Thursday, October 30, 2014

Putting A Fiscal Value On Roadside Character

Deep in the appendices of a study scientists conducted along the nation’s roadsides in 2010 is an estimate of how many acres of forestland is along roadsides in North Carolina’s portion of the National Highway System.

Not counting roadsides along forested state highways or all of the rural roads it maintains in each of the state’s 100 counties, just the 28% of the NHS portion still with roadside trees alone means the North Carolina Department of Transportation is in the forest preservation business.

Or it should be.

This is 7% of all state and local government forestland.  I suspect it is would be closer to 30% if an inventory were conducted of roadsides along all NCDOT-maintained roadways.

And that is just the point.  NCDOT has no boots-on-the-ground inventory of this asset, nor a strategic management plan of caring for this publicly-owned commons.

This is why there is typically no reality-based fiscal note provided when legislators vote to surrender this public asset free to out-of-state billboard companies, including no requirement to reforest taxpayer trees when destroyed merely for a few more seconds of face time.

It is also why there can be no cost compared to benefit when contractors with mechanized assets push to remove thousands of acres of trees unwarranted by federal maintenance guidelines.

NCOOT regulators know that merely using the miniscule value as “pulp” has long-ago been antiquated as forest service scientists over several decades have meticulously documented the far greater value of the trees to ecosystem services such as reducing harmful emissions.

Long ago state officials were given a heads up to scores of other types of valuations including the role of roadside forests as the signature asset both for tourism, a sector now adding an incredible $10 billion to the state’s GDP including its appeal to scouts for relocating or expanding businesses.

It wouldn’t be expensive for NCDOT to conduct a tree inventory using just the 200 randomly selected plots of 1/10th acre each required by i-Tree Eco technology created for this purpose by forestry researchers.

Plots selected by random would include ones in various regions of the state and population intensities as well as terrain and vegetation cover, including areas with no trees areas as well as views worthy of scenic preservation and those where blight is screened.DSC01342

Outputs would also provide a baseline for the number, age and health of trees along the roadsides including the percentage of each species and overall management needs.

It would also quantify the overall value calibrated top local climates and other variables.  Officials need only contact Dr. David Nowak, the research forester who created the process and who patiently broke it down for me during a phone conversation last year.

Here is an example done of street trees by the Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources using i-Tree, but NCDOT might be able to add to its considerable resume for best practices by being the first agency of its type to conduct such a roadside assessment statewide.

It took the feds nearly a decade to sign agreements for implementation with all fifty states after the Highway Beautification Act was signed on October 22, 1965, a herculean effort by the agency that today rarely even lifts a finger to enforce it.

North Carolina officials like to claim that forestland acreage here today is about the same overall as was in the 1930s.

But that disguises the fact that it had been much higher when it peaked in 1964 as the HBA was being debated in Congress. Since then, forestland has also declined precipitously (p. 4) in North Carolina.

It has also declined dramatically since 1971 when business leaders helped encouraged voters here to pass an amendment to the State constitution in part meant to protect forestland such as that along public roadsides (Sec. 5, Article XIV.)

Emblematic instead, is that those sworn to uphold it simply don’t, with newly enabled sacrifices of forests along roadsides and soon interchanges, which is pushed only by lobbyists today on behalf of parasitic commercial billboards.

But following the embedding of that amendment in 1972, state officials let another million acres of public forestland disappear, prompting cities such as Durham in 1984 to enact billboard bans in self-defense, followed by protective scenic overlays along new Interstates and in 1999, ordinances to protect tree canopy in general.

Yet, here too, local officials have failed to follow up with an inventory of this signature symbol of sense of place, a powerful prerequisite of any strategic management of green infrastructure while “billboarders” and their legislative allies press to override three decades of local effort to be more appealing.

While more than 8-in-10 North Carolinians - and an even greater proportion of visitors - are reverential about forested North Carolina roadsides, they are easy to take for granted.

Much of what we see today has grown back in the last 50 years.  As the HBA was passed, there had come to be a billboard every 1500 feet nationwide along highways (imagine seeing one every city block.)

