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Monday, May 16, 2016

SF Chronicle Promises Solutions to Homelessness; Award Bait or Altruism?

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 12:20 PM

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  • The Wire
  • Hi, I'm with the media. I'm here to help.
In its purest form, journalism is about collecting information and presenting it to the public in an objective manner. The general thinking goes that if journalists stray from this path — if they appear to favor one side over the other — all credibility is lost.

This brings us to the latest innovation in 21st century media: a one-day, all-hands-on-deck project to highlight and offer solutions to San Francisco’s long-standing struggle with homelessness. Under a plan formulated and organized by San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper — who came up with the idea after she and her six-month-old child were scandalized by witnessing two homeless people copulate in a tent three years ago — at least 30 Bay Area media outlets will cover homelessness like never before for one day only, on June 29.

But there’s a catch, at least on the Chronicle’s side: The coverage will not only highlight the problem, it will offer solutions, and hopefully new ones. 

It’s a bold stance by the Chronicle, and a bit of a minefield. What could go wrong? So many things. 

Year after year, homelessness in San Francisco is one of the city’s top storylines. More than 6,000 people without permanent housing or jobs live here, and that number has not changed dramatically one way or the other in a long time. The city spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually just managing the population.

Cooper told the New York Times that the Chronicle will deviate from traditional journalism mores to try to solve the homeless crisis, or at least offer wisdom to that end.

From the paper:

Ms. Cooper said The Chronicle will run a week of coverage, including four articles that she described as something akin to a science project: putting forth a hypothesized solution and investigating it. The first proposal is that the city build a mental health center large enough to treat the mentally ill on the streets. The article will explore the cost and the feasibility of institutionalizing people.

None of the other media reps who spoke with the Times said they would do the same thing, instead planning a coverage blitz of homelessness.

(Editor's note: SF Weekly was not invited to participate in Cooper's project. We learned about it via the New York Times article. For now, we plan to cover homelessness as we always do: as a serious issue that involves real human beings.)

It all sounds good, but there are problems. What if the ideas are not very good? What if the ideas are not very new? What if the ideas are too left, too right, too down the middle, thus making them ineffective in that they don’t gain majority support? And what if no one cares, what if no one is inspired except the journalists themselves?

That last question seems to have already been answered in just the past 24 hours since the Times article published. The story is the top news on Twitter and Google today for San Francisco, and it seems (almost) everyone is praising the idea. And not one source in the Times story had a bad thing to say about it. (Though, in fairness, the Times apparently did not ask homeless advocates or experts what they think.)

Still, what’s really going on here, because we all know altruism is a tough pill to swallow?

As Cooper said herself, the idea was hatched after she witnessed two people engaging in sexual acts inside a tent on a city street. They apparently left their pitbull to stand guard. Cooper was pushing a stroller containing her then-6-month-old daughter, and she admittedly said some nasty things to the people. It was three years ago, which is a lot longer than three months ago. Activism takes time, apparently.

Cooper, and certainly many others, don’t want to live or raise a child in a city where such behavior is tolerated. And by all indications — including the New York Times's — the homeless problem has only become worse in the past three years.

Perhaps this big solution to homelessness is more a solution to squeamishness. Perhaps this will be a great public service, successful in shaming Congress into funding supportive housing or re-funding the Great Society social services safety nets that were gutted by conservative hero Ronald Reagan (which, according to many experts, directly led to the situation on our streets today).

Or, as the Times pointed out, it might be a not-so-subtle attempt to crowd-source a Pulitzer Prize.

Let’s hope it’s neither of those, nor a peacock kind of exercise. We can be sure this endeavor has good intentions. Journalists care about the communities they serve and truly desire to inform the public — in fact for many it’s the only reason they put in the grueling hours, because the pay is pittance.

But let’s also hope that desire to do good does not equate to a desire to make this unique and wonderful city just more palatable for the masses. And let us also hope that the solutions are more sophisticated, and less patronizing, than simply putting homeless people in tiny homes.

Homelessness was not created in a day. It would be absurd to think it will be solved in one.

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