Residents Express Concerns Over News Reports Expressing Concerns of Residents
Alright so one good rule, in general, is that it's a bit of a red flag to complain about the media. Lotta bad people do that. Now that that's out of the way, I'll say that one thing I've noticed is that a lot of reporting isn't super great. Which is mostly fine, as I guess we've managed to get this far. If that doesn't sound fine, consider whether or not you're still on Facebook, and whether your staying on it has contributed to legitimizing it in the eyes of your poor aunt and uncle in Eau Claire, whose brains have been completely melted by garbage, as you may have seen in the news last year.
Anyway, more frustrating than any accidental minor misreporting is an intentional tendency in media towards sensationalism and stirring up conflict. Because dang, does it work. I'm no major media figure, though I have been spitting out webblog posts on-line for about five (??) years now. Let me tell ya, I've spent many, many hours digging through basements of libraries, etc, to write tens of thousands of what I think are reasonable and nuanced words on many topics, but the only things of mine anyone has ever read are the stupid Vikings pedestrian bridge thing I wrote drunk after a Twins game and the rude Uptown thing from a few months ago that like 40% of City Pages' readers did not even get.
It's possible—and maybe even desirable—to end up in a nifty outrage feedback loop when you're looking for eyeballs. This is not just "clickbait"; it's much older than BuzzFeed and the Internet. I'm pretty sure that bored newspapermen started the Spanish-American War? That sounds familiar. William Randolph Hearst making up stuff about the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898 comes from more or less the same place that compels the Star Tribune to run pieces about "fat-shaming" the fat senile reality TV pervert president. People go absolutely nuts for that garbage, which makes it easier to sell ads for Dr. Wallace's Wonder Tonic and/or Slumberland's Presidents' Day Sale.
I have to imagine that if you're some local gal or guy covering the news and the stakes are somewhat lower than an international conflict, and you're trying to fill space but still not go over 400 words, and you've got deadlines, and maybe you're being a little lazy, it can be pretty easy to bang out the exact same story every three weeks when you're using the above logic and talking about certain topics.
For me, one example that comes to mind in the Twin Cities is how a lot of our ~hot button~ urban issues topics get covered, and I'll be specific and say bike stuff and development stuff. I'm biased, of course. Everyone is biased! For example, I am 26, and while Millennials Are Bad, maybe a 26 year old thinks about the long-term ramifications of a land use or transportation decision differently than a 64 year old.
There's a pretty standard template for your generic development or bike story—
Residents express Concerns over Concerning proposal
- Something might happen, but there are Concerns
- Description of project
- Description of whatever land use applications or roadway changes are required, generally describing them badly
- Vague quote from someone with Concerns
- Boilerplate quote from city/transportation planner/local politician
- Close with a second vague quote from the guy with Concerns
What are the concerns? Traffic. Parking. Density. Height. Maybe a couple other things. One of the wacky things about it, though, is that a lot of the time, it is exceedingly clear that the Concerns are really just a proxy for change in a very general sense.
A person who likes things just fine as they are now—or often, more dramatically, liked things better ten years ago—has been informed that there may be a nearby change, and they have been asked to weigh in, what do you think they are going to say? 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.
It's an easy thing to cover! At a certain point though, it does become pretty tautological, a word I recently learned, in that you're covering the Concerns someone had, which people then see on TV or online and feed into people having Concerns because they heard about these Concerns—should we be Concerned? Maybe!
A residential development in an urban neighborhood generates a negligible amount of car traffic. A six story building across the street from a five story building is probably fine. There's very little chance you could not use a two block walk. The bike people are exhausting, but more people on bikes is good for everyone. Rents are not something the city has the authority to regulate. Having more people in the city allows it to support more services of all kinds. You are not guaranteed a view. The ocean is rising. A 100 units on an acre in Minneapolis is 30 acres of wetlands that aren't torn up in Andover for the same 100 units. Cars sure do kill a lot of people every day.
These things are...pretty clear cut? idk, skim the Zoning Code or Bike Master Plan or something. It's hard to get at everything in a 400 word article, but it would be sort of good to not breathlessly report anything that someone said at a meeting.
I don't own a bike, but some examples from the planning arena could be~
- In Minneapolis, most land use decisions by the Planning Commission and then the Zoning & Planning Committee of the City Council are what are called "quasi-judicial," which means that we/they have to consider the facts of an application and weigh them against existing ordinances and determine if they do or don't meet a bunch of different findings. Just saying "it's too big to be near Dan's house" doesn't count, and is a good way to get successfully sued.
- Depending on where it is, basically every new building in Minneapolis requires what's called a conditional use permit to increase its height beyond 2.5 or four or six or ten stories. This is not "special permission" or even the same thing as a variance; it means that it is allowed as long as the conditions in the ordinance are met. The conditions are not that hard to meet.
- Other than requiring a notice of a public hearing to be sent to the "registered neighborhood group(s)" in the area a project is proposed, there is not an official role of the groups in actual government. Votes by neighborhood groups are strictly advisory. Though for what it's worth, over the past few years pretty much all projects have managed to pick up votes of support from neighborhood groups.
- There is a 60 day clock (which can be extended to 120 days) that's referenced at the bottom of the first page of every staff report on a land use application that notes when the application is filed. This is pretty important, as there is a state law that requires the City to either approve or deny the application within 60 days, and if it's not acted on, "[f]ailure of an agency to deny a request within 60 days is approval of the request," which is pretty wild. This is an important detail when someone wants something to be delayed (indefinitely, you can sometimes tell) for "study," etc.
- Other things
Wow that all is super boring, I know, but what are your hobbies, exactly? Exactly.
I guess it's just really important to think about framing. 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.
To be fair, it is probably kind of hard to be a "city" reporter, because what kind of beat is that? All the things that happen in a city? That's a whole lot of things. A big paper like the Star Tribune (which generally is pretty good for a paper in a city of our size in 2017 and you ought to be sending them money) divides things up a little more, with reporters working on specific things like crime and transportation and education. Local TV news stations don't appear to always have that kind of distinction, and many sub-Star Tribune-sized newspaper outfits don't have the resources to get that specific. MinnPost is excellent (you also should be giving them money) but I suppose there is not a boatload of demand for 1,500 word articles, so usually they stick to the big picture.
Even within some specific area like "transportation," it can be hard to get good at reporting a nuanced issue well. But it's bonkers that there are reporters who have been at it for a decade or more who routinely describe land use applications incorrectly, or mix-up the Planning Commission and City Council, or not mention the existing adopted years old policy behind rebuilding a street a certain way. It's also not a great look when reporters clearly beeline for the most visibly disturbed person at a meeting to interview, which I have definitely witnessed.
I don't want to tell anyone what to do, and certainly am a nightmare, but also, the ocean is rising. For thousands of years, cities evolved and changed as they grew and it was...fine. Minneapolis is not Manchester during the Industrial Revolution, or Hong Kong or Dubai or even Manhattan. It's a city of 420,000 that used to have 520,000 people and has a lot of room to grow in a place that is probably a good long-term location for city, unlike, say Phoenix or Miami. What is the responsible story to cover here? A lot of controversy you hear and read about is kinda manufactured, which does not help. It would probably be good to think about the big picture.