just accept mass shootings as a way of life and pray that we and those we love are never the victims.

We should demand that politicians make common sense changes to gun laws to make it harder for people to use guns in mass shootings and easier for people to get the mental health resources that they need.

That can be done while still protecting people’s Second Amendment rights as well as all of the other rights outlined in the Constitution.

The real question is whether any politicians are willing to take those steps, or if they will remain content to putting on their shocked and outraged face for the cameras every time someone takes an easy to obtain firearm and kills a bunch of innocent people while crying “lone wolf” to anyone who will listen.

Students of all ages from preschool to grad school should be able to learn in their classrooms without living in constant fear that someone is going to barge in with a gun.

Likewise, people should feel safe going to see a parade, going to their house of worship, or picking up some groceries on the way home without wondering if the sound they heard was a car backfiring or someone firing a gun.

How many innocent people must be killed before politicians acknowledge there is a problem with gun violence in America and take common sense steps to prevent future attacks on everyday citizens?

The number of victims of mass shootings is already in the thousands. Will it have to reach the tens of thousands before people take proactive steps?

Or, will American society be left in a constant state of reaction where praise is given to the first responders who do things right, criticism is heaped upon those who botch the response, and thoughts and prayers are sent out to the victims along with prayers that the violence stays away from the people sending out the thoughts and prayers?

I guess this was a column about urging elected officials to do something about the unacceptable rise in gun violence and mass shootings after all.

Now if you’ll excuse me, as I said during a column last year following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary, I am off to see if I can make sense out of that another senseless act of violence and see what steps I can take to prevent another one.

Copyright 2023 R. Anderson

Super Bowl Once Again Puts the Use of Native American Mascots in the Global Spotlight

Leading up to this year’s Super Bowl match-up between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs a lot of attention has been placed on the match-up between quarterbacks Jalen Hurts of the Eagles, and Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs. Barring a late scratch by one of the quarterbacks due to injury, this will mark the first time that two black quarterbacks have started in the Super Bowl.

Having two black quarterbacks starting in a Super Bowl is of course an important milestone. Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl in 1988. Williams was named Super Bowl MVP after leading his team to a decisive victory in Super Bowl XXII. Including Williams, seven black quarterbacks have played in the Super Bowl, with three of the seven leading their team to victory.

With a week of media coverage leading up to the game, the head-to-head battle between Hurts and Mahomes is the type of human interest story that reporters love to cover. Another story gaining traction ahead of the game is the fact that Travis Kelce suiting up for the Chiefs and Jason Kelce playing for the Eagles will mark the first time two brothers have played for different teams in the Super Bowl.

I had the opportunity to cover Super Bowl XXXVIII between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers and found trying to find new things to write about each day leading up to the game to be quite exhausting. By the time I finished my “Postcards from the Bowl” series, I was worn out from covering the Super Bowl long before the time kickoff rolled around.

As a Super Bowl media week veteran, I can attest that it can be an exhausting week trying to cover all of the stories leading up to the game. Unfortunately, sometimes the stories most in need of coverage are ignored in favor of the shiny things that support the

My exhaustion was likely not helped by the fact that after spending eight hours at the Super Bowl experience each day, I still had to do my day job of laying out a sports section and covering high school games.

I say all of this to point out that there is a lot of stuff that gets covered leading up to a Super Bowl. One could argue that there is information overload for the reporters covering the game who are working hard between all of the various social events and parties.

Even the pregame show on the day of the Super Bowl is “super-sized” to the point that the game can often be seen as an afterthought, or merely something to fill the time between the commercials and halftime show.

One thing that should not be relegated to the noise, or considered an afterthought, involves Kansas City’s use of Native American names, image and likeness.

In recent years, a slate of professional sports teams have changed names tied to Native Americans and Indigenous peoples. This includes an MLB team in Cleveland, a Canadian Football League team in Edmonton, and an NFL team in Washington, D.C.

After years of protests, efforts to force a name change in Washington D.C. bore fruit. Similar efforts in Kansas City have failed to gain the same level of results. Protestors are expected to continue their call for change outside the Super Bowl this weekend in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photo R. Anderson

While I think that Commanders is a lame name, it does impact my memories of supporting the team. It does however impact my willingness to buy new team merch. After all, what exactly are they commanding?

While I wish that they had picked a better name, I understand why the name was changed.

While earning my M.S. in Sport Management, I explored the subject of Native American mascots and iconography used by sports teams extensively. Team names like Braves, Chiefs, Indians, Eskimos, and Redskins have long been considered offensive to some indigenous people.

The origin of the team names in many cases were first set up in the early parts of the 20th Century as part of imperialist nostalgia, and the myth of the vanishing race. In both instances, the belief being that the best way to honor the nostalgia of the vanquished was to use names and imagery to remind people of them.

Of course, the problem with hanging one’s nickname hat on imperialist nostalgia, and the myth of the vanishing race, is that the Native American populations are very much still among us. They remain despite efforts throughout American history to wipe them out, or relegate them to out of sight, and out of mind reservations.

