New York City is not representative of the United States: a letter to national media

In 2007, a 44-year-old father of two fell five stories on an active construction site at Temple University Hospital and died.

The Inquirer wrote a nice feature on the man, who died a tragic, accidental death. Locally, the local ironworker union used his death as something of a rallying cry for a new achievement. There might have been some local TV coverage too, if the news day was slow enough.

It’s the kind of heart-wrenching story that happens too often, some 100,000 times in this specific case. But for most of the country, the story ends there. A local tragedy seen through the lens of local media.

I couldn’t find the news report, but I seem to remember a similar tragedy happening in Manhattan around the same time. It was a story like this one from April, where the New York Times reported on a terrible fall that made its way onto the NBC Nightly News and, if I remember correctly, other national media outlets.

This wasn’t the first time, and it hardly was the last. Tragedies are painful no matter where they happen, but in these cases, they’re representative of something else.

Because of locality bias, national media have unfairly and inaccurately made New York City the prism through which we see ourselves and our country. The construct is wrong and a feature of lazy reporting.

Beyond a coastal bias (as it is often called), this is even more specifically a New York bias. You know, a national media outlet sends a reporter out to get quotes from people …. in Manhattan, which is a really wonderful place but isn’t exactly a representative place.

Of course national media should want perspective truly nationally — radio programs like This American Life and Marketplace seem to do that well. But with cost constraints, this can be done with freelancers based around the country — or, yah, you know, get on a $15 bus to Philadelphia, or Baltimore or anywhere in between.

It happened again with Hurricane Irene. A major storm impacting much of the Northeast really became a story about New York City, mostly because the reporters reporting on it lived there and so understood it as home. They confused their experience with a national one.