Friday, April 27, 2012

Media Panels on Honolulu Rail Coverage Note Challenges Supporters Face in Making Their Case

 Is the rail project too big for media to get their arms around?
ThinkTech’s monthly luncheon yesterday was billed as “an in-depth conversation with a host of journalists” on media coverage of Honolulu rail, the largest construction project in Hawaii history.

What we think we heard was a thoughtful recognition among most of the current and former journalists on two panels that rail is almost too big to cover adequately. They try, but their apparently sober self-appraisal was that rail is so huge and important that it may be just too big to get their arms around – at least on a consistent basis.

Media coverage itself has become an issue (see our concerns about recent media-sponsored rail polls), and that’s why we’re devoting so much space to yesterday’s panel discussion.

The luncheon’s first panel included Hawaii News Now news director and former Advertiser editor Mark Platte, former TV journalist Barbara Tanabe, former Advertiser editorial writer and political reporter Jerry Burris and former New York Times writer and current contributor Richard Halloran. A second panel began with Michael Levine of Civil Beat, Malia Zimmerman of and Mark Abramson of Pacific Business News. We ran out of time couldn’t stay for blogger Ian Lind’s and UH professor emeritus Neal Milner’s presentations. All remarks below are condensed from their presentations and a Q&A follow-up. We’ve quoted extensively and paraphrased closely on occasion based on the recording we made.

Fair or Slanted?
Before the panel discussion began, moderator Steve Petranik of Hawaii Business Magazine asked audience members whether they felt media coverage had been slanted or fair. The hands-up poll showed a fairly even split.

Petranik later asked whether those who felt coverage has been slanted believe the slant agreed with their views on rail – i.e., whether rail supporters saw a pro-rail slant and rail opponents perceived a slant that reflected their views. Almost no hands were raised, leading Burris to say news consumers’ perception of rail coverage is a reflection of their own biases.

Rail – a Big Deal
Barbara Tanabe: The Honolulu rail project is a “great big deal” that affects us all. The city will spend more than $5.2 billion, so by its sheer size, it deserves priority attention and coverage by the news media in the state.  The city, to fill a requirement to receive federal funds, must keep the public informed about the project. It’s called public engagement, so the city has set up (outreach) as a requirement to receive federal funds…. The bottom line is: As members of the public, are we better informed because of the city’s extensive public engagement process?

I think public awareness is high because of the public relations effort, but public understanding comes through a deeper dialogue, and that’s why the news media are so important. They must have access to city officials running the rail project, and they should have access to documents from which decisions are made. News is not just what people are talking about today. News is what people should be talking about, most of all, the reporters to raise the questions based on what’s in those reports and studies that most people generally don’t have access to or wouldn’t read anyway.

Limited Resources
Mark Platte: I don’t think there’s a bigger project or a bigger issue that we can cover than rail. It is a legal story, land development story, political story, a social story – you name it, there’s contracts, money, influence, everything you could possibly imagine… I’d love to be able to put a team together to cover rail, but the resources just aren’t there. We will continue to do our best on all the aspects of rail that need coverage.

I don’t think the general person out there really has a full grasp of this project. I think it’s still something that’s out in the future. The enormity of it is probably too much for most people to grasp, but now, with construction beginning with more coverage being focused on that, I think you’re starting to see a lot more interest, with people saying, well, now it’s a reality. Do I like it? Do I not like it? It’s here. It’s a real thing, and that’s why you’re seeing coverage that’s almost every day because of the construction, because of the litigation. You’re going to see pretty much from now on daily coverage…

Jerry Burris: There are two ways to look at rail and its coverage. On the one hand, the project is engineer-driven, by costs, routing, etc., but in truth, it’s really driven by politics. The story in terms of the media is basically a political story. New mayors get infected with the desire to have a railroad. This has been going on forever and ever….

The coverage in totality has been fair and even-handed. The problem with rail coverage is the same problem you have with politics. There are many points of entry if you’re opposed to rail – for aesthetic reasons, for the cost being too high; you want the money spent elsewhere. You’re opposed to it because you live in Hawaii Kai or Windward Oahu and you don’t see any reason that you should pay taxes for something that you don’t think you’ll benefit from. So there are all these points of entry if you oppose rail, and there are all sorts of reasons to be opposed to the rail coverage if you feel that way.

Meanwhile, those in favor of rail have only one big argument: We’re congested and we need to do something about it or we’re gonna be in gridlock in the years to come. And that’s a good argument and it really rings true for those poor people stuck in Kapolei. You have to bring that (truth) to people who aren’t facing that congestion every day. If you step back and look at it, coverage of rail over the past 20, 30, 40 years has been reflective of a larger context and conversation in the community. Lots of people are opposed for their own individual reasons. Mayors and those who believe in rail are supportive of it, and you see what’s reflected in your own mirror, and I think that’s been the case in people’s attitudes about the coverage of rail.

‘Outsider’ View
Richard Halloran: He looks at rail as an “outsider” and hasn’t written anything about rail and can’t imagine doing so. He believes there are four kinds of readers on rail – the few people in Hawaii “who don’t give a damn,” the casual readers who pay attention to the tipping points, the people who are intensely interested because they may use rail because of where they live and work and the parties to the current rail dispute. There are many people involved in this problem, and many will read media stories with a dictionary in one hand and a microscope in the other, and those who report on rail can expect to be recipients of the “Chinese torture of a thousand cuts” before it’s all over. Finally, he said advertisers in a community this small can have much more influence on what’s covered than what they’d have in a larger city.

The Bigger Story
Michael Levine: I think we’ve lost the forest or the trees…in missing the big impact of the project and getting hooked on the particulars of the project. Jobs, cost and traffic congestion are among them. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not rail will help (with congestion). I think it’s pretty clear that traffic in 2030 with rail is going to be worse than it is today…. I actually think that all three of those – the cost, the jobs and the traffic – are red herrings from what the big issues really are. One of the long