Connecting with the Communities We Cover
May 11, 2011
There is something disorienting about living in a town where the perception and reality of your city are often sharply at odds.
Mention Oakland, CA, and the words may vary, but the response is often the same. “EW!” “I’m sorry about what’s happening to your city.” “That’s scary.” “It’s really been going through a rough patch.” “You live in Oakland? I’m scared to go there.”
During a media training in New York City, a woman actually gave me the sad face when she heard I lived in Oakland, as if she were consoling me after the death of a relative. “Oh, Oakland; I haven’t been there for a few years,” she said, “But I hear it’s having a really tough time.”
Few ask about the pelicans, ducks and geese that laze around the three mile downtown lake. Rarely are there remarks on the many leaf-lined streets or the bucolic neighborhoods. Few congratulate Oakland for a recent period when more first-rate restaurants opened in this reputationally beleaguered urban center than in the well regarded city across the Bay. While other cities have seen big chains muscle out smaller local merchants, Barnes and Noble closed down last year and the city continues to supports more than a dozen independent bookstores.
Try to tell people that, and they often look at you as if you are either delusional, in denial, or a bit of both.
Yet those facets are as real as the violence for which the city is known. There are journalistic exceptions, but those are not enough to sway the prevailing national, or even regional impressions of Oakland.
And that can create a conundrum. What do you do when you want news, but are uneasy with media that for the most part seems as if it so thoroughly and consistently gets your story wrong?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I meet an accomplished historian at a one-day conference back East. He came to the meeting carrying his hometown’s rival newspaper.
Turns out he hated the way his city’s paper covered his community. But he still wanted the news. He had no expectation that the rival paper would cover his community. So he opted for that one, reasoning that he was able to get the news without feeling insulted or disappointed.
His solution may be his own, but his concern is not uncommon.
Once, after reading a piece on downtown Oakland, I almost started packing my bags.
It took a few hours before I remembered that that piece described something far from my reality. Not because I live far from downtown, or in one of those neighborhoods bounded by golf courses or dotted with riding stables.
I don’t. I live in West Oakland, a neighborhood that is often associated with violence, drugs and poverty when it is covered – and it is so much more.
In my community, I see fathers walking down the street with their kids. On my block, young men stop to wish strangers “Happy Mother’s Day.” Instead of glass and trash, I’ve got mustard greens and artichokes in my backyard.
My neighbors are daily reminders that people of color are so much more than the coverage would suggest. My neighborhood and my city are daily reminders of the disconnect between some members of the media and the people they cover.
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