(CNN) – Florida has earned a reputation for being home to some colorful characters — most notably the “Florida man.”
He isn’t actually a single person but rather a trope of all the Florida men who’ve made headlines for doing something … unusual.
And he’s now starring in the latest internet fad: the “Florida man” challenge, in which you Google “Florida man” and your birthday to see what crazy news story from the state pops up.
But what is it about the Sunshine State that generates so many nutty stories?
There are several theories:
- Florida’s strong public records laws, which let journalists easily report on wild crime stories
- The state’s large and varied demographic. which is conducive to some strange occurrences
- The weather, which some say could play a part
But beneath it all, there’s sometimes a deeper element at play in many of these “Florida man” stories — one, that’s no laughing matter.
Easy access to public records
Thanks to Florida’s strong public records laws — also known as Sunshine Laws — it’s easy for journalists to get their hands on police incident reports and churn out attention-grabbing stories.
“Florida has got one of the broadest public records laws in the country,” says Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation.
You can access basic crime information almost in real time, Petersen added.
“As soon as that incident report is filed (by law enforcement), we can go and make a public record request and get it.”
A huge, diverse population
The wacky headlines also might have to do with a huge, diverse population interacting under sometimes suffocating humidity.
“People don’t recognize how huge Florida is. The number of people per square mile is highly compacted,” says Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, in St. Petersburg, Florida. “When you put more people in a place, you’re going to end up with more crazy stuff.”
Florida’s population stands at more than 21 million people. On top of that, the state had more than 126 million visitors in 2018. And while it’s a big state, most people are concentrated along the coastline or near the big theme parks, said Florida journalist Craig Pittman, who wrote a book on Florida’s quirks.
The sunny weather
To top it off, it’s hot and sunny year-round, so people are always out and about.
“Eventually, they’re going to end up chasing each other around with machetes and arguing (about) whose dog pooped on whose lawn,” Pittman said.
The real tragedy behind many of the stories
While the internet challenge may be fun, there may be more to the story.
“It’s OK to laugh at the funny stuff that happens here, but bear in mind the flip side, too,” Pittman said. “Not every ‘Florida man’ story is laugh-out-loud funny. Some of them have real tragedy behind them.”
When he did the challenge, Pittman said, all the stories that popped up “were sad, really.”
While not applicable in all cases, mental health problems often played a role, Tompkins said. Mental health is a huge issue in Florida, which ranks at the bottom of all states for mental health funding, according to the Florida Policy Institute.
“When the work of journalists basically pokes fun at crime and activities that no reasonable person would be involved in, it’s on us to get beyond the snicker and laugh and sneer and look at if there’s a bigger issue,” Tompkins said.
“It would be wrong to think that Florida has some crazy crime rate — our violent crime rate is actually dropping,” he said. “What is very high, however, is the epidemic of mental health.”