So, the use of a population as a mascot becomes problematic when one tries to adhere to the “all men (and women) are created equal” wording of the founding fathers.

Which brings us back full circle to this year’s Super Bowl.

Native American activists who have been urging the team to retire the name “Chiefs,” the arrowhead and the rest of an accumulated 60-plus years of cultural appropriation and stereotyping plan to protest the Chiefs ahead of the game in Phoenix, Arizona.

Although they use Native American iconography, the origin of the Kansas City name is a little different from some of the other sports teams who use Native American terms. The Chiefs were named after former Kansas City Mayor H. Roe “Chief” Bartle as a reward for his efforts to convince Lamar Hunt to move the Dallas Texans, to Kansas City in 1963.

Much like the Washington team before them, the Chiefs have aligned themselves with a group of Native Americans who do not find the name offensive, while mostly ignoring those who do. In defending their name and use of Native American iconography, the Chiefs have an entire website dedicated to all of the ways that they are including Native Americans in their game day festivities.

Of course, as the saga in Washington D.C. showed, Native American culture is not a monolith. Gaining buy-in from one group does not mean that every Native American agrees that the continued use of their imagery is not offensive.

It is likely that when the Chiefs take the field in their third Super Bowl in four years, the Kansas City fans in the stands, and around the globe will do the “tomahawk chop” and “war cry” whenever Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs do something good. There will likely even be some fans wearing headdresses and war paint at the game despite the Kansas City Chiefs barring that practice from their home stadium a few years back.

As was the case with me so many years ago, a majority of fans may be unaware that what they are doing is offensive to Native American groups. Such is the sneaky embrace of cultural appropriation.

The Atlanta Braves are among a dwindling number of professional sports teams that have shown little interest in changing their nickname and use of images and chants that some Native American groups find offensive.
Photo R. Anderson

Unless something changes, the Chiefs will continue to blaze an increasingly less crowded trail with the Atlanta Braves and Florida State Seminoles clinging on to their mascots and customs for the benefit of their fans, and the detriment of indigenous people who have suffered great injustice throughout the history of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America.

The purpose of this column is not to make people feel guilty for mistakes and actions taken in the past. The past is the past. As has been said many times, one most learn from the mistakes of history in order to ensure that they are not repeated in the future. Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

It is certainly a cause for celebration that there are two black quarterbacks taking the field in the Super Bowl this year. However, as the protests by Native Americans outside the stadium show, there is still a long way to go until all groups can enjoy the game and feel equally recognized.

As the NFL looks to expand their global footprint, it would be wise for them to look at how they treat Native Americans and other groups domestically before spreading their brand further on the international stage.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get ready to watch some commercials disguised as a football game.

Copyright 2023 R. Anderson

The State of the Union is…Divided: Presidential Address Shows That Much Work Remains to Forge a More Perfect Union

President Joe Biden has delivered three State of the Union (SOTU) addresses  during his presidency. The most recent address took place on February 7, 2023.

Unlike the previous two addresses where the Democratic party controlled both chambers of Congress, Biden’s most recent address took place before a Democratically controlled Senate, and a Republican led House of Representatives.

At times, the address looked like it had been hijacked by the British parliament with shouting from the gallery directed at Biden, and a fair amount of clap back from the president aimed at his hecklers.

Despite the uncharacteristic back and forth, for brief moments, the address offered a small glimmer of hope that two political parties might agree to actually pass legislation that helped form a more perfect union.

However, for the most part, the address followed the similar pattern of the party of the president agreeing with everything that was said, and the opposition party disagreeing with everything said out of principle during their opposing party rebuttal.

The United States Capitol, depicted here in Lego form, was the site of the State of the Union Address. The address often serves as a barometer for where things stand in the country. Based on the initial reaction, some might feel it would be easier to fix the crack in the Liberty Bell than to heal the divide tearing the nation apart.
Photo R. Anderson

As a classically trained journalist, I was taught to avoid discussing politics in most cases.

Instead, my journalism school professors taught us to report the facts and let our readers decide what position they wanted to take on an issue.

Relying on my trusty friends Who, What, When Where, Why and occasionally How, I have interviewed countless individuals and covered myriad events while always letting the facts tell the story.

Somewhere along the way, in the 20 or so years that have passed since those Journalism school lessons, the environment has certainly changed.

No, I am not talking about global warming, although that has certainly led to changes in the environment. Instead, I am referring to a rise in the inability to discuss issues without people retreating to their trenches on the far left and the far right.

In short, society has moved to the point where it is almost impossible to not talk about politics.

Everyone has an opinion now, and for the most part, they are not afraid to share it with whoever they come in contact with. There are many hot button issues that cause people to dig in ranging from immigration, to renewable energy, and of course the aforementioned global warming.

It is easy to blame social media for the rise in polarization of opinion. Although, a media landscape where people are only fed stories and ideas that coincide with their personal viewpoint is certainly not helping.