By 1984, enforcement of the HBA had removed barely half a million billboards and prevented another 200,000 but billboard companies had used loopholes, campaign donations and graft to continue to litter cities alone across America with half a million billboards.

Durham, North Carolina had had enough and enacted a Republican-led ban that year while many other communities in North Carolina and across the state succumbed to heavy-handed lobbying, graft and threats instead.

However, after the very highest courts sided with Durham, the state sided with the billboard lobbyists.

Today, the feds look the other way when it comes to enforcing the Highway Beautification Act enabling billboard companies to push through phony rezoning.

It isn’t enough that North Carolina has once again permitted enough billboards to be put up along U.S. highways here alone to be the equivalent of one per city block, but a legislative give-away recently enabled them to triple the cut zone forgoing a million or more  publicly owned trees.

And yet, there is no inventory of the forests the public owns along roadsides or any holistic estimate of the value of roadside forests’ worth, including tourism, although according to public opinion polls, they are priceless to Tar Heels.

In the meantime, as any use of billboards by consumers to buy something had fallen now to “two-tenths of one percent,” lobbyists are readying a push with legislative allies to force communities, even with those with bans to permit digital billboards.

Sound like reasonable stewardship to you?  Or maybe it is time for a moratorium to preserve North Carolina’s scenic character, while it still has some left!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why Curators and Archivists Make Good Community Marketers

History, it turned out, was the perfect background for community marketing.  Or maybe it was just that community marketing was appealing to a person with a degree in history.

Marketing communities involves leveraging for economic and cultural development the three general types of place-based assets distinct to a particular place:

  • Culture and Heritage
  • “Built”
  • Natural

I don’t just mean the date and event type of history told through documents although that is useful because learning to see patterns and connections - the essence of historical analysis - is also key to marketing innovation and strategy-making.

But also valuable to community marketing are related studies such as:

  • Economics:  history viewed through commercial transactions,
  • Geology:  history told through rocks and physiography,
  • Archeology: history told through artifacts and material remains,
  • Anthropology: history told through societies, languages, and values,
  • Environment: history told through human interaction with the natural world,
  • Genealogy:  history told through family relationships and DNA.

There are others but hopefully these are enough illustration for those who haven’t thought of community marketing as a career or marketers who view it far too narrowly or were taught it only from a commercial perspective.

I’m a little slow.

For all that preliminary background in history, it still took me over half a life-long career to connect those dots.

It also wasn’t until my third startup that I even more formally embedded archives.

Perhaps this is why I was amused to learn recently, the history of my first startup was apparently rewritten exclusive to a much later addition of a word to its name and the second one seems also to have written a revisionist notion of its founding.

Fortunately, should anyone care, I still have personal documents proving my existence there and the roots of each of those organization including their pre-history fingerprints. (smile.)

Frankly, many marketers, even those trained in communications, often seem to play a bit fast and loose with facts and context either because they are too lazy to fact-check using what archives were kept or to make a political statement or even to flatter later executives.

Even more troubling, journalists often pick up these reinterpretations, further contaminating the public record with anecdotal hyperbole.

Thus, the “Research Triangle” is misattributed in a 1957 state brochure as the “brain child” of a later state governor.

And some of us involved in later stages of community turnarounds are flattered with in inaccuracies proclaiming that until our charge these places were a “sleepy backwater,” of that “tumbleweeds blew down empty streets,” or working there was “a death sentence.”

Not true, of course, but that is how history gets polluted.

Part of the problem is that Durham, North Carolina where I finished my career and now live in retirement, while arguably blessed with the deepest, most diverse history of any community, still lacks a full-fledged museum of local history.

This source of resident frustration is indispensable, not just as a cultural amenity but as a touchstone-repository to help newcomers and future generations gain, regain and keep perspective.

Even commercial enterprises, according to Advertising Age, now grasp the importance of “curating, cultivating and preserving the histories of their brands,” not only to inform marketing efforts but because “employees are looking for that heritage and lineage – how they fit into the family tree.”

Many CEOs, according to an article in the Portland Business Journal last summer understand that “the past is a powerful tool in public relations, marketing and branding.”

