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).
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.
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.