Local media should be more local on first reference, says Philadelphia man

If you cover a big city with rambling and varied regions and neighborhoods, your reporting and writing should reflect that.

Yet, from a culture of journalism that cycled reporters through various markets to urban decay that encouraged too many of them to live outside those big cities they covered, one of the more common complaints I have from established, legacy media is a frightening disconnect from where they report.

There’s surely no better example of that than the wildly popular Right NEast/Wrong NEast column from Northeast Philadelphia hyperlocal news site NEast Philly, which skewers the very common mistakes by TV and newspapers here, when the get the wrong neighborhood name, street name or worse: tiny details that matter very little to reporters who have never been to those places but matter a great deal to those who live there.

But there’s a more subtle example of this that has long frustrated me, particularly here in Philadelphia.

This from an Inquirer story about on-going internal investigations at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:

“The Rev. Christopher Walsh, pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort in Philadelphia and one of the organizers, declined to discuss the group.”

It’s an entirely straightforward sentence, something that I’m sure the reporter and editors didn’t think twice about. In fact, I wouldn’t think twice about the sentence myself if it was written by a news organization from some place other than Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is 135 square miles with more than 1.5 million people and some 60 neighborhoods inside a half dozen regions. They are distinct and varied. A quote from someone working near Mount Airy in the northwest section of the city (like this parish is) means something different to me than someone in the Fox Chase neighborhood of the Northeast, in the same way that someone from suburban Ardmore sees a distinction from there and, say, Upper Darby, also outside the city.

We use geography for context and, no, “Philadelphia” isn’t providing that when reading a news outlet based in Philadelphia. (Of course this goes for all reporters covering big cities or any larger region.)

I don’t necessarily mean to pick on the Inquirer: you’ll see it regularly in the Philadelphia Business Journal, like here, where a business in Pennsauken, N.J. is mentioned alongside a business in Philadelphia (no matter that the relatively varied suburban Jersey town is still wildly more contextually helpful than saying Philly instead of Center City or Navy Yard-based), or on the local CBS 3 news, using lower thirds for a man from “Philadelphia,” or when 6ABC mentions a man was shot “on a Philadelphia street.

To use that earlier example, Ardmore is 1.9 square miles and has 12,000 people. If your reporters don’t recognize that “Philadelphia” isn’t a sufficient enough a geographical description in comparison to a town like that for describing a source, a business, an organization or building, then you need to rent a bus and take them on a tour of the city to show how different it can be.

And take 76 or 95 a bit farther north than the 676 interchange.

Mass media is the clearest way we self-identify, which is why I feel so strongly that Philadelphia needs movies and music that embrace our accent and culture more fervently. But in this way too, journalism is a way for us to understand ourselves and our city.

Just a couple examples of this may seem is small and meaningless. But I see it with enough regularity to frustrate me, and thousands of such examples every year contribute to our region seeing a vibrant and varied city in a very monolithic way. And that’s another in a long list of failures by news organizations that have come unhinged from the communities they are meant to cover.