Reporters’ terminology affects gentrification, scholars assert

A new study of gentrification in U.S. cities focuses on the activities of a surprising group of players — not developers, not even politicians, but newspaper reporters. The authors of the study, David Wilson and Thomas Mueller, say that city reporters of local growth and development are “important actors” in promoting gentrification. As “central information producers about cities,” these reporters “regulate understandings of urban people, places and processes with potent political-economic consequences.”
From University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:Reporters’ terminology affects gentrification, scholars assert

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new study of gentrification in U.S. cities focuses on the activities of a surprising group of players — not developers, not even politicians, but newspaper reporters.

The authors of the study, David Wilson and Thomas Mueller, say that city reporters of local growth and development are “important actors” in promoting gentrification. As “central information producers about cities,” these reporters “regulate understandings of urban people, places and processes with potent political-economic consequences.”

Reporters’ “gentrification-supportive” news stories, according to the researchers, tend to be rooted in “rhetorical representations” — especially metaphors — of neighborhoods. One dominant metaphor speaks of neighborhoods as living organisms, using words and phrases such as “thriving,” “alive,” “healthy,” “robust,” “on its deathbed.” Another metaphor describes neighborhoods as places needing salvation from planners, developers and gentrifiers, and uses such phrases as “need for technicians” or for “fixers,” “bold agents of change,” “savvy progressive developers.”

The researchers found that both metaphors were used to describe gentrifying and gentrification-ripe areas, but were rarely used to describe low-income neighborhoods unlikely to ever become gentrified. Their findings suggest that reporters “apply this metaphorically laced way to see neighborhoods in order to legitimate gentrification at actual or anticipated sites of restructuring.”

For their study, Wilson, a professor of geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Mueller, a professor of earth sciences at California University of Pennsylvania, focused on St. Louis, which, since 1985, has “significantly gentrified.”

They drew from articles published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the “dominant mainstream newspaper,” between 1980 and 2000. With a daily readership of more than 250,000, the paper “daily narrates neighborhood change and gentrification.” More than 45 reporters wrote approximately 300 articles on growth and development in St. Louis in those 20 years.

Wilson and Mueller randomly chose from their work.

In an article describing their study, to be published in the winter issue of Professional Geographer, the authors call for “a deeper understanding” of the representations reporters use, since their representations “have an enormous capacity to change neighborhoods and communities.” Each round of gentrification in St. Louis, they pointed out, “resulted in benefits and costs to the city that followed from such change.”

Across the country, some 3,000 reporters in the 100 largest cities “routinely narrate neighborhood growth,” and their representations “build knowledge regimes” that enable gentrification.

Still, gentrification is “painstakingly coded to reveal potentialities and conceal inequities,” the professors wrote, adding that the rhetoric about gentrification can “seek to mute its most contentious aspects: affluent land grabs, residential displacement and demonization of lives and cultures.”

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