While news is getting more partisan on the national level, the rise in news deserts, where the guardrails of sound journalistic principles have given way to a wild, wild west news silo and echo chamber approach, is also contributing to fostering divisions among people.

A 2022 study by the Poynter Institute noted that a fourth of all  local newspapers in the United States have closed since 2005. Some estimates state that an average of two newspapers a day are silencing their presses for good.

Seventy million residents, or roughly 20 percent of the population of the United States, live in communities without easy and affordable access to local news and information that binds the American experiment in democracy at the grassroots level.

A 2022 study by the Poynter Institute noted that a fourth of all the local newspapers in the United States have closed since 2005. Some estimates state that an average of two newspapers a day are silencing their presses for good.
Photo R. Anderson

Of the 10 newspapers I have worked for during my journalism career, only two remain in operation.

The two surviving newspapers have enacted extreme cost cutting measures by relocating to smaller offices, reducing the number of days they print, reducing the width and number of pages of the printed paper, laying off the majority of their staff, and moving their printing operations to remote sites shared with other publications.

When the trusted source of local news is gone, misinformation fills the spot left behind. After all, nature abhors a vacuum.

As a journalist, I am sickened by the decline in the news profession.

As an American citizen, I am worried by what the loss of local trustworthy news means for the future.

So, how does a classically trained journalist navigate the politically charged waters of 2023 without alienating half of their readers?

As noted above, I still try to avoid writing about politics. However, as any long-term reader will recall, during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, I dedicated many columns to discussing the shear lunacy of the politicians and sports leagues who were denying the science of the COVID-19 virus for their own selfish gains.

Some politicians even went so far as encouraging their constituents to engage in “treatments” that were dangerous to their health and debunked by science, and in many cases common sense.

As the world slowly emerged from under the COVID-19 fog, I had hoped that the deep divisions along party lines were caused by the hysteria of dealing with a once in a century pandemic, and were not the new normal.

I even went so far as to suggest that society would emerge stronger and a “Coronaissance” that would leave society in a better place then it entered it would occur after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2023, I can sadly report that my predicted Coronaissance did not arrive. If anything, society is even more divided than it was in the before times.

Which, of course, brings me to trying to identify strategies and tactics to use when engaging in conversations about difficult and charged political and social topics.

One could argue that the simplest approach to trying to engage with people who have vastly different political ideals would be to channel the Captain from the movie “Cool Hand Luke” and just throw your hands in the air and say, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men, you just can’t reach.”

It is certainly true that some people will never be swayed, or “reached” to change their opinions no matter what the preponderance of evidence says.

Aside from being sampled by Guns N’ Roses in the song Civil War, the Captain’s speech in the film Cool Hand Luke about a failure to communicate was listed at Number 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most memorable movie lines. As a means of art imitating life, sometimes conversing with individuals entrenched in a certain belief can feel like a real-life failure to communicate.
Photo R. Anderson

Some people will always prefer to stick their heads in the sand ostrich style while enjoying some tasty horse dewormer.

As tempting as it might be to just channel your inner Captain, some people can indeed be reached in the moveable middle.

In my experience, when trying to have a constructive conversation it is always important to not attack someone’s beliefs directly.

Going in with the verbal barrage telling someone all the ways that their point of view is wrong will only cause them to build a wall and stop listening to anything you have to say.

This approach can be especially important when dealing with people whose go to plan for anything they don’t like is building a wall.

Instead, I will ask the person why they believe a certain way and inject opposing and truthful views while gently pointing out along the way that a Facebook post or meme should not be the basis of a life philosophy.

I also will usually point out that as a news junkie myself, I recommended that everyone get their news from multiple sources to avoid the news silo and echo chamber effect caused by only drawing from a single news well.

In a functioning democracy one should be able to have a spirited disagreement on policy issues without it leading to a need to storm a Capitol, or consider everyone who does not think exactly like they do to be the enemy.
Photo R. Anderson

I have also discovered that it can be good practice to point out that in a functioning democracy one should be able to have a spirited disagreement on policy issues without it leading to a need to storm a Capitol, or consider everyone who does not think exactly like they do to be the enemy.

As sound as those practices can be, to quote the late Kenny Rogers, one also must know when to hold them, know when to fold them and know when to walk away.

This can be walking away from a conversation to salvage a friendship, or it can also be to walk away from the person entirely if their views are just too extreme to discuss rationally.

It is never worth stooping to the level of someone who just will not see reason no matter how hard you try to present the truth.

The state of the union is definitely divided, and I miss those carefree days early in my career when politics was not so front and center in my writing. I would like to think that society will return from the brink and move back towards the middle.

Until then, one just must continue to try building a bridge across the expanse in an attempt to find common ground and hope that those who would want to tear the bridge down are silenced by the voices of those who want to keep it intact.

After all, at the end of the day, failure to communicate is not an option that anyone should accept.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have this sudden urge to watch “Cool Hand Luke” for some reason.

Copyright 2023 R. Anderson