I recently crossed paths with a younger fellow dog walker on the San Antonio River, and after our dogs made friends we humans fell into a casual conversation about life in the pandemic. I was wearing a mask; he was not. After a few minutes, I asked how he felt about the emergency order mandating mask use in businesses and outside where social distancing is not possible.

“I didn’t know there was an order,” he replied. This from an intelligent young man who, I learned, has a good job and resides in one of the recently built apartment complexes located near the Blue Star Art Complex.

Really? I asked how he gets his local news. “Mostly from friends,” he said, citing the usual social media platforms.

I handed him a business card, hoping to recruit a new reader, sensing, however, that he belongs to a generation of people disconnected from community beyond their own narrow social circles.

This disconnected population poses a serious challenge to democracy on the local level. People who do not follow current events probably do not vote, either. As daily newspapers shrink in size and reach in major cities, and disappear altogether in smaller cities and towns, there are fewer trained journalists reporting on local government, businesses, schools, neighborhoods, and the many topics of importance and interest. A growing number of people rely instead on unverified, often misleading information flowing through social media channels and countless websites. That’s how, for example, otherwise educated people come to believe vaccines cause autism.

San Antonio’s rising number of people testing positive for the coronavirus and this month’s worrisome increase in fatalities is due in no small part, I believe, to the refusal of so many people to accept the importance of wearing facial masks in public and practicing strict social distancing. There are plenty of unqualified sources telling them to ignore such calls, asserting that the science is questionable, or not to worry, one can contract COVID-19 without serious consequences.

Every evening that Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff brief the media and the public on the current state of the spread of the coronavirus in the community, they plead with members of the public to wear facial masks, wash hands frequently, shelter at home, and practice social distancing when not at home. They implore citizens to think about others in society, particularly the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions.

Go anywhere in the metro area and it’s clear many people are not listening to the mayor and county judge. Youth sports teams are playing league games, friends are gathering in groups of more than 10, people are socializing and exercising in close proximity to others along the river and in many other popular gathering spots without protection.

It’s clear that Nirenberg and Wolff, despite months of effort, are simply not reaching a significant percentage of the local population. It’s probably true that some of the people they do reach simply ignore their pleas and the potential consequences of their behavior. It’s as if a virus they cannot see cannot exist.

It’s impossible to exercise outdoors where I live, near the river south of downtown, without coming within a foot or two of people bathed in perspiration and breathing heavily while jogging, cycling, or simply walking along the 6-foot-wide river path. Each person is broadcasting an invisible cloud into the surrounding air. Last week I counted 119 people while walking our pet dog from my home to the Blue Star, a 1-mile stretch. One person besides myself wore a mask. One.

Read the Centers for Disease Control guidelines and ask yourself if you are acting responsibly.

From my vantage point, the underlying issue here will still be with us when the curve flattens and we move past the worst days of the pandemic. An uninformed, disengaged citizenry is threat to a democratic society.

To delve more deeply into this trend, download a copy of Ghosting the News, longtime newspaper editor and journalist Margaret Sullivan’s newly published account of the demise of daily newspapers, starting with the Buffalo News, where she served for many years as the top editor. It was once the biggest and most important upstate daily in New York. Like most metro newsrooms, it is now a hollowed-out shell.

Sullivan notes how much attention is paid these days to “fake news,” a serious problem as state actors and political extremists use social media platforms and websites to distort the truth, engage in character assassination, discourage citizen discourse, and otherwise interfere with the efforts of legitimate news sources to inform and engage the public.

Turning from the topic of fake news, Sullivan writes, “Another crisis is happening more quietly. Some of the most trusted sources of news – local sources, particularly local newspapers – are slipping away, never to return. The cost to democracy is great. It takes a toll on civic engagement – even of citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts, the very basis of self-governance.”

Hundreds of former print journalists are now working at local nonprofit sites like the Rivard Report, addressing the growing news vacuum that exists in virtually every community. The challenge, even for digital sites where access is free, is to convince people that it is worth their while to read.

Help sustain our public service journalism. Share our stories with friends and co-workers, especially those you suspect are disconnected. Remind them of the important November elections. Support our nonprofit newsroom in this critical time. Please click here to become a member. Thank you for your readership. It really matters.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.