Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I Thought Journalism Meant Asking Questions?


Tonight I was looking for coverage of Real Change's fourth protest encampment at City in the last year, and found this odd story on KOMO. "The City of Seattle says that police and social workers will be out tonight helping the homeless find a warm place to stay, but some of the homeless are protesting. Bryan? Why the protest?"

Bizarrely, tonight the KOMO story transcription renders this on their website as "And some of the homeless are smirking"

Pop Quiz #1: Is this a.) A simple transcription error? b.) Someone who's bored, getting high on the job, and pissed that they make $9 an hour? or c.) An intentional editorial comment by someone who knows that no one really reads these things and even fewer people care? Answer: We'll never know, but I'm thinking some combination of b and c.

The story continues. "Well, you know, Mary, normally, City Hall Park is just filled with the homeless. But not tonight! It's too cold! The city says that's because they're keeping three emergency shelters open, at City Hall, the Frye Hotel, and out at the Seattle Center. But guess what? The homeless say Thats ... Not ... Enough!"

Bryan Johnson moves from his dramatic intro to a three second B-roll of some tents while he says there are people at City Hall protesting the homeless sweeps. He then gets Real Change staffer Natalie Novak to say there's at least 2,361 outside of the shelters and to repeat after him, "471 ain't goin' ta do it!"

I've watched this thing three times, and I honestly can't tell whether reporter Bryan Johnson thinks we're a bunch of whiners or that we have a legitimate beef. What I do know is that his story obediently followed both the lead and the frame that the city helpfully provided.

I know this for at least two reasons. The first is that every time Real Change does a protest encampment, the City issues a preemptive press release to instruct the media on what to report. The other is that as soon as I saw the number "471" materialize out of nowhere, I thought "City Press Release!" I looked up December 16, and there it was, just in time.

NEWS ADVISORY

SUBJECT: City Keeps Emergency Shelters Open During Cold Snap
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
12/16/2008 4:30:00 PM
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:
Alex Fryer (206) 684-8358

City Keeps Emergency Shelters Open During Cold Snap

SEATTLE – As freezing temperatures continue, the city of Seattle is keeping two severe weather overnight shelters and one “overflow” shelter for homeless people open through the duration of the cold snap. Given current weather forecasts, this means the shelters will remain open through Friday, Dec. 19, and potentially into next week.

Shelters, jails, hospitals, the Crisis Clinic and Operation Nightwatch notify homeless of the additional services. In addition, Seattle police officers in a van equipped with blankets approach homeless people and ask them if they need shelter for the night and help them with transportation as needed.

Since the first day of operation through Monday, a total of 471 people have stayed at these shelters.

“We will continue to provide emergency beds as needed, to make sure our city’s most vulnerable have a warm place to stay during these icy nights,” said Mayor Greg Nickels. “We urge the homeless to keep safe and take advantage of the services we are offering.”

Beginning on Friday, Dec. 12, the city opened severe weather shelters at City Hall and the Frye Hotel. On Saturday, Dec. 13, the city opened an additional overflow shelter at Seattle Center.

  • The co-ed City Hall shelter is located on Fourth Avenue between James and Cherry Streets. Shelter doors open at 9 p.m. People seeking shelter should arrive no earlier than 8:30 p.m. Capacity is 75 people.
  • The women-only shelter is located at the Frye Hotel at Third Avenue and Yesler Street and can be accessed through the Women’s Referral Center, located at 2030 Third Avenue between 7 and 7:30 p.m. Capacity is 25 people.
  • The overflow severe weather shelter is located at Seattle Center Pavilion B and is open at 9 p.m. Capacity is 75 people.

During the day, Seattle residents can find warm, public space at Parks Department community centers, the Seattle Center and libraries. The Greenwood Senior Center is also opening its doors at 525 N. Greenwood Ave. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to anyone who needs a respite from the cold.

City of Seattle severe weather shelters open in the event of two or more days of heavy rain, or when the temperatures reach 32 degrees or colder or when snow is on the ground.

People in need of emergency shelter should call the community service hotline at 2-1-1.