Or that ultimately they can perpetually “mine the past to recharge the present.”

Dr. Paul Bloom at Yale is often quoted from presentations and papers that “we are obsessed with origin and history…things get value because of their history.”

Consulting archivists at The Winthrop Group, Inc., quote Pendleton’s CEO Mort Bishop as relating “Our heritage is a lot more than a simple matter of using historical materials in marketing…It’s our DNA.”

Others wrote couple of years back in the Harvard Business Review, “A sophisticated understanding of the past is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping the future.”

A McKinsey executive noted that it is “essential for every one of our partners and colleagues to understand our history and how our values were shaped over time.”

Even Entrepreneur Magazine’s startup-rich content heralds the value this depth can bring to storytelling's role in creating brand value.

So why are so many community marketers pinned under the thumbs of those who don’t get it?

In past essays, I’ve frequently noted research showing that even among visitors who skew more to fantasy activities such as shopping, sports, performing arts or amusement parks, destinations that preserve and cultivate authenticity foremost are by many times over the most appealing.

Yet so many elected officials, enabled by their community’s marketers and propelled by “edifice envy,” have, or are quickly surrendering, the authenticity of their particular places.

Maybe my sense of urgency is because it took half a career to dawn on me, and many places won’t have that luxury.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Mucking Memoir

My musical sensibilities were fostered not only by my mother’s wonderful voice and piano playing but by my paternal grandfather’s tenor as he sang along with an old ratio in the horse barn on our ancestral ranch along the Tetons in Idaho.

It is there at age six, while helping him muck out the barn that I first heard a song that has served as a backdrop to my life over six decades now, although recorded and sung by many different artists along the way.

My musical tastes are eclectic but penned by Jimmy Work, the country song-standard, Making Believe I realize now in reflection, has been one of my constants.

Or maybe it is that old radio that set the tone.  The old horse barn is gone now, preserved only in family photos (behind my dad in the image shown further down in this memoir.)

I wonder what became of family artifacts such as that old radio or my great-grandfather’s “HB” branding irons that hung there by the door, remnants of which are preserved in the state of Idaho’s archives.

The one with just the initials went on the left thigh of our horses.  The other including an underscore went on the right rib of our cattle, perhaps foretelling my career one day branding communities.

As family heirlooms, I wish I had that old radio and especially those branding irons.  As all artifacts do, they would sure tell some stories.00083_p_aaeuyfyqe0638_z

When I first heard Making Believe sung by Kitty Wells, my then six year old ears had also recently been kindled to doo-wop.

I had caught a few bars of Earth Angel one day as my grandfather was tuning the radio back to country from listening to opera arias, then sponsored by Texaco, as we did each week.

Yup, that’s where I first heard one of my favorites, O Soave Fanciulla with my grandfather, who had barely finished second grade, singing along at the top of his lungs as we shoveled horse manure, a reflection that came to me a few weeks ago as my mind wandered during Phantom Of The Opera recitatives.

The old barn radio is also where I first remember hearing the voice of Vin Scully calling the 1955 World Series won that year by the then Brooklyn Dodgers over my favorite New York Yankees.

My dad and I watched a year later on our new television while still listening on the radio as Don Larson pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in a rematch which Scully also called.

It is why even today I listen, if only while changing channels to Dodger games, which he still calls, and why the World Series has always been more enjoyable for me as a backdrop on the radio.

By 1955, it had already been 16 years since my grandfather had been able to work the ranch he had homesteaded and then assembled by incorporating purchases of those of my great-uncles and great-grandparents.

My dad started running this ancestral spread while finishing high school.  The years he had been away at war, the ranch fell fallow with my grandparents only keeping some prized horses.

When my dad returned from WWII, my grandparents turned the ranch house as well over to my parents and moved a dozen miles south down the Henry’s Fork into St. Anthony, population 2,600.

But after I was born in 1948, my grandfather resumed being a daily fixture around the ranch, volunteering words of wisdom to my parents and paling around with me each day or me with him.

He passed away in the fall of 1964 a few months after he and my grandmother gave me their old WWII-era Jeep for my 16th birthday.

