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Why the media don't get Detroit--and why it matters : Columbia Journalism Review
"Coverage of declining cities is too often simplistic and lacking historical context"



"truggling cities are often found in the Rust Belt, far removed from national media concentrated along the coasts. Coverage tends to be sporadic, and centers on their most glaring failures. The narratives that emerge are of ghost towns and zombie subdivisions. These stories are compelling and based on real hardships. But they typically do little to explain how the cities got that way, let alone what’s possible in terms of reversing their fortunes.

In some larger cities such as Buffalo and Cleveland, meanwhile, the idea of renewal has begun to drive more of the media storyline. Such rosy analyses typically lack historical or geographical context, focusing on one neighborhood or one segment of the population at a time. Micro-developers may have bought up a handful of vacant homes, and new businesses may be sprouting in downtown areas. But such developments are happening amid a large, diverse metro area; their impact is easily overstated. They are not typically the indicators of wholesale resurrection that they become in a news story."



‘Population loss, poverty, isolation—all these things are happening simultaneously,’ says Stephen Henderson. ‘It’s really difficult to just pop in and grasp that complexity.’



"“Population loss, poverty, isolation—all these things are happening simultaneously,” said Stephen Henderson, editorial-page editor of the Detroit Free Press, whose columns on Detroit were awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Poverty is fundamentally different in shrinking cities like Detroit than it is in New York or Washington, he added. “It’s hard to understand how big the city is and how that wreaks havoc on economic opportunity, especially for poor people. It’s really difficult to just pop in and grasp that complexity.”

Recent coverage has showcased Detroit’s “booming bike industry” and a luxury watch company, among other vibrant, if relatively small, businesses. Motown was described as a “culinary oasis” and “the Bar City of the Year.” Such monolithic descriptions of Detroit are similar to reporters’ characterization of Brooklyn, where the artisanal doings in a handful of neighborhoods in a borough of 2.6 million people drive the media’s narrative. “When you go to Slows Bar BQ”—a popular spot in the Corktown neighborhood—“and then make Pollyanna statements about how Detroit is a food oasis, that’s almost as unhelpful as all those jokes for all those years,” said Michael Jackman, managing editor of the Detroit weekly Metro Times. “It’s like a pat on the head for being a plucky little city.”

The way stories spread online only accentuates this black-white treatment, as social media generally reward extremes. My own Guardian feature on Detroit, in which I profiled an urban planner grappling with whether to move elsewhere, was eventually titled, “The death of a great American city: Why does anybody live in Detroit?” I was proud of the piece’s depth; I was also proud that it garnered nearly 700 comments and 10,000 social shares. While that exposure wouldn’t have been possible without a sensational headline, I can’t say what readers took away—the headline or my reporting.

A similar example can be gleaned from the popular website Business Insider, where a straight-laced Associated Press story about United Airlines ending service to Atlantic City ran beneath a particularly loud headline: “Here’s Another Sign That Atlantic City Is Dying.” That line of thinking, which has dominated coverage of the New Jersey town this year, doesn’t sit well with Kris Worrell, executive editor of The Press of Atlantic City.

“As a breed, [journalists] have a healthy dose of skepticism,” she told me. “And certainly if government officials argued that a place or company or any institution were perfect and happy, we would question that. My issue is that we don’t apply that same level scrutiny to the opposite extreme, when something is painted in negative terms. We know, when we think about it, neither of those extremes is true.”

That goes for any place that faces decline, from Atlantic City to Detroit. The reason the latter hasn’t died is that countless people who love the city have fought like hell to save it. Their victories are real, but so are the massive challenges that remain. Understanding and respecting such contradictions is crucial for reporters who set out to explain what went wrong—as well as what’s going right."
detroit  cities  inequality  poverty  2015  daviduberti  annetrubek  complexity  stephenhenderson  atlanticcity  economics  rustbelt 
january 2015 by robertogreco

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