Another Town, Another School: Mass Shooting Pandemic Continues to Infect America

Yesterday another mass shooting occurred at an elementary school in America.

If the above sentence sounds devoid of emotion, it could be because at this point what more emotion is there to give at the constant and senseless acts of mass violence committed by individuals and their guns targeted at innocent people just trying to learn, or as was the case a couple of weeks ago in Buffalo, NY, just trying to get groceries?

In fact, when the first alerts started popping up on my phone, I shrugged it off as just the typical end of school year in America news. It wasn’t until the death toll numbers started to rise that I started to pay more attention.

As a journalist, I am trained to keep my emotions out of a story and just capture the facts. I like to think that is why I did not feel enraged when the first stories about the shooting started coming across my phone. In realty though, I did feel an emotion. I felt numb after realizing I don’t have any more rage to give with all of this senseless death and inaction by politicians at the local and national level to do anything about the pandemic of gun violence that shows no sign of stopping.

Within a single fourth grade classroom at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, 19 children and two teachers were killed.
Photo R. Anderson

Within a single fourth grade classroom at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, 19 children and two teachers were killed.

The fact that they were fourth graders hits a little close to home.

Back in my twenties and early thirties when my mom was working as a fourth-grade teacher, I would often visit her classroom.

Some years I volunteered as a weekly math instructor, and other times I just gave them a career day style speech about what it was like to be a journalist.

Thinking back now on how full of life and curiosity those kids were makes it extra difficult to picture the victims of the latest shooting were killed before their lives really had a chance to take off.

Some of the victims were even murdered on the same day as the end of school awards ceremony, which should have been a day of happiness and celebration. Instead, it was a day of death and destruction.

Even those who survived will carry scars for the rest of their lives. All of the students and staff of Robb Elementary School, along with their families and the larger community are victims. Some were just lucky enough to be called survivors.

Shortly after the shooting, and before many of the bodies had even been identified through DNA evidence based on what happens when an assault rifle tears through the body of 10-year-old child, a Texas politician, who I refuse to name, stayed “on brand” when he said that the solution to ending gun violence was to arm more citizens.

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.

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

In Texas they seem to go by a belief that one is just endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit and possession of as many firearms as possible.

By eliminating the pesky paperwork and allowing open Constitutional Carry, Texas lawmakers made it easier to wear a gun outside one’s pants for all the honest world to feel as the song goes.

Before I continue, let me get this statement out of the way, lest people stop reading. I am not saying to ban all guns. I am not saying the Second Amendment should be struck from the United States Constitution.

What I am saying is, who in their right mind would think that average citizens need to own assault weapons that were designed to inflict mass carnage on a battlefield in times of war?

Think of the types of guns that were around when the founding fathers wrote the Second Amendment, and then ask yourself whether those same men would have guaranteed such a wide-ranging freedom of gun ownership, without specific caveats related to high powered weapons, if assault rifles had been around at the time of the writing of the Constitution.

There is a big difference between saying someone has the right to own a single shot musket versus saying they have the right to own a high-powered assault rifle with a large capacity magazine.

This weekend while many families of the victims of the Uvalde shooting are burying their children in tiny coffins, five hours away in Houston, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem are among the many politicians scheduled to address the attendees at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual meeting that kicks off 72 hours after the Robb Elementary School shooting.

To his credit, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has decided not to attend the meeting due to an “unexpected change” in his schedule. Additionally, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Houston) has opted out citing travel to Ukraine as his reason for missing the event.

One can only hope that others encounter similar unexpected schedule changes between now and the start of the conference. It is easy to say you can’t attend because you are out of the country. It is far braver to tell the NRA that you are choosing not to attend out of principle versus travel plans.

The tight knit attached at the hip holster relationship between some politicians and the gun lobbies demonstrates why it is so hard to enact common sense gun reform in America.  After every mass shooting, people call out for their elected leaders to do something about the uniquely American issue of gun violence.

Yet, instead of making lasting reform, politicians will send out thoughts and prayers and try to paint the shooter as either a lone wolf who had racist ideals, or a lone wolf who had mental health struggles.