The Beatles first charted U.S. album Meet The Beatles had come out that year, a month after, I Want To Hold Your Hand,” hit the charts as a singleHis passing was less than two months after the conclusion of the group’s first tour in America.

By the time of his funeral, we were already eagerly singing Anna, This Boy and Till There Was You, both in glee club at school and when used by my mom as a form of bribery to get two friends and me to sing in the church youth choir she conducted.

She was quick to remind us that Till There Was You had been written for a musical back when I had first caught that glimpse of rock and roll out in our barn.

My mom wasn’t musically defensive though.  A few years earlier when with these same friends we eagerly directed her attention to the Marcel’s doo-wop new hit Blue Moon, we even joined in with “dip di dip di dip” and all.

Only after they had left did she drop in passing that Blue Moon dated back to a musical three decades earlier when she had been younger than I was when first catching a few bars of doo-wop on the barn radio.

It seemed like music had changed forever and from the 1960s until the early-1970s I turned away from country music, but that all changed when I first heard Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris introduce a genre called country rock.

In 1977, when I was a newly minted community marketing exec, Emmylou brought me back to my roots when she revived Making Believe, followed a year later by a version by Merle Haggard  as I took on my second community marketing agency in Anchorage.

When I headed to Durham in 1989, a duet version of Making Believe by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty was on the charts.  Another duet version followed by Patty Loveless and Vince Gill, whose voice my grandfather’s most resembles in timbre.

In part, it may be why I selected Gill’s Go Rest High On That Mountain for my father’s funeral in 2001, just as one day (sooner than I think), I may be recommending for my mother’s, a duet version of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel in duet with Emmylou Harris.

It reminds me of my mother’s voice and piano style now in her mid-80s before her fingers became are too twisted to play.

Making Believe continues to be a soundtrack for my life now in a new stage, most recently sung in duet by Willie Nelson and Brandi Carlisle, who is young enough to be his great-granddaughter.

Nelson’s first song writing credits and demos stretch clear back to 1955 when I was listening to that old radio in our horse barn. Of course so does his career as a sales manager for encyclopedias, perhaps an early influence?

Making Believe isn’t my signature song: that would be Desperado, which a co-worker in Anchorage set to calligraphy and framed for me.

But it sure has been an old and familiar friend all these years.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Real Test of Revitalization Comes After

For those of us who love this region, the State of the South report has been issued every couple of years since 1996 by a think tank based in Durham, North Carolina where I live.

So when a friend who is still in the loop forwarded me the newest edition published a few days ago,  I was not only eager to dig right in, but took a moment to reflect on a forerunner I read the month Durham adopted me twenty five years ago.

Published three years earlier in 1986, that report was entitled Shadows in the Sunbelt.

My job back then was to jump-start an organization to market Durham for visitor-centric economic and cultural development and I soaked up that Shadows report for much needed context and perspective.

It declared obsolete “the Buffalo hunt” approach to more traditional “supply-side” economic development and proposed as an alternative that communities, both rural and urban, begin instead to leverage local assets and existing enterprises, such as “place-based” tourism has always done.

Back then, it also signaled something in common with this most recent report, “the tale of two Souths.”

In its epilogue, that nearly three-decade old report prophesied that we in “the South must tend to our roots, or in the end, risk our values.”

Well, it’s been 25 years since I read that report and the “Buffalo hunters” are not only still monopolizing economic development in North Carolina but officials have recently retro-organized it in a way sure to keep its extinction on life support.

And ironically, in at least three of the state’s five largest cities, “demand-side” visitor-centric economic developers have surrendered the far greater value of leveraging sense of place and place based assets in favor of a variant of “big game hunting” around mainstream “edifice envy.”

But the irony is not lost on “stayer” residents of those communities who see it as tragic instead, to see communities once distinct and worthy of love sell out at the altar of “sameness” worshipped by “boomers.”

But indeed, not only are both forms of “Buffalo hunting” still staggering slowly toward extinction three decades later, but in some communities such as Durham, traditional supply-side economic developers seem to be gradually trying to emulate the demand-side nature of tourism by seeking to draw talent rather than big game.

