Dear Local Media, Stop misreporting on community "concerns"

Nick Magrino, a Minneapolis resident and occasional writer about urban issues, posted an insightful (and humorous) piece on his blog recently about how easily neighborhood issues get overhyped. In “Residents Express Concerns Over News Reports Expressing Concerns of Residents,” he writes:

There's a pretty standard template for your generic development or bike story—

Residents express Concerns over Concerning proposal

1.  Something might happen, but there are Concerns
2.  Description of project
3.  Description of whatever land use applications or roadway changes are required, generally describing them badly
4.  Vague quote from someone with Concerns
5.  Boilerplate quote from city/transportation planner/local politician
6.  Close with a second vague quote from the guy with Concerns

What are the concerns? Traffic. Parking. Density. Height. Maybe a couple other things […]

People dislike change. And so six people in a neighborhood of 8,000 show up to a meeting and say "I do not want this" and it gets in the paper.

He makes a valid point. Many of us have had the experience of going to a community meeting, hoping to share our thoughts in a reasonable, logical manner, only to be shouted down by a few angry neighbors whose vocal prowess makes them the center of attention and seems to suggest support far beyond their small numbers. So when local newspapers make that small and irate crowd the focal point of their neighborhood stories, it only amplifies those voices further.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, the headline “Outraged Neighbors Protest New Bike Lanes” is much more attention-grabbing than “Many Neighbors Support New Bikes Lanes But Some Do Not.” But if our local news outlets hope to  more than clickbait, they should avoid sensationalism and consider how their reporting might impact the outcome of a municipal decision. If there's public perception that a new development is opposed, then like ducks in row, other neighbors who are on the fence will probably fall in line and vote against it too.

It’s important to think about framing. Magrino poses the question:

Is something being described in a way that leads a casual reader to think it's shady? "A project was approved despite the opposition of the neighborhood, which wanted a study of the impacts of the height of the project." Was it maybe...three people, one of whom lived in a different neighborhood, who claimed to want a shadow study that had already been done and was in fact in the staff report, and also we're talking about a five story building in the middle of a major American city experiencing a housing shortage? There are many ways to frame things.

Complaining about biased media is a tired practice these days (Magrino fully acknowledges this in his post too); there’s bias everywhere, every media outlet leans in one direction or another, blah blah blah... But at Strong Towns, we demand better. And our local news outlets should at least attempt a nonbiased angle when reporting about basic local decision-making and community meetings, instead of blowing a couple irritated neighbors’ opinions out of proportion.

The inverse is also true: there are times when resistance to change is not just coming from a few curmudgeons and may in fact deserve more coverage than it’s getting. Our series on an inner-city highway proposal in Shreveport, LA, for instance, was an attempt at doing just that.

So next time you’re at a neighborhood meeting and you read about it afterward in the local paper, consider whether the portrayal of the meeting seems accurate, and if it isn’t, write your own story on a blog or in a letter to the editor. And as a Strong Citizen, make a commitment to helping amplify the stories that need to be heard most.

(Top image from Wikimedia)

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