Speaking of the mental health excuse, in a turn of phrase more suited to a 19th Century Charles Dickens novel than a 21st Century press conference following a mass shooting at an elementary school, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said earlier today that the fault in the shooting was not that of a system that allowed an 18-year-old person to buy an assault rifle and over 350 rounds of ammunition.

Instead, Abbott said that the fault fell on the community of Uvalde for not having the mental health hospital bed capacity to lock away people suffering from mental illness. Abbott definitely stayed on the guns don’t kill people branding.

To paraphrase a line from A Christmas Carol, Abbott seems to be channeling his inner Ebenezer Scrooge by saying that those with mental illness had best be locked away to decrease the surplus population of mass shootings. Pointing out all of the flaws in that stance is definitely a column for another day.

The problem with the labeling every mass shooter as a lone wolf approach is that once you start counting all of the lone wolves, they start to form a pack and bring light to a larger issue that cannot be so easily swept away by saying it was merely a single shooter.

Again, I am not saying that people do not have a right to bare arms. But seriously, what purpose does an AR-15, or other assault rifle have other than to deliver as many bullets as possible in the shortest amount of time?

Early in my journalism career, I had the opportunity to interview a man who traveled the country teaching high school students how to survive an active shooter attack at their school. Promoting a common-sense approach may have worked 20 years ago, but I have to question whether that approach nowadays is the equivalent of telling students to hide under a desk during nuclear fallout.
Photo R. Anderson

Early in my journalism career, I had the opportunity to interview a man who traveled the country teaching high school students how to survive an active shooter attack at their school.

School shootings were relatively rare when I wrote that article. In the years since, there have been countless school shootings and lives lost inside classrooms across the country. School active shooting drills have gone from a novelty item to a part of daily life for school children of all ages.

The program was sponsored in part by a funeral home. Let that sink in for a moment. A funeral home where victims of a school shooting would end up sponsored a program trying to let students know how to survive an active shooter.

However, as many active shooter cases have shown through the years, no amount of training or preparation can stop someone in body armor from barricading themselves in a classroom and shooting innocent children and teachers at will.

I am forever grateful that when I was in school my greatest fear was whether I would get to the bus stop in time, and not whether or not some lunatic was going to burst through the door and kill me and my classmates.
Photo R. Anderson

I am forever grateful that when I was in school my greatest fear was whether I would get to the bus stop on time, and not whether or not some lunatic was going to burst through the door and kill me and my classmates.

We should not continue to accept a narrative that we are a society where going to school and going to get groceries means that we could be used for target practice.

We should also not try to quickly say that every shooter was just a lone wolf who fell through the cracks of the mental health care system, or a racist with unique ideas, and therefore there is nothing to see here kids.

Of course, if history is any indication, after the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting are buried this weekend, and the NRA convention wraps up in Houston, it will be business as usual with thoughts and prayers for all, and guns available for purchase as far as the eye can see.

And, if Governor Abbott has his way a new mental health hospital will break ground in Uvalde.

Enough is enough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, 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 2022 R. Anderson

Providers of the “First Rough Draft of History” Facing Extinction in Many Communities

Former Washington Post publisher Phil Graham said newspapers provide “the first rough draft of history.”

When major events occur, journalists are among the first on the scene providing eyewitness accounts. The 2022 war in Ukraine provides a haunting example of the benefit journalists provide by reporting facts as history unfolds. Through written stories, photos, audio accounts, and videos, journalists are capturing the horrors of what war looks like, while broadcasting it for the world to see in real time.

The practice of American journalists reporting from a war became common place during the American Civil War. Pictures from the battlefield along with eyewitness accounts were front and center in many 19th century newspapers. The access of journalists to the battlefields allowed readers to witness the true scope of war.

The trend of embedded reporters on the front lines continued through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and countless other conflicts. As the technology journalists used in the field changed, so did the type of information they captured and the speed in which they delivered it.

While the wars mentioned above were already in the rear-view mirror by the time I was born, I can still vividly remember the “Boys of Baghdad,” Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman broadcasting live on CNN when the first missiles of Operation Desert Storm were fired. For the first time, Americans were seeing live video in the middle of a war zone.