But while Durham may be way ahead of the curve on both economic development fronts, it seems as if far too few here are worried about the unintended consequences surrounding the adaptive reuse of what remains of its “built” elements of its sense of place.

The problem isn’t as a respected friend recently prophesied that revitalization efforts have reached the “tipping point,” but that Durham officials seem totally unprepared that the greater challenge will be to manage success.

Or that if left unchecked, development will almost certainly now begin to destroy the very things so worthy of love here.

Having worked so hard on the front end to leverage its “realness” while sparking the 1990’s image turnaround, a barrier that had been choking off access to financing, I too am stunned at the speed with which. now unleashed, second-wave development has begun to destroy that “realness.”

There seems to be a lack of intensity or sense of urgency, in response, not only to insist on architectural scale and fit but to mitigate gentrification, aggressively get at the systemic roots of poverty and preserve almost temporal community values such as social justice, acceptance, openness, organic creation and diversity.

By failing to “tend to our roots,” in Durham, we too are “risking our values.”

Durham is one of the nine Southern cities and towns highlighted in this newest State of the South report.  Durham and its neighborhoods could have been substituted in this introductory description that echoes the warning thirty years earlier:

“In much of today’s South, economic and demographic vibrancy exist side-by-side, as veritable next-door neighbors, with poverty, underemployment, educational disparities, and stagnant social mobility.”

The graphics alone in this newest report tell a powerful story and none more so than those showing the side-by-side paradox in Durham.

If by bringing appreciation for Durham’s temporal attributes and helping to spark the kindling under this turn-around, was I complicit by failing to see how fast the reinvigoration would turn destructive.

I try to remember to post these essays on social media such as Facebook because those are the places where many frequent readers tell me it is easiest to access, share and/or comment which today is most often via one-on-one emails or text messages.

Recently, in return, several readers forwarded essays related to this shared concern.  One is how Portland is fighting to keep things “real” there and in synch with its unpretentious values.

Another cites the changes that unmanaged gentrification has made along one end of Divisidero, a street in San Francisco where I lived for a few months in 1989 before being recruited to Durham.

My apartment was on the Bay end of Divisidero.

But needing to exercise to help build my lungs up following a bout in the hospital with pneumonia that January, for that few months between jobs, I would religiously take daily walks, also, in part for reflection.

Each of our lungs is only hand-size but on the inside where they do their work, the various branches, cavities and air sacks called alveoli are the combined surface area of a football field.

Some days the walk would take me 40 active minutes south on Divisidero, up and over Pacific Heights a ridge more three times the height of one we complain about on walks each morning now in Durham.

It crested as I passed what is now “Billionaire’s Row” before descending for checkups and medication-refills at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center.

I think it was called “Millionaires Row” back then and the views are spectacular.  But reflection and self-forgiveness are also boosted with a little self-inflicted pain - (Smile.)

The medical center is in the neighborhood that is the subject of Katy Kreitler’s excellent article this month entitled “9 Ways Privileged People Can Reduce the Negative Impact of Gentrification.” 

The author is reverse-engineering how Western Addition, the neighborhood around that hospital, lost the soul of its “realness” after I left when frustrated officials, focused only on reducing crime and blight, unleashed forces that also hollowed out its “there-there.”

Others such as Daniel Hertz have countered recently that he sees no way for us to mitigate or manage gentrification through our personal decisions and that the real problem is a “curiously dysfunctional housing system.” 

Another by Kriston Capp notes that studies show the massive overbuilding of cultural facilities such as performing arts centers over the past decade is spurring gentrification along with deeper poverty rather than the oft-promised Bilbao-effect.

It is important to note, as a new white paper by researchers at AudienceScan does, that high-come adults are 40% more likely to shop at locally owned business and that 60% of shoppers there have above average incomes.

But that is the paradox of gentrification.  These are often not the same locally-owned business that gave these neighborhoods their appealing “real-ness.”

We gentrifyers have a way of killing the things we love.

All of these sources are worthwhile reading for anyone concerned about preserving the values and sense of place in the places they love.