Get the Nickels Newsletter and the mayor’s inside view on transportation, public safety, economic opportunity and healthy communities at mayor.seattle.gov

- 30 -

A close reading offers much to admire. Note for example, how the phrase "since the first day of operation" is employed to discourage anyone from doing the math. The answer is 471 people served over 4 days. Nightwatch was still turning people away on Friday night, so the city finally kicked up and opened Seattle Center. That detail gets sort of buried. Note also that it takes two consecutive nights of heavy rain for the severe weather shelters to open. The homeless are tough. They can easily handle one night of being cold and wet. They're not really like us. Also, the shelters don't open unless the temperature drops to 32 degrees. Not 33 degrees. People line up, watching the doors, hoping it's cold enough. When it isn't, they wander off, just like they've got nowhere to go.

Pop Quiz #2: In a 35 degree temperature, how hard does the wind have to blow to produce a below freezing wind chill? Answer: According to the National Weather Service, just 5 mph.

Pop Quiz #3: If 471 different people compete for the 625 total number of opportunities over the whole of 4 nights to sleep on a severe weather indoor mat, how many of these people got to stay inside for a second of the four nights? Answer: 154

Extra Credit: Where, then, did these people go on the other 2 nights? Answer: Who cares?

So they did not actually serve "a total of 471 people." As we see, that number doesn't make sense, which is why they obfuscate the math. I'm thinking that 471 is the total number of mats-on-the-floor severe weather accommodations provided over the 4 days, at a bit under 120 people served per night. 471 people served just sounds more impressive. The cold precision of the number offers the illusion of truth and accuracy.

The last city press release on homelessness was nearly two months ago, so today, which happened to be the day of the City Hall protest, we were clearly due. The last, issued on October 30, was More Housing for Chronically Homeless. In typical City of Seattle/Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness fashion, the release doesn't actually say there is more housing. It says there was an announcement of a funding partnership to secure a site, so that when the money to build this housing is raised, there will be a place to put it. The release doesn't actually say when the housing will be completed. I'm guessing around 5-6 years from now.

Pop Quiz #4: If a homeless person is 3-4 more times more at risk of death than the general population, and a "chronically homeless" person runs even an greater risk of death, how many of any random set of 60 chronically homeless people that were alive on October 30, 2008, will be dead by the time this housing is actually built? Answer: Too many.

Anyway, I digress. Those of you who share my fascination with city press strategy and the running dog lackeys of the fifth estate who lap it up will love, love, love, this media analysis of Seattle's homeless sweeps, released this week by a multi-disciplinary team of academics at the University of Washington. They find that the City of Seattle — lovable, liberal, Seattle — has deliberately created a "discourse of filth and contagion" to justify the elimination of homeless campsites, and the media has willingly and consistently followed their lead. There's some good news in there too, but you need to read more than halfway through to find it. Most reporters won't get that far.

Pop Quiz #5: If you define a person as less than human, and equate them with disease and filth, what can you get away with doing to them? Answer: You don't want to go there.

16 comments:

Trevor said...

Great analysis!

When Real Change has enough money to hire former reporters to do its spin for it (I'm sure no one at KOMO knows former KING-TV reporter Robert Mak), and its employees all wear suits and ties, and stop cavorting with smirking homeless people, then, maybe, just maybe, you might be taken seriously. Until then, they won't trust you any time you're confrontational, because that will require them to do actual research to sort out whether or not you're making a credible case.

Trevor said...

Speaking of the "he no-agenda, just-us-folks approach engineered by former KING-5 political reporter Robert Mak":

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nicolebrodeur/2008524801_brodeur16m.html

Bill said...

thanks to Trevor for posting Brodeur's hard hitting the Mayor interview,...read it that day and am writing her to suggest she write Bush's memoirs since she'd be "tough and fair." Seattle is so damn defensive, spinning itself shamelessly but has no shame when it comes to setting aside $20M, more to come, to fix Mercer. You do know a pretty street is worth its weight in tar over the safety and well-being to citiznes with no place to live,...oh wait, these people came to Seattle from somewhere else, so we are free to IGNORE them until it's time to bury them in some common grave. Be there Friday nigth gang, Westlake Palza, 5 pm, to stand vigil with WHEEL,...

Sally said...

Here's another version of the City's press release, this time in today's P-I disguised as a human interest by Casey McNerthney, who was probably driven around in a City car to get his "story."

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/392679_homeless18.html

Sally said...

The link is really http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/392679_homeless18.html

Sally said...

Crap! Cut it off again. Oh well, look at the P-I for Thursday.

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