Journalists can play a pivotal role in Detroit’s rebirth

By Jon Funabiki

A “Grand Bargain” dreamed up by a federal judge and funded by a covey of foundations has helped to rescue the city of Detroit from bankruptcy and $18 billion in debts. Now comes the hard part: rebuilding the public’s trust in government and the schools, repairing frayed relations among various racial and other groups, and wooing new residents, businesses and investors.

That means changing people’s perceptions about Detroit, making people believe that it is the place to be, rather than to flee. How journalists portray Detroit as it emerges from bankruptcy will have a big impact on the public’s perceptions, not just locally, but nationally as well.

Residents who love Detroit often say they are disgusted by the way journalists—especially those representing the national news media—often fall back on photographs and descriptions of “ruins porn” to depict their hometown. (Check this complaint for yourself: Type “Detroit” in Google, and take a look at the top-ranked photographs that you get. The vast majority will be of dilapidated buildings and broken neighborhoods.) To be sure, there is a huge problem with blight—Detroit is scarred by nearly 80,000 dilapidated and abandoned structures. They are ugly and dangerous, and they can scare off would-be homebuyers, entrepreneurs and investors, the very people needed to help revitalize the largest city in the nation to declare bankruptcy.

Yet, proud Detroiters have shown me plenty of brighter scenes. I’ve admired stately neighborhoods filled with well-kept houses, the new downtown Compuware World Headquarters, the TechTown business incubator built in an old General Motors facility, and the five-mile Detroit RiverWalk. Sprinkled around the downtown and along the riverbank are stirring monuments, statues and plaques that mark sites of the Underground Railroad, the network of churches, homes and other safe havens that helped African American slaves escape from the South to Canada.

Journalists need to cover Detroit’s struggles. But the coverage can’t be one-sided and myopic. We also need to balance problems with solutions; crisis with opportunity; and despair with hope. This is exactly what the journalists involved in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative are trying to do, and this is why Renaissance Journalism points to this project as a new model for how the news media can address a community-wide crisis.

Nine news outlets have banded together to form the Detroit Journalism Cooperative. Vastly diverse, they include Detroit Public Television, WDET, Michigan Radio, Bridge (an online policy magazine produced by The Center for Michigan) and five ethnic newspapers: The Arab American News, The Jewish News, The Michigan Citizen (serving the African American community), The Latino Press and The Michigan Korean Weekly. Utilizing funding from the Ford Foundation, Renaissance Journalism played a key role in setting up the project and funneling financial support to each of the outlets. In addition, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has given grants to the same groups.

Through the cooperative, the nine news outlets are providing in-depth coverage of the financial crisis that has engulfed not only Detroit but other cities, school districts and public entities in the state of Michigan. An unprecedented amount of collaboration is occurring as the journalists undertake joint reporting projects and work to engage the public, from residents in the neighborhoods to policymakers in the state capital. They are watchdogging the power brokers while providing the facts, history and broad context people need to understand how Detroit got into its deep financial mess—and how they will get out of it.

A case in point is a story by Christy McDonald of Detroit Public TV that was given national exposure when it was broadcast by the PBS “NewsHour” on Sept. 29. McDonald offers a fresh, in-depth look at blight and shows how the city has developed strategic ways to combat the problem that has come to symbolize Detroit’s crisis. With the help of federal funding, demolition crews are knocking down up to 250 dilapidated houses a week. Homebuyers can bid for some abandoned houses that are being auctioned off, and they can apply for small grants to help finance rehabilitation. High-tech hackers have developed a smartphone app that enables ordinary citizens to track blight in their neighborhoods. They call it “blexting.”

To be clear, McDonald neither ignores nor minimizes the problems. But her emphasis on signs of progress helps to blunt the paralyzing images of “ruins porn” that dominates much media coverage. This is real news, not a whitewash. How we choose to frame the story is an important first step toward the kind of news coverage that helps the public grapple with critical issues. We believe that it is important to close the gap between journalists and the community if we are to uncover meaningful and authentic stories.

This will be especially important after Judge Steven W. Rhodes of the United States Bankruptcy Court on November 7 approved the city’s plan for dealing with its fiscal woes. A key part of the plan was the “Grand Bargain” in which foundations pledged to contribute $816 million to save Detroit’s famed art museum and to reduce the pension cuts that retirees would have suffered. The plan helped to restore confidence in the city’s future.

It so happens that the PBS “NewsHour” broadcast occurred the same week that Valerie Chow Bush, deputy director of Renaissance Journalism, and I were in Detroit to host a reception for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative. After working with the journalists for almost a year, we thought it was high time to celebrate their success.

We invited two young poets to express their hopes for Detroit. The poems by Justin Rogers, a Wayne State University student and writer with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, and Arzelia Williams, a senior at the Detroit School of the Arts and a member of InsideOut’s Citywide Poets program, were powerful and emotional. Both poets balanced disturbing scenes of a city in decay with hope that their beloved hometown can be restored to glory.

Said Rogers:

Detroit is a chop shop—
Our historic buildings are not abandoned,
They are helping us appreciate the skeleton beneath the layers
Our potholed asphalt are dimples you cannot ignore—
Our land is smiling.
Our front lawns glisten crystal under headlights
Our homes are dream catchers in a country of nightmares.

The young poets inspired us to do even more to shine a spotlight on Detroit and its people, who are tired of nightmares and in search of dreams.



A recent trip to Detroit makes me ask: Are you proud of—or vexed by—what people think about your hometown? Do you think their perceptions are shaped by what they see in the media?

Try this experiment: Fire up Google, type in the name of your hometown and check out the top-ranked images that you see. I did this for “San Francisco,” where I work, and Google showered me with postcard-perfect photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge, gleaming skyscrapers and sun-kissed Victorian homes. I did this for “Alameda,” where I live, and Google flattered me with photographs of quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods and community parks.

But I was shocked when I typed in “Detroit.” Google gave me with one photograph after another of collapsing houses, abandoned office buildings and decimated neighborhoods. Yes, there were also shots of the towering Renaissance Center and other nice buildings along the Detroit River, but they were in the minority.


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