On my return on those walks, I would head up to the historic Fillmore the venue and birthplace for rock, blues, folk and roots music legends of the late 1960s such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Emmylou Harris and Janis Joplin).

Sometimes before turning back north I would continue on up Cathedral Hill and listen to mid-day prayers sung as Gregorian Chants.

These neighborhoods were still the “real” San Francisco back then compared to those more touristy east of Van Ness/north of Market.

I have been back to San Francisco but not back to those neighborhoods, probably sensing at the time that the forces drawn to them including visitors would ultimately “kill the very things they loved.”

Organic “real places” aren’t created as much as enabled by developers when they are sensitive to scale and work with a light touch so as not to disturb sense of place or force out small, local businesses such as the developers of Durham’s Brightleaf Square did there and then along Ninth Street.

Developers without those sensibilities are drawn to these areas but without officials who are attuned to activist neighbors and small businesses and who are unafraid to say no, places can be quickly overwhelmed, relegating historic structures to little more than an amenity.

Sometimes this corrosion of place is even further enabled by public facilities that are even more disrespectful of sense of place values leading some to warn we should watch what edifices officials build, not what they say, when it comes to preserving values such as reducing poverty.

Looking back, I was fully aware that many of those with whom I stood alongside in the push for revitalization didn’t really share Durham’s sense of place values, or if they did, also didn’t realize that safeguards needed to be embedded long before any tipping point occured.

My reflective ego says I could have and should have done much more to warn officials about the failure inherent in success and that sense of place and community values, while nearly temporal in nature, are not guaranteed.

But starved for the day when revitalization would fully ignite, many officials, hypnotized by arm-twisting on behalf of the “shiny and new,” dismissed warnings that were given back then as merely naysaying.

You can steer a community to “best practices” but there will always be a few otherwise well-meaning souls who seem to always seek out “worst practices” instead.

To use a term from Accounting 101, they, along with formula developers will be “last in, first out” too when community values are purged and the reasons to love a community begin to flicker.

Those who truly value sense of place are more often “first in, last out.”

I’m not going anywhere and my time may be past but the real fight to preserve sense of place began not with revitalization but in its wake.

It isn’t too late for Durham but it is very, very close.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mitigating Halloween and Our Obsession with Risk

Pedestrian safety became an issue on my neighborhood listserv in Durham last week when some parents decided they wanted to seal off streets this Halloween.

“Helicopter” parents apparently get a little testy too as several did when one neighbor, a university professor in our midst, dared raise the potential of “unintended consequences” along with the fact that “we are terrible” at estimating risk.

In my former career, I often found myself in what crisis management expert Peter Sandman calls the “calm down” business which is futile in addressing those in “fear” or those in the “outrage” business.

I remember a few months before 9/11, sharing with a journalist friend, the book by sociological researcher Dr. Barry Glassner, now the president of Lewis & Clark College entitled, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.

It mostly fell on deaf ears.  Journalists pride themselves on objectivity but by the nature of their craft, are more often slaves instead to anecdotes, especially those that cause alarm among audiences.

With fewer and fewer resources spread among too many outlets all chasing the same stories, rarely, if ever is there time or inclination to delve into perspective, thus, we see the media repeatedly use fear to bully public policy as it is doing with Ebola right now.

Then, as if totally unaware of cause and effect, they turn around and publish “lookie-there” stories about how upset people are and how officials are pandering to fear, completing a self-fulfilling feedback loop.

Journalists, other than the media analysts/hosts of On The Media will collectively be in denial that their outsized coverage of a potential pandemics and obsessions with beheadings by thugs may turn out to be enough to sway the upcoming election.

But it is more complicated than that and the news media is not entirely to blame.

The news media is indeed biased, but not in the partisan way Republicans have ingrained us to believe.  Media analyst Brooke Gladstone, in her book The Influencing Machine notes the real biases in the news media.

She explains that journalists are indeed biased when it comes to bad news because we, the consumers, are “wired to care about anything that even remotely threatens us…this makes the world seem more dangerous than it is.”

