With Sacramento’s new basketball arena set to open in October, local station FOX40 sent a reporter to find out what the new home of the Kings (being built at a public cost of $226 million) is doing for the city’s downtown. Her key finding: A new NBA arena hasn’t cured homelessness:
One downtown with two very different faces. The drive to revive Sacramento is evident in a state-of-the-art arena. But that effort is facing a troubling problem on the streets.
One downtown, there is hope for a rebirth of a city and emergence from the shadows. The other: where people feel hopeless, forgotten in the shadows.
“They could spend $500 million on a basketball court, but they won’t put out a dime to help the homeless people,” said Larry, who lives on the streets.
The struggle on the streets juxtaposed to a downtown on the cusp of a rebirth.
On the one hand, using the Kings arena as a hook to examine chronic homelessness (though the examination here doesn’t go much beyond “it exists”) isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially for local newscasts that almost never focus on the lives of the poor. But on the other, this report reveals how deeply messed up local development reporting can be.
The key is that word “rebirth.” In developer-speak, all too often parroted by local news reports, rebirth or revitalization or renaissance is what happens to neighborhoods when you build new stuff. And newness, in this mindset, is supposed to fix everything, whether it’s lack of jobs or a strained city treasury or the team being a chaotic disaster or, apparently, homelessness. We built you a new basketball arena, poor people, why do you persist in not being able to afford homes?
Put that way, the premise of reports like these sounds, frankly, insane. (It’s even more insane when you take into account that economic studies have found no correlation between new NBA arenas and income growth.) There’s a glimmer of a legitimate story in here, along the lines of how having homeless people sleeping downtown is an embarrassment to the elected officials who are trying to sell Sacramento as all cleaned up now. But noting all the new construction taking place downtown and then asking “Will it work?,” as FOX40 does, shows a stunning misunderstanding of what redevelopment is supposed to accomplish—or, worse, is an implication that the only “revitalization” that counts is the kind that makes the homeless disappear to somewhere else. After all, the Olympics get away with it.
The FOX40 reporters who put together this piece probably didn’t think that this was the message they were conveying, but that shouldn’t let them off the hook. If you’re going to be a journalist, it’s vitally important that you think about not only what you’re covering, but how you’re covering it, and what assumptions go into the way you frame your story.
This news item ends up telling one story in its text—“homelessness bad and intractable!”—and another in its subtext—“how much concrete do we have to pour in order to fix social problems?” Sometimes good journalism is less about finding answers than asking the right questions.