Why we need a community forum

by Brian J. Allfrey

I am not sure what I expected our country to look like in 2021, but I certainly did not expect it to be so fractured and so bogged down in hate. My oldest son was a year old on Sept. 11, 2001. The wave of patriotism following that day gave me hope for the America that my kids would inherit.

Fast forward 20 years, and that hope has been overtaken by fear. Fear that our country has become so polarized on every issue that it may not survive.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Never in America’s history has this quote been truer. In 2021, America is divided on a multitude of issues, and most of our society is determined to expand that divide rather than close the gap. These concerns are a driving force behind the theme of National Newspaper Week — the community forum, newspapers as the foundation of our communities. Let me explain the problem and then offer a solution.

We are polarized on every issue because of the information that we consume every day.

The question for all of us is, how did we get here, and how we evolve.

The 1980s gave birth to the 24-hour news networks. These “news” networks have become entertainment TV programming with multiple networks now fighting for viewers, ratings, and advertising dollars. They each appeal to a subset of viewers with a distinct political leaning. Their programming has little reporting of the actual news, focused mostly on commentary, feeding their viewers what they want to see and hear. These networks have become 100% entertainment losing all their journalistic integrity.

The 2000s saw the advent of social media networks, heralded as a breakthrough in human interaction and communication. Unfortunately, it is being used to further the divide of the American public. Social networks work on algorithms designed to show you things in which you are interested, which explains why they are so entertaining and addicting. However, many entities are exploiting these platforms to divide us.

Social media has moved beyond connecting people to the single most polarizing platform in this country. The very nature of social media is to connect people with shared interests, which, on the surface, seems great. However, it connects people with like interests regardless of whether those interests are positive or negative. Social media platforms become an echo chamber of people sharing the same beliefs and same fears, regardless of what those are.

We need to get back to being civil with one another, treating each other with dignity. Differences of opinion are not bad. There can be truth on both sides of an argument. Issues are very rarely black and white but usually in the grey area between. We need to understand that both sides of an argument can be correct and stop hating and bullying those who disagree with us.

The first step is in our own mind. We must look at the media and propaganda we are consuming and regulate our media intake. We must turn away from the ideological echo chamber of “news” entertainment and social media around us.

We need a new community forum for news, entertainment and connection with our community. Every night, Walter Cronkite told you what had happened that day. He did not give you his opinion, he gave you facts. We need the facts about what is going on in our community, and we can only get that in our local newspaper. Newspapers are embedded in the community. Local news has a much bigger impact in your day-to-day life than national/regional news. City council, zoning, school board and local elections all have profound effect on our daily life. Engaging with our local newspaper makes our community better. Attend town halls and community events. Help hold our local elected officials accountable.

Local newspapers are the original community forum, disseminating essential information, holding government accountable and engaging the community in civil discourse.

We can ignite a wave of change, but we must start local. Our government and leaders reflect our values. If we want them to change, we must change. Be part of the community forum. Support local journalism — engage in activities that build up your communities.

Brian J. Allfrey serves as executive director of the Utah Press Association/New York Press Service. He has over 20 years in the newspaper industry.