The national election season is over, and a new president will be sworn in later this month. However, the debate about the media’s role continues.
The national discussion over “fake news” took on real urgency last month after an armed gunman showed up in Washington, D.C., to do a self-investigation about a totally fabricated story regarding a pizza shop and supposed crime ring. Many cringed or rolled their eyes at how ignorant and uninformed the gunman had to be to take extreme action on a false story he read online.
The heightened use of Facebook and Twitter as leading news sources has left national media reeling and forced them to examine their traditional roles of informing and educating the public. This is not an inconsequential role in our American democracy; it is a foundation upon which our democracy rests.
Arguably, the decline in trust of the national media has heightened the need for informed, engaged and responsible local media that the community can rely on. Local media need to clearly and honestly report not only the facts, but also provide the larger context of the facts about the community they serve. Too often, though, the local media, due to the same pressures that affect the national media—declining revenues, reduced qualified staff and reporters, the need to sensationalize and incite biases to gain attention—also fail at this important job.
A mid-December story that ran online and on TV on the local CBS affiliate, Channel 21, offers an example of how our local media often fail us. Channel 21 is ranked at or near the bottom of the local television outlets and, for a time, even abandoned its local news reporting altogether. So, maybe no one cares, but it is emblematic of what is wrong with local television reporting.
On Monday, Dec. 12, Dennis Davin, the secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) for the Commonwealth of PA, paid a visit to St@rtup, a Harrisburg based co-working facility that had recently expanded and relocated within Midtown Harrisburg. (Disclosure: I happen to be the developer of the building in which St@rtup is located, but I did not attend the secretary’s visit, which was solely for St@rtup.)
CBS21’s headline, “Wolf’s ‘Jobs that pay tour’ visits Harrisburg business” was ostensibly about this important event. However, the story started out by violating basic journalistic rules and common sense. The reporter didn’t bother to interview the owners of the business they visited. She also didn’t realize that the “abandoned building and construction site” that she was standing in front of—and holding up as an example of urban decay—was, in fact, the same development project that is connected to the St@rtup space, and that it will be completed in early 2017. She reported nothing about the block or how it sat vacant for 10 years after a charter school based in Atlanta went bankrupt, leaving it in disrepair. She took no time whatsoever to understand the context of the story.
The real story was the secretary’s visit to highlight businesses that have received some form of state assistance to grow their business, create jobs and expand the economy. It was part of a statewide tour that has led to some 200,000 similar jobs, a fact that was briefly mentioned at the end of the piece.
The focus was supposed to be on St@rtup. St@rtup is the local version of a burgeoning national trend of relatively low-cost, all-inclusive, shared workspaces that encourage entrepreneurs to start new businesses and employ themselves and others in the creative economy. Many of the folks who are attracted to this type of facility are not looking for jobs so much as they are looking to work independently, be among other creative types and pursue their passions in the business world.
One of the more famous nationally branded versions of St@rtup is a company called “We Work,” based out of New York City, which has the tagline, “The Community of Creators.” The company has received hundreds of millions of dollars in financial backing and is valued in the billions of dollars. It is a remarkable national story about the nature of how the local economy functions in the changing global economy.
Yes, St@rtup is truly at the leading edge of the modern economy. Right here in Harrisburg. And it is successful. Really.
Unfortunately, a CBS21 viewer or online reader would not know anything remotely about the story of St@rtup and its larger context. Instead, the reporter led with an interview of a man who she just happened to run into outside the building when she walked in for the press event. That the man happened to say that he was “recently homeless” makes the encounter no less random. But the story became about homelessness in the Harrisburg region (and a superficial one at that) instead of a very real and positive discussion about this business and the growing local economy.
Think of the randomness of this. If the reporter had been five minutes earlier or later to arrive at the event, she likely would have missed this encounter. So, scores of people do millions of dollars of work, create dozens of jobs and investment, are symbolic of large national trends, and yet one person wandering by becomes the story. To make matters worse, there was no context to this man or his predicament, no discussion of the circumstances surrounding his situation or where he would go from there. After the interview, the man merely continued on his way down the street.
Let’s agree that stories about the homeless, particularly during the wintertime, are important. Local media should report them. Local media should talk to people who work to solve those problems, talk to shelters and nonprofits and give us in-depth discussion on what causes those very real societal problems and how to solve them. This story did none of those things.
The only thing this story did, from my perspective, was to reinforce the insidious, dare I say, anti-urban and anti-Harrisburg bias from media types who live in the suburbs and can’t for the life of them understand why anyone would invest, live and work in Harrisburg (there are homeless people walking the streets!). Even when proof of the counter-narrative is literally right in front of their camera, they turn away and cling to their biased views.
As I have said previously, this false and misleading narrative has real consequences for Harrisburg. For whatever ills the city may have, the local media is complicit in hindering attempts to overcome them and for perpetuating a false narrative because it’s a narrative that helps them incite biases, grab attention and drive revenue. This, unfortunately, is often the situation of our local media in the Harrisburg region today.
J. Alex Hartzler is publisher of TheBurg.