November 4, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

While the nation watches vote totals rolling in, don’t take your eyes off of other big unfolding news.

You can listen in live today to the Supreme Court hearing that could have far-reaching implications, not just for the rights of same-sex couples, but for religious institutions that want to be able to discriminate against others when religious beliefs are involved.

The case before the court today comes from Philadelphia, where the city stopped referring children who need foster care to Catholic Social Services after the city learned that CSS refused to place kids with same-sex couples. Up until the city learned about that practice, Catholic Social Services was — for decades — one of the city’s most reliable contract agencies.

USA Today provides a summary of what is at stake:

The dispute pits the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom against government bans on discrimination. When the court faced a similar case in 2018 involving a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, it issued a minor ruling that failed to resolve the question.

This time, the addition of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett gives the court’s conservatives a 6-3 majority, putting at risk a 30-year-old Supreme Court precedent that made it difficult for religious groups to avoid neutral laws that apply to everyone. Several justices are eager to overturn the precedent — written, ironically, in 1990 by conservative Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

It is possible that this could have much broader implications if the court’s ruling strays beyond the narrow confines of this case and addresses the issue of religious freedom versus discrimination more broadly.

NBC News explains:

Carlos Ball, a professor at Rutgers Law School and author of “The First Amendment and LGBT Equality: A Contentious History,” said the “potential impact is huge.”

“If the Supreme Court holds that religious organizations have a constitutional right to be exempted from anti-discrimination laws when they receive government money to conduct certain activities — such as placing foster care children with foster parents — that will significantly limit the impact and efficacy of civil rights laws,” Ball said. “It will essentially allow anyone who has a religious basis for discriminating to claim that they are constitutionally exempt from the application of civil rights laws.”

SCOTUSBlog does its usual fantastic job of guiding you through the case.

Once the votes are counted, how will we repair relationships — or will we try?

Somehow, sometime, America will have to find a way to be in conversation with itself without screaming and blaming and suspicion. The day after voting ended may be too soon, but today might be the right day to start talking about how willing we will be to move forward together.

I am going to point you toward new research that says about half of us simply are not willing to discuss hot-button issues with others. If there is a chance for disagreement on those hot-button issues, even fewer people are willing to take a chance on a discussion. Reuters talked with five supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden and five supporters of President Donald Trump and few said they could foresee wrecked relationships being repaired.

This Reuters story shows how this election has torn apart families and friendships and strained marriages. One son told his mother that she was no longer considering her his mother because she was voting for President Trump.

And the strain shows up in workplaces.

The Harvard Business Review points out that this morning, somewhere around 100 million Americans will show up to workplaces and that moment will, for most, be the first time they will interact with another person since last night. Some will certainly take their thoughts out on coworkers.

A group called The Dialogue Project talked with 5,000 people around the world about the difficulty of talking about contentious issues. The research showed Americans are not just divided on the candidates but also on so-called “third rail” issues:

…“third rail” issues include politics, race relations, and gun control. More than 70% of the 1,000 American respondents said it is hard for them to talk about those topics with people who may hold opposing views. Some 82% of Americans surveyed also said that people should be more respectful in civic conversations.

Yet 50% also said “not me” when asked if they’d be willing to invest more time in pursuing such engagement. Only 25% of survey respondents said they had willingly discussed hot-button issues with a person likely to have a different viewpoint.

Americans have their reasons for withdrawing from political discussion — from the old admonition that such conversations never solve anything to the disturbing reality that one American in six has reported being harassed online over a political opinion. As more people withdraw from discussion, the vacuum is filled by those with extreme views, and the doom loop gains momentum, with even more citizens bowing out of the conversation. The temptation to lash out on social media, often anonymously, only adds to the problem.

Here are seven recommendations, drawn from Dialogue Project research, that can help managers and leaders navigate the challenges of a protracted post-Election-Day conflict:

Do not remain silent — communicate. The election and its aftermath will be the elephant in the room. It will need to be addressed.

Acknowledge the difficulty. The most effective initiatives on civil discourse begin with an admission that these conversations may be difficult. Acknowledge that people feel passionately about these issues, and that it can sometimes be difficult to rein in that passion or for someone to hear contrasting views that they believe differ not only on policy but on core values.

Listen actively. Each person has a responsibility to be an active listener and respectful of others. It’s important to remind people to speak from their own experiences and not to speak for others or for an entire group.

Model desired behavior. Remember that in times of stress employees carefully watch the words and actions of leaders. Even the casual banter that often precedes in-person or virtual meetings will be scrutinized. Leaders finding themselves in passionate discussions should speak briefly, resist the desire to interrupt, share the conversation time equitably, and emphasize areas of common ground.

Show leadership through empathy. The day after the election, and likely, for some days after that, will be a time to showcase the softer skills of leadership. Empathize with the challenge we all may face to keep our cool as post-election conflict escalates to its climax.

Resist the temptation to be the office pundit. Social media and cable news have turned us all into amateur pundits. But holding forth at work with your own predictions and analysis, tempting as the daily drama may make it, will lead others to make inferences about you that may be unhelpful and raise, rather than lower, the political temperature. This may be difficult to avoid entirely if you are in a business that may be significantly affected by the outcome of the election or by the uncertainty itself. But it should be minimized by leaders at all levels.

