Native Detroiters don’t have any doubt; The city of Detroit is making a comeback. Do outsiders recognize the beginnings of its revival too, though? Unfortunately, they may not – and it’s not their fault. Differences in media portrayals of the city are immense, so one’s perception of the city is likely not only related to proximity, but also source of news. This project explores what those news media differences are, how native Detroiters are using their position to do their very best to make a positive impact on locals and portray Detroit positively, and what a positive reputation actually looks like for the city.
- What are the perspectives?
- “Old” vs. “New” media
- Mike MacKool – Slow Roll
- Mary Martin – Mayor Duggan’s Office
- Visualization – Eastern Market
How Detroit is Perceived
Downtown Detroit Partnership did a survey about locals’ perceptions of Downtown Detroit. They wrote that “not surprising, Downtown residents had much more favorable opinions followed by residents of the City of Detroit, with non city residents trailing overall.” While this is pretty much a given, just how favorable these opinions were was surprising. The following graphs depict the change in perceptions since 2013 and the overall perceptions in 2014.
Furthermore, city residents almost completely agreed that 1) Downtown Detroit has lots of potential, 2) a healthy Downtown Detroit is important to the region, and 3) Downtown Detroit is improving every year. Detroiters’ perception of their own city, therefore, is very largely positive.
Last month, the Skillman Foundation and Model D facilitated a conversation on Twitter through the hashtag #YourDetroit in which Detroit residents shared misconceptions and stereotypes about their city that they commonly faced from outsiders. None of the opinions were particularly positive.
The general consensus was that outsiders consider Detroit to be unsafe, crumbled, uneducated, and apathetic, among countless other criticisms. Long story short, people think Detroit is bad. Really bad.
The differences in opinion between the two audiences are pretty clear. Proximity (i.e. Detroit pride) is an obvious explanation for the disparity, but how does one explain the generational difference in opinion as well? After all, the DDP survey found that “Millennials between the ages of 18 to 34 are the most favorable. They are the most likely to have positive attitudes regarding overall impressions, improvements, potential, safety and other aspects.” The answer can be found in media.
Legacy vs. New Media
I’ve spent a lot of time comparing these two this semester. For those that don’t have the fortune of being in three media-related communications classes at the same time, legacy media refers to newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio networks that have been producing content since before the birth of the internet. New media refers to news outlets that exist online or are accessed digitally, such as Twitter, YouTube, Buzzfeed, and Vice. There is a clear divide in the audience for legacy and new media. The American Press Institute found that “While younger Americans are interested in a wide variety of topics at levels similar to older generations, the device they turn to and the way they discover the news is more clearly influenced by age. Older adults are more likely to rely on television, radio, and print media for their news than are those in the youngest adult cohort, who are more likely to use mobile devices.”
Alongside differences in audience, new media ethics (in the traditional journalistic sense) may vary from legacy outlets and their content can be considered less serious. Does their spin regarding Detroit differ too?
To answer this question, I started off with a simple Google search of “New York Times Detroit.” (Searching “Detroit” in the NYT homepage led to articles that were overwhelmingly about sports or the auto industry. Not what I wanted.) The results, just based on headline, were not particularly positive.
The first is an interactive timeline that sports the heading “Once a great American metropolis, Detroit is still struggling with a costly pension system, emptying neighborhoods, crime, insufficient city services and immense blight.” The second is a photostory (an admittedly fantastic photostory at that) that contrasts the wealthy suburbs to the north with the crumbling and empty neighborhoods of Detroit. The other 4 were not much better. After reading these six articles, I rated each one as portraying Detroit in a positive, neutral, or negative way (1, 0, or -1 respectively). The average for the six New York Times articles was -.5.
Buzzfeed, on the other hand, was a totally different story. The resulting articles had a much more positive spin. The first article pictured, written by a man who built his home by hand in the city, said that “There’s another Detroit, too, of which I am but a small part. It’s the Detroit that’s saving itself. The Detroit that’s building something brand-new out of the cinders of consumerism and racism and escape.” I rated the top 6 results (not counting the unfortunately irrelevant Ryan Gosling article and the Detroit news tag page at the top) and the average was significantly more positive than NYT at 0.66.
I did the same rating process with the top 6 results of two other media outlets, the Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post, for a total of two old news sources, two new news sources, and 24 articles in total. (For anyone that is interested in exactly what articles I saw and how I rated them, (here are my numbers.) The results were surprisingly clear.
The Legacy media outlets, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, had a very negative portrayal of the city, while new media outlets, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, had very positive portrayal overall. On average, the ratings were -0.415 and 0.583, respectively. Based on this test, it’s fair to conclude that there is a clear contrast between the negative legacy media portrayal of Detroit and the positive new media portrayal. Therefore, the type of media outlet that one accesses can also likely explain a positive or negative perception of the city.
How Change is Implemented
In the face of substantial negative portrayals of Detroit, many locals have come up with creative events and practices that associate the city with more positivity. From mass bike exploration to municipal policy, I asked a few Detroiters about change – what they’ve already accomplished and what their projects mean for the future of the city (and not just for the locals).
