Wednesday, May 13, 2009

To Inform Us or Conform Us?

I smiled when I read that Durham changed its water restrictions to match those in a few cities and towns in nearby counties including the Town of Cary, Orange County and the City of Raleigh.

These areas have different water supplies, varying geologic basins and somewhat different watersheds and weather patterns but for many years they have shared water when one or the other runs into a drought or problems with water supply.

So why join them at the hip? Here’s the irony. People may deny it but I’ve heard it is so people won’t be “confused” by news reports on water restrictions.

Say What? Isn’t the “news” at its basis presumed to enlighten us? Shouldn’t that include shedding light on distinctions?

Yes, but that is very complex when to make as much money as possible, the “media market” stretches for 22, sometimes 23 counties in a vast oblong with no dominant center running from just west of Durham to the south and east…covering probably a hundred or so cities and towns and parts of three states.

Obviously the more population in a market area, the more you can charge for advertising.

While it may make sense on the business side, it must be hell on assignment editors, reporters, editors and crews on the news side. And while huge areas like this might make sense in a centric area, e.g., centered around one dominant city…they are far less relevant or beneficial to news consumers, advertisers or communities when the area is polycentric like ours.

Superimposing a centric model on a polycentric area has had the unintended outcome for local communities of greatly eroding truly local news coverage and marginalizing the connections historically so important between communities and their respective news outlets.

Another unintended outcome is the news from one community often gets overlaid on or homogenized to others because reporters and editors either don’t have time to unwrap or find it inconvenient to make local distinctions for such a huge area.

One result is where we see local policies being conformed to other localities, so people aren’t confused at the local level by news that isn’t applicable to them.

So the tail starts waggin’ the dog. Local officials are in a bind…because without distinctions in the news, one or more communities will always be implied to be slow or stupid if they aren’t doing what another is doing, regardless of how strong the rationale for distinctions may be. Why? Because perceptions more often than not trump reality.

Kind of basakward….

And that brings us back to an argument that has raged since this countries founding…federalism or what some call “one big place” thinking vs. leaving states, counties, towns and cities united but free to address issues at the very level at which we all live.

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