Views from Kansas: Conversations about respect

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Newspaper reporters and editors around the country woke up Friday and activated phones or iPads, scanning news sites and social media. It’s a daily ritual of searching for news they missed while they slept.

What likely stopped them cold, and maybe forced tears to form, was the New York Times photo of two Annapolis, Md., journalists standing alongside the bed of a pickup in a parking garage Thursday night. They were working on Friday’s paper.

Their newsroom was a crime scene. But there was a paper to put out.

The murders of five people inside The Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md., on Thursday put newspapers on the list of locations for mass shootings in America, 2017-18 version. Also on the list: high schools, an elementary school, a Waffle House, an office building, a bank, a nightclub and an open-air concert.

So newspapers are in that respect no different. We have learned mass shootings can happen anywhere that a person with mental health problems and access to guns and ammunition chooses.

But Thursday’s shooting also reminded us that journalists, much as we in the profession would not like to think about it, can be targets. The man charged with Thursday’s killings had previously filed a lawsuit — dismissed as baseless — against the paper for defamation.

Journalism can be a tough job to explain. Reporters have to be nosy to the point of being an irritant to the people they cover. Reporters write stories about injustices and inequalities one day, then write uplifting pieces about inspiring people the next.

And during all that, reporters have to be fair. Make no assumptions, base all reporting in fact. Thick skin, dogged determination. But in doing that, reporters create enemies to varying degrees.

Many of us have been threatened in some form, some to the point of notifying police. That’s where it normally stops, because the public usually knows our role is to report and inform — and sometimes it takes digging that makes others uncomfortable.

That digging, though, is where we seem to have become polarized as a nation. Honest, accurate reporting now is criticized at the highest levels of government. “Fake News” is spewed by those who choose to ignore facts and instead set off on their own belief system, hoping to rope in people who are uninformed and unengaged along the way.

President Trump’s tirades, labeling the news media as “the enemy of the American people” — when he knows the media is only his own enemy because it calls him on his endless number of lies and false characterizations — helps enrage his base. We don’t know if the newspaper shooter felt enabled by anti-media rants, but those rants themselves are at the very least corrosive to a free press guaranteed under the First Amendment.

America has not seen this level of polarization and disdain in some time, probably 50 years ago in what was the most turbulent year of the last half of the last century. Thursday’s shooting won’t be the point where everyone unites to talk about mental health and gun control. If 59 dead in Las Vegas and 17 dead at a Parkland, Fla., high school aren’t enough to get those conversations started, five newspaper employees won’t move the needle.

But can it at least be the starting point for a conversation about respect? Valuing a different opinion? Taking a civil tone? Respecting an opposing view shouldn’t come with vitriol. We’ve lost that as a nation, and every American can play a part in getting it back. One hello, one sentence, one conversation at a time.

— Originally published in The Wichita Eagle


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