I still vividly remember the “Boys of Baghdad,” Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman broadcasting live on CNN when the first missiles of Operation Desert Storm were fired. That broadcast was a shot across the bow for what wartime journalism could be and was just as important to the field as the first-time photographers went to the battlefields of the U/S/ Civil War.
Photo R. Anderson

While I always enjoyed writing, I caught the journalism bug in seventh grade. As an aspiring journalist in middle and high school, I listened to historic broadcasts from Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather and others as they explained what they were witnessing on various battlefields. I hung on every word from those broadcasts and transcripts and thought how great it was that reporters were willing to risk their lives in order to cover a story.

Those reports from Baghdad, as well as the reports the preceded it, and the ones that have followed in the years since, show the value journalists provide in times of war. Journalist also play a vital role in times of peace. Unfortunately, in many communities, journalists work to remain the ones writing that first draft of history, despite growing cracks in the Teflon armor worn by the fourth estate.

Journalists are facing increasing attacks from fomented bases of uninformed people calling anything that does not fit their narrow world view to be “fake news” reported by “enemies of the people.”

Some of this ire from the public can be traced back to the words of a single man throwing red trucker hats into a crowd with the zeal of a trainer throwing raw chicken into a pool of alligators just to watch the chaos as the reptiles fight each other for every scrap of meat. Another source of the growing disconnect between journalists and the public can be traced to the rise of news deserts in communities across the country.

The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina defines a news desert as, “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

Although the journalistic standard of freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, a lack of freedom from debt is crushing many newspapers. Revenue from advertising and subscribers form the lifeblood of many local newspapers. Increased competition from social media and other digital sources shrinks that revenue stream as people find news for free from sources other than the local newspaper.

When I was growing up my dream journalism job was to be on the space beat for Florida Today and work out of their press site at KSC. In 2015, the building that I had wanted to work at for so long no longer bore the newspaper’s name.
Photo R. Anderson

As the resources needed to sustain a thriving newspaper dry up, a news desert is formed. In a news desert, communities are forced to rely on less credible news sources such as social media posts from anonymous sources, or worse still, foreign actors trying to sow division.

This is not to say that all social media is bad, or that all local newspapers are 100 percent fair and balanced. However, when all someone consumes is information from social media, the recipe for a rise in misinformation and partisan division is formed.

The continued reduction of credible news would not only impact the journalists who would lose their jobs. The loss of credible news sources would have lasting impacts on the people who rely on newspapers as a means to gain a better understanding of their place in the world.

Having covered many school board and city council meetings in my day, the thought of having those meetings take place without a journalist in the room where it happened to bring government activity to light is a very troubling thought. Democratic participation suffers without credible news outlets within communities.

As a practicing journalist with over 30 years of experience, the subject of news deserts is something I follow with growing concern. Of the 10 newspapers I have worked for, 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.

According to some published reports, the number of newsroom employees declined 51 percent between 2008 and 2019, going from around 71,000 newsroom staff to 35,000. Additionally, 1,800 communities have become news deserts during that time frame.

I remain confident journalism as a profession will remain in some form even if all of the newspapers in the world cease operating. However, the rapid rate of newspaper closings is a troubling trend that must be addressed.

If local journalism fails, the news landscape will likely become even more elite and globally focused. The issues of local concern will fester in the darkness. The haves, like the Washington Post and New York Times will continue to thrive and attract a highly engaged and educated readership. The have nots, will watch their news sources continue to whither and ultimately die.

With fewer newspapers covering communities, citizens will be forced to rely on less reputable news sources on social media. If that happens, the tide of misinformation will turn into a tsunami flooding the space where facts once stood. Claiming as some do, that deeply partisan news is better than no news, is a dangerous path to take. That line of thinking will only lead to further divisions along political and socioeconomical lines as people only read and listen to items they agree with.

The old saying of you get what you pay for rings true, if people decide to pay nothing for local news, then they should be prepared for a scenario where local news ceases to exist. If that happens, there is one less guard speaking truth to power and informing the public of the comings and goings within their communities. Worse still, no one will be around to capture history’s first rough draft.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it is time reread some of my Edward R. Murrow books. And to all of the journalists out there battling against the tide of news deserts, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, “good night and good luck.”

Editor’s Note: A state by state breakdown of news deserts and other local journalism facts being tracked by the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media is located at https://www.usnewsdeserts.com/

Copyright 2022 R. Anderson