As I walked home from work yesterday I passed a camera crew for a local news station. Another station was perched in the same spot on Monday. What possible footage are they hoping from at an elementary school?
A child allegedly brought a knife and a BB gun to that school recently after the student had endured bullying. A school that was entirely ignored before this was suddenly placed in the spotlight. The treatment of this story was predictable: focus on the individual and ignore any real discussion of why someone might find the need to protect himself in an environment where children should expect to feel safe.
All of the recent headlines from the Hartford Courant have equal negative weight. The stories are about robberies, murders, and the demolition of a building. Not a single story contains any depth. Instead of investigating the root of any of these issues, the media provide a shallow overview that leaves the readers and viewers with the same conclusions: Hartford is violent and blighted.
The media — mainstream and so-called alternative — are obsessed with destruction. More and more I turn to sources like The Hartford News because, despite having blowhard columnists, they at least cover the spectrum of experience in the city. In this week’s edition of that paper, the photo above the fold is colorful. The purple and white is attention grabbing. As I read the caption, I learn that the photograph was of a procession that “drew thousands of Peruvians.” Below the fold is a smaller photo from the same event; this one features a radiant woman holding an enormous array of flowers. Though this event may not remotely reflect my own culture, it intrigues me. From the way it was portrayed this was a positive event that impacted thousands of people. This was in the middle of blurbs about a Vintage Base Ball fundraiser, a community spelling bee, a harvest celebration, a rally for Republican candidates, a reminder about the Hooker Day Parade, a discussion on domestic violence, and a profile of a third party candidate for U.S. Representative. The most negative story in this set — one related to domestic violence — avoids the bad news trap by being for a community discussion on the topic. What do all of these events have in common? They encourage civic and community participation. They represent the diversity of experience.
Contrast this with the other way that Hartford continues to be portrayed: violent and blighted. The message: the only solution is to knock it down, both literally and figuratively.
Here is what I am asking for: depth. There have been gleeful announcements about the demolition of the H.B. Davis building, slated to begin at four this afternoon. (That the media call this building by a puerile name and still insist on call themselves professionals is a bit amazing.) Nowhere in the announcements do we read or hear anything intelligent. The closest we come to this is when the Hartford Courant writes:
But this symbolic act must be followed by a more substantive one, of planning the redevelopment of the near North End, which was isolated by the hugely unfortunate placement of I-84 through the heart of downtown.
However, note the passive sentence construction. “Unfortunate placement of I-84? makes it sound as if the highway fell out of the sky and happened to land here, which could not be further from the truth. Although the location of the highway might appear random, it was very much designed intentionally. There is never any real discussion in the mainstream local media about how these “modern conveniences” have harmed urban centers, except perhaps, in Tom Condon’s weekly column. Miss that, and you miss it all. But this recent editorial, even if it acknowledges that the building was functional at one time and that there are other blighted buildings to be dealt with, misses two other points. The isolation the H.B. Davis building experienced was not due to the highway alone. One need not even see it in person to know this; look at the aerial view on an online map. It is surrounded by parking lots. Secondly, the whole issue of how this building was allowed to fall apart in plain sight is never addressed. Here is what I want: depth. Instead of faking objectivity, talk to experts about what automobile dependency has done and continues to do to our culture. Don’t worry about alienating your sponsors. Show some journalistic integrity and report on the truth for a change. This was not a case of “oops, the building was neglected and became an eyesore.” As isolated as the structure was from everything else, it is hardly an isolated example. It is but one example along a theme. After delving into that issue, consider that of blight. Why did it take so long for the City of Hartford to intervene? Why is there no way to truly expedite the process of purchasing blighted properties before they reach the stage where demolition is suddenly the only option? Research the number of blighted properties in Hartford and how nothing positive ever seems to happen with them. The research is already completed, just ask around. Figure out why absentee landlords are permitted to continue purchasing new properties when they cease to properly manage their existing ones. Just like the kid with the weapons he never used, the H.B. Davis building is a symptom, not the story.
But that’s not all I want. When stories that do show the diversity of human experience (i.e. stories that do not feature someone getting robbed, murdered, raped, or arrested) do manage to get press, don’t hide them. Online, one has to typically scroll way down, look at a “lifestyle” page, or read items submitted by readers to get these kinds of stories. It’s not a matter of ceasing to report on the bad news or burying those stories; it’s a matter of reporting news more realistically, more acurately. Last weekend I saw what looked like two dozen people, including youth, cleaning up a corner of Pope Park. If I read about that at all, I am sure it will be in a weekly publication with an extremely limited budget. We should be able to learn of a peaceful religious event that touched thousands of people just as easily as we can learn about one person being robbed. Failing to provide realistic and thoughtful news distorts the truth and misleads readers.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.