It’s All Journalism: Political polarization and the massacre that wasn’t

When Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford wanted to take a closer look at political polarization and how that can change relationships within a community, they happened across the perfect place to collect stories.

They started interviewing people in Bowling Green, Kentucky, home of the infamous — and non-existent – Bowling Green Massacre.

“I think, like a lot of us, with all this rhetoric about being a divided country, people are polarized as far as what media they’re getting, and we wanted to see what that means,” said Wenzel, an assistant professor at Temple University and fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “I wanted to try and find a case study and talk to people and see whether there are any shared spaces left” in which people who self-identify as Republican or Democrat were still gathering together.

Ford has spent most of his career in rural journalism and had just started working with Wenzel when Kellyanne Conway used the fictional Bowling Green Massacre as historic justification for the Trump administration’s first attempt at a travel ban targeting majority Islamic countries. Bowling Green, it turns out, is Ford’s hometown.

“Residents had some fun with it,” Ford said. The day after the assertion was made, “there was a vigil for truth and human rights. There was a mixed set of reasons why people were responding but they were fairly unified in making fun of the administration. For some, it was mocking the media. For some, it was a lighthearted poke of fun for what they saw as a misstatement, for others it was taking a dig at the administration.”

The area surrounding Bowling Green, which is a college town, voted largely for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Wenzel and Ford wanted to understand how political polarization – if it exists – reached beyond the dining room table to change the way people interacted with each other, Wenzel said. They invited participants first to a focus group and then to keep news diaries, tracking not only which articles they read but how they discussed those articles with others, their social media habits and their thoughts on the issues raised.

The results were interesting and somewhat sobering.

“People had stories of having a falling out with people close to them in their lives, boyfriends and girlfriends breaking up, hearing people say they were going to change churches or not talking to various relatives,” Wenzel said. “The situation was something where people felt it in their lives very close to home, but at the same time, people were sharing community spaces.” They would bump into people from differing political views around town and while shopping but wouldn’t necessarily discuss the political matters of the day.

Andrea Wenzel, an assistant professor at Temple University, and Sam Ford, media executive and consultant, join producer Michael O’Connell to discuss their research on political polarization following the 2016 election, as published by the Tow Center in August as “Lessons on overcoming polarization from Bowling Green and Ohio County, Kentucky.”