Slow Roll Detroit – An Interview
Slow Roll Detroit is a weekly bicycle ride that meets at various destinations around Detroit and takes different routes through the city. Its slow pace and massive crowd make it a welcoming event for participants of all ages hailing from a variety of cities around southeastern Michigan. Though it has been popular from the very beginning, the weekly rides currently top 3,000 bikers every week, thanks to a feature on a popular Apple iPad commercial that aired last summer.
In it, Slow Roll co-founder Jason Hall says, “We started Slow Roll because we wanted to show Detroit in a positive light to help repopulate. This summer, we hit 2,000. That was when I knew something was crazy and something big was happening in the city. Detroit is diversity at its best, and Slow Roll is that. Attitudes are changing, and we’re moving forward.” I had the opportunity to ask the other co-founder, Mike Mackool, a few questions about Slow Roll, Detroit, and how the two have influenced each other.
Delaney: What is it about Detroit that has allowed this project to become so successful?
Mike: Detroiters love nothing more than Detroit. When something genuine like Slow Roll comes around and shows people the city, while at the same time bringing everyone together and building community, Detroiters will get behind it.
Delaney: Where do you think the benefits of Slow Roll lie? (With the city, the suburbanites, etc.?)
Mike: A harder question is to name just one. There is so much to be gained, and it can be different for everyone. Whether someone rides with us to improve their health and be more active, or someone is looking for that purely social experience. The biggest benefit that we love to see is people coming together, to bond and build a community over the simple pleasure of riding bikes.
Delaney: How do you think this has changed the perception or stereotype of the city?
Mike: When people started moving to Detroit because of Slow Roll, we knew we had done our jobs in sharing this wonderful place with everyone. We get people out of the metal cages of their cars and ride at a pace that allows you to take it all in, giving you a chance to get a real perspective on Detroit, its neighborhoods and its people.
Delaney: Has Slow Roll changed your own views of Detroit?
Mike: Riding bikes in general has given me the best perspective on Detroit. In the first few years it was really great for me to learn more and more about the city, its history and all the great places we could take our riders to. It was historical research week after week.
From the Mayor’s Office – An Interview
Mary Martin has worked closely with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan since she graduated from University of Michigan with a Master’s degree in Public Administration. She was a project manager for Wayne County when Mike Duggan was Deputy County Executive, then when he left to become President and CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, Mary followed him into the healthcare world to become Vice President of Performance Improvement. Finally, Duggan became Mayor in 2014 and he hired Mary to be the Director of Lean Process Management. Though Mary very recently left the mayor’s office when she accepted a position at the University of Michigan Health System as Associate Hospital Director, she is still very close with Mayor Mike Duggan and extremely familiar with the steps the municipality has taken in the last year.
Delaney: What is the importance of rebranding the city under Duggan’s administration?
Mary: While I don’t believe there is a formal rebranding strategy, the general strategy remains the need to stabilize the neighborhoods. Getting people to stay in Detroit and return to Detroit grows the city’s tax base and allows for investment and growth. We need safe, livable communities – not just a vibrant downtown.
Delaney: What, if anything, has the mayor’s office done to actively change the city’s appearance?
Mary: The department of neighborhoods has had a big influence. Putting people within the community to address blight and other issues. The landbank has certainly had an influence in accelerating the removal of blight – a subject near and dear to the Mayor’s heart since about 1998. His focus on public safety has also been important – driving down EMS and police response times to near national standards. Lastly- introducing Lean to improve city processes to serve citizens better has been a very positive step.
Delaney: Do you think that Duggan has changed the perception of Detroit for those that aren’t locals, whether they be suburbanites or much farther away? If so, how?
Mary: Absolutely. People see progress. They see a competent and creative leader that demands the best for the citizens of Detroit. Much progress has been made – probably slower then Mike wants but very impressive for both insiders and outsiders alike.
Delaney: What does good press and bad press mean for Detroit?
Mary: Bad press limits Detroit’s ability to attract residents – people to move to the city. Good press means suburban families coming to Detroit for events, etc. It means people wanting to visit and see the rebirth.
What New Detroit Looks Like
Humans of Eastern Market – A Photostory
Just like the contrast in media portrayals of Detroit, the people in the city fall into all extremes across the spectrum in term of age, ethnicity, economic statues, and every other imaginable category. In a sprawling city, perhaps the most dense collection of all these differences occurs every Saturday (and more often during the summer) at Detroit’s Eastern Market. Vendors from all across Michigan, as well as surrounding states and Canada, come into the city and set up shop for a couple hours every weekend. The crowd, hailing perhaps about half from the city and half from the suburbs, are attracted to the fresh (and ridiculously cheap) produce, flowers, apparel, and goods. Click through the following photo story for a series of portraits of the diverse Eastern Market crowd.
(Sidenote: I didn’t notice until editing the photos that the woman in 15 is Oneita Jackson, a former Detroit Free Press editor and columnist who quit her job to become an adventuring, storytelling cab driver. She’s an incredibly interesting person who I highly suggest reading about. After finishing this, of course.)
Interestingly, Eastern Market started in 1841, making it 174 years old (and it has been in the same location for 124 years). It certainly speaks to the idea of “contrast” for such a historic place to be a model for Detroit’s future. Whether that future starts in the shift to digital media, in the goals of the people in the Mayor’s office, or simply on a bike covered in glowsticks, well, that’s a matter of perspective.