Posted August 17th 2010 at 11:19 am by
in Media Mindfulness, Reporting the City

Reporting the City

While I was working with the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, a Mumbai-based NGO supporting urban poor communities to access shelter and sanitation, one of the city’s major daily newspapers published a one-page spread on Dharavi. The largest informal settlement in Mumbai, Dharavi was often in the spotlight as the subject of a controversial redevelopment plan (and later, as the site of scenes from Slumdog Millionaire).

Dharavi_Aerial_small An aerial view of Dharavi in Mumbai. Photo by Katia Savchuk.

The reporter referred to the township – home to over 80 neighborhoods, houses representing generations of investment, and a vibrant industrial and commercial sector – as “Asia’s largest sprawl of squalor.” He fantasized about replacing the “dusty, dirty, often-stinking” place with luxury skyscrapers and elevated walkways, misrepresenting the architect’s blueprints as final. “If the plan is any indication, Dharavi might be Mumbai’s first step towards Shanghai,” he gloated.

The articles presented the sunny reviews of the project’s chief architect and a United Nations representative, not bothering to quote even one Dharavi resident, whose population numbers are at least half-a-million. Neither did he give wind of opposition to the plan, which had been boiling at various levels since its inception in 2004.

dharavi2bmakeovergr8_small Proposed Redevelopment of Dharavi. Photo from Skyscraper City.

I was incensed that a major paper would publish an article that twisted the facts and was blatantly oppositional to the informal city and wrote an editorial. Having worked with local leaders to create a community-based survey of Dharavi, facilitated participatory planning workshops there, and attended meetings of a committee opposing the redevelopment plan, I had gained some insight into the area’s diversity and nuances.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I had seen article after article regurgitating inaccurate statistics and reinforcing the myth that slums were homogenous seas of corrugated tin roofs and garbage-choked lanes. These images dehumanized the settlements and inflated the “threat” of their existence. They fueled stereotypes that had tangible effects on the way that citizens viewed their city and urban development.

It may have been easier for me to discern biases in a different cultural context, but major city papers everywhere play an important role in the way that urban affairs are perceived. They have traditionally been the primary source for urban coverage and have tremendous power to decide which issues receive attention and how we think about them. As put forth in Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder’s authoritative 1987 study, media coverage has powerful agenda-setting and priming effects. Even if journalists steer clear of flagrant editorializing, they craft perceptions by determining what to cover, whom to quote and which angle to adopt.

Back in the United States, over the past year, I got a chance to reflect on urban journalism in the San Francisco Bay Area as an editorial intern for The Palo Alto Weekly and a writer for Bay Area NExT, a community news website hosted by the Bay Area Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).  I also took part in a panel on new media and cities at the Just Metropolis Conference at Berkeley in June 2010.

With the advent of electronic media, print journalism is undergoing a massive transformation. Newspaper readership is declining, while citizen journalism sites and community-based blogs are proliferating. In this series, through reflections and interviews, I will begin to explore how print journalism in the Bay Area has changed over the years, how it is adapting to the new media landscape, and what this means for coverage of urban issues.

Katia Savchuk is a co-founder of polis, a collaborative blog about cities. She has written about urban issues for the Palo Alto Weekly, bayareanext.org, Where and Environment & Urbanization. She spent 1.5 years documenting the work of urban poor federations in India as a consultant for SPARC and co-organized Urban Typhoon Koliwada with URBZ.

3 responses to “Reporting the City”

  1. this is great! I am arranging to intern there next summer before (hopefully) entering MIT.

    did you see the recent articles and subsequent editorials in the Times about slum tourism?

    URBZ has to defend itself from a lot of accusations of slum tourism / slum romanticism, which are pretty unfair if you look at their activities. There does seem however to be a lot of Jacob Riis style “progressivism” going on in global slums lately; it’s difficult because I really want to go there and learn about the place from it’s residents, but at the same time I am going to have to be very careful of how I represent it in pictures etc. URBZ of course had the AWESOME idea of giving the local kids cameras and photography lessons; why not take pictures of the slum tourists for a change! let the subaltern speak and all that, great stuff, really

    -Nick

  2. Alexa Mills says:

    I am really looking forward to this series. Thanks for much for doing this.

    I was asking myself similar questions (although perhaps less artfully) a few weeks ago in this post http://colabradio.mit.edu/?p=4635 about a NYT feature on Brooklyn.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Hi Katia! This post is really compelling. Reading it, a rush of things come to mind. It reminds me of the fact that there are multiple future visions for a city, and how important it is to remember that what we dream for others is not the same as what they would dream for themselves. In fact, planners’ good intentions can quickly turn destructive when they plan in the complete absence of understanding and involving the communities they hope to serve. Looking at the vision these planners had for Dharavi, this is striking. Did anyone think that maybe instead of elevated walkways, multi-layer car parks, and a massive physical structure overhaul, that improving live in this settlement might require something much simpler or much more direct– maybe improved healthcare and education access, or access to clean drinking water? Did anyone think to even ask someone who lived there?

    In January, one of our classes did a client project in Cartagena, and very similar themes came up. (I reflect on some of these themes in my post on Cartagena.) The city’s elite perceived the Bazurto market solely as a dangerous place, and a source of blight, and were searching for a physical solution that would make it as clean and shiny as a supermarket. Meanwhile, in our research we uncovered that in fact, this market served as a major distributor of food for restaurants, corner stores and low income residents throughout the city. This is not to downplay the sanitation problems and the violence, but instead to propose that our perceptions only get us so far in creating an effective solution.

    It does bring me back to media, too. Where does this inclination come from to pave over low income communities rather than invite them to participate in planning a new vision of the future? I also think that the images and ideas in mainstream media are a major contributing force to our perceptions. Since my background is in film and yours is in print journalism and blogging, I’m really interested to hear your take. Will citizen journalism offer us a new perspective?