Some years ago, communications researchers helped the organization I led back then unwrap the source of entrenched negativity about the community I represented among residents of two nearby communities.

Without first lowering the barrier this created, any promotion would be futile.

They concluded that the news media there were not breeders of the negativity but rather carriers, and that any messaging we undertook needed to distinguish among news decision-makers there the role of over-weighting and lack of perspective from news content.

It worked and became one of three pillars that turned the condition around to a positive by the late 1990s, which in turn loosened up financing that enabled Durham’s subsequent brick and mortar revitalization.

Glassner took no prisoners in his book Culture of Fear, which was republished with updated perspectives and research in 2010, especially among editors, journalists and especially publishers keenly aware of how lucrative fear stories are.

But he and Gladstone agree that the solution lies with us as news consumers and part of that means speaking up whenever fear is blown out of perspective as it was on my neighborhood list serve this week.

Journalists often lurk on these networks in search of story ideas that resonate but hopefully, they are also seeing how sloppy or inaccurate coverage can fuel reactions to fear among ordinary citizens in ways that can have unintended consequences in society.

Group-think decision makers, who seemingly cloak fear-based reactions with rational or maybe who just didn’t think through the ramifications, often react defensively to interjections to “calm down,” turning snarky instead on the messengers.

But one rational outcome on our listserv this week was circulation of a link to a report on pedestrian-car collisions issued a couple of months ago by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.

Using data in the report, a neighbor on the “calm down” side of the exchanges computed that the odds of any child on Halloween being injured in an accident involving a motor vehicle is 1-in-240,000,000, far less than accidentally stumbling.

The report breaks down vehicle accidents involving pedestrians between 2008 and 2012 across the state including by region, comparing rural vs. urban and ranking the most prone cities.

Durham ranks fourth as a city, its same rank by size of population but fifth as a county, one spot higher than by population.  It is too bad the researchers couldn’t include non-residents where they work in one community during the day but live in another.

Communities such as Durham have a net increase in drivers during the day of nearly 137,000 drivers, a much higher proportion than other cities. It also doesn’t factor in visitors who in high-performance Durham add 25,000 drivers here per day.

But even if weighted for total drivers vs. just population that wouldn’t entirely explain why Durham has more incidents than say, Winston-Salem.

Many people dismiss these pedestrian-car crashes as merely related to alcohol, nighttime, age or weather but that isn’t the case.  Nearly 90% and more than 95% of the crashes respectively, alcohol use is not suspected on the part of the pedestrian or the driver.

Over 75% involve pedestrians are older than 16 and younger than 60, and 73% of the drivers involved are older than 20 and younger than 59. Over half of the instances occur in daylight and another fifth on lighted roadways.  Nearly 80% occur when the weather is clear.

I’m certain everyone commenting on my neighborhood listserv this week considers themselves rational, enlightened and open-minded people, but cognitive scientists know we are lousy at challenging our own beliefs.

“Fundamentally,” according to researcher Dr. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, “we are primarily intuitive not rational.”

But he cites studies on reflection and reasoning in moral judgment by researchers at Harvard and Stanford that show that  when we are “forced to reflect for two minutes on a different point of view[,that] can make us substantially more tolerant” of opposing views.

In an excellent post on her blog Otium entitled “Do Rational People Exist, a Yale PhD. candidate gives an excellent overview of research finding related to our cognitive biases.

She concludes from the findings that rational people do exist, and while in a minority, it isn’t a “tiny minority.”  For one, I’m relieved when those who in this minority are speak up, even if it makes some of use uncomfortable.

And lurking news media may also just pick up some valuable grist that will help us put what collectively threatens us in far better context rather than the “rush to judgment” the feeding frenzy of news stories fueled in Durham during the Lacrosse case or now in Ferguson, Missouri.

But I fear the reaction may just be “lookie-there” or anecdotal disbelief as it was this week when forensics and numerous grand jury eye-witnesses in Missouri rounded out some premature speculation.

One thing I know from experience is that news media, while unrepentant nor introspective about its role, collectively just points the finger in another direction.

But news outlets are a reflection of the masses and only we the consumers can generate perspective.