Today, I take to my keyboard to make a brief but important gripe. I’m here to lament the way in which local media so often frames narratives, and how that framing can, intentionally or unintentionally, become a force that sets the battle lines within debates without giving the consumers of the media a thorough understanding of a situation. It is a pervasive issue, and hardly limited to local media, though at least at this level I have some hope that something can be done about it.
My prompt for this gripe is the Duluth News Tribune’s coverage of some of the changes in store for Canal Park in Duluth, which emerged from the Imagine Canal Park process. Imagine Canal Park is a Knight Foundation grant-funded effort to engage the public and install some creative new features in the Duluth neighborhood that so many residents abandon to the tourists, particularly in summer months. (In the interest of full disclosure, my boss played a key role in launching Imagine Canal Park, though I will add that my own reaction upon learning of the process was a bit of a sigh and a few questions as to why we can’t put this type of effort into neighborhoods that are more oriented toward Duluth residents. That’s a debate for another time, though.)
The DNT, however, took the innovations planned for Canal Park and turned them into a story about…traffic congestion. The required sacrifices were made before the altar of the Parking God, which must be appeased anytime anyone anywhere ever suggests any changes that might make someone park 20 feet further away or drive around the block again in search of a spot. The lede could have been the heaps of people the city engaged with in the Imagine Canal Park process. Instead, the story fixates on the concerns of a single “resident.” (A resident of what? Canal Park? Park Point? Duluth? The story never says.) People are upset, and apparently the media must reward upset people with coverage, because grumbling in a Facebook comment apparently now passes for news.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some valid questions about traffic flow when closures like this occur. Those questions have a place in this story. But to frame it as if an annoyance caused by the change is more significant than the change itself resorts to a tired trope, and frames the debate in ways that bias the casual reader against the cause before it even has a chance to get off the ground. It becomes an implicit force for a status quo that is taken for granted, one that reinforces a lack of creativity and makes acceptance of the current conditions the default against which all efforts for change must overcome. And we wonder why local politics is so often dominated by inertia and a handful of powerful voices.
This particular article set me off because so many of the premises of the complaints are shaky. We know from decades of experience that people adapt to changes in traffic patterns pretty quickly, and learn to go on with their lives. (For similar reasons, added roadway capacity almost never reduces congestion.) Aside from some necessary accommodations for the disabled and elderly, Americans are fat and could stand to walk that extra 20 feet, and likely will not suffer for it. The “people will drive through it anyway” complaint does not exactly jive with the picture atop the article showing large orange barrels and ROAD CLOSED signs that would take some pretty serious cluelessness or alcohol consumption for anyone to drive through. And yet the entire story is framed around the complaints of one commenter with no obvious credentials to comment on the subject. While this is an especially grating example, it’s not hard to imagine any number of topics where the rants of the uninformed or lazy both-sides-must-be-covered-without-assessing-the-merits reporting predominates, and leaves an impoverished discourse in its wake.
Normally, I think the News Tribune does a reasonably good job on things like this. Most of its writers do their homework and give a much more thorough picture than one gets on, say, TV news, where simplified black-and-white narratives are far more pervasive. But that doesn’t excuse the tyranny of lazy narratives when it rears its ugly head, and anyone who writes should resist it at every opportunity.