Reiterate core values. Depending on how the situation plays out, and especially if there is any kind of civil unrest, it may also be helpful to reiterate company policies regarding harassment, bullying, and so on, and remind people of the importance of not allowing political differences to become disruptive or poison working relationships.

As a model for how we might speak to our colleagues, this post-2016 election message from Duke University President Richard Brodhead is worth your time.

How to talk with family and friends who hold conspiracy notions

In this May 14, 2020, photo, a person wears a vest supporting QAnon at a protest rally in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel talked with schools and researchers about how you might talk with people you know who have dived into conspiracy rabbit holes. The quick notes:

  1. Ask the person where they got their information.
  2. Create some common ground, maybe by pointing out that some conspiracies are real (Watergate, church scandals and so on). Then point out all of those were built on solid, demonstrable proof.
  3. Fact-checking alone won’t be enough. Asking questions is less intimidating than attacking the person’s “facts.”
  4. Don’t debate on Facebook or email or text messages. Experts say these kinds of conversations are best when they are in-person, where tone and facial expressions can mean so much.
  5. Mocking and scolding do not change minds.
  6. When dialogue has no chance of changing minds or increasing understanding, walk away.
  7. Approach every conversation with an open mind. What are YOU willing to learn as part of this conversation? How open are you to new truths or at least new insights about why your conspiracy-believing friend thinks as they do?

Tough classroom conversations will unfold starting today

It is one thing to settle differences with family members and coworkers. But educators, especially college educators, say the divisions they sense in their classrooms are palpable. Here is a guide that might help educators navigate the difficult conversations ahead. It is also an interesting story idea for journalists who want to take the temperature of college conversations in the days after the election.

El Paso gets a fourth mobile morgue

This May 7, 2020 photo shows an “El Paso Strong” mural painted in the wake of the Aug. 3, 2019 shooting. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

So many people in El Paso, Texas, have died in the last couple of weeks that they have rolled in a fourth refrigerated semi-trailer to store the bodies.  At last count, there was a backlog of 85 bodies that still needed to be examined to confirm the patients had died of COVID-19. The death count is still rising while hospitals and intensive care units in El Paso are packed.

This has been one heck of a year to be a postal worker

The New York Times Magazine produced a thoughtful and insightful look at the stress that postal workers have been under in 2020. Early in the pandemic, postal workers were delivering bulky packages of toilet paper and water. The virus that stopped lots of businesses didn’t stop mail delivery and also made it a lot more difficult for the USPS to get your mail delivered.

Then came the avalanche of mail-in ballots that has forced mail workers to pull shifts up to 16 hours and seven days a week while getting badmouthed by politicians who say the postal service loses ballots or by voters who suspect the post office will trash their ballots. And all of this ends just before what the post office used to think of as the busy season.

COVID-19 cases are up — and so are airline bookings

We may be seeing pandemic fatigue setting in as people are booking more airline flights even while COVID-19 cases are rising. Southwest, Alaska Air, American and JetBlue all say they are seeing rising interest in holiday season travel, although some of that may be students going home from college.

Is there any connection between rising murder rates and COVID-19?

If there is unrest in the post-election days it will come as one more element in a year of troubling increases in murder rates in many parts of the country. The Council on Criminal Justice says homicides increased an average of 53% across 20 major American cities during the summer. The New York Times put it this way:

Major cities from Minneapolis to Milwaukee to New York, and even smaller communities like Lubbock, Texas, and Lexington, Ky., are all confronting the same grim pattern, with some places, like Kansas City, Mo., and Indianapolis, setting records for the number of killings in a single year. Philadelphia, which was gripped by unrest this week after the police shooting of a Black man, is among the cities with the highest increase in homicides — its 404 killings this year are a more than 40 percent increase compared with the same period last year.

Criminologists studying the rise in the murder rate point to the effects the pandemic has had on everything from mental health to policing in a time of social distancing, with fewer officers able to perform the up-close-and-personal community outreach work that in normal times has helped mitigate violence. Experts also attribute the rise to increased gang violence and a spike in gun ownership, including among many first-time gun owners.

President Trump blamed much of the violence on Democratic mayors but murder rates in Republican-led cities — including Lubbock, Texas; Lexington, Kentucky; and Miami, Florida — are all up sharply in 2020, too.

Are dining bubbles safe?

In this Oct. 22, 2020 photo, Aviva Markowitz, left, and Rivka Alter enjoy a drink in a protective bubble at the Lazy Bean Cafe in Teaneck, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Restaurants have started using “dining bubbles,” which are essentially plastic tents over outdoor tables. Are they effective in limiting the transmission of the coronavirus?

Like most of life’s questions, the answer is “it all depends.” It depends on how well ventilated they are and whether you are closed in a bubble with somebody who has the virus. Experts say you should think of the virus like you would think of smoke. If the dining bubble is all sealed up, the people inside it might be exposed to the virus for a lot longer than if they were dining in open air. But being sealed off also limits how many others they are exposed to. 

And in some places where restaurants spent money on dining igloos, health officials told them to hit the brakes over concerns about ventilation.

Newsroom election night food

From our friends in Dallas:


Speaking for field reporters everywhere, there is not much that irritates reporters and photographers more than getting the memo that there is “hot food” in the newsroom but that nobody sent it out to the crews … or that it is all gone by the time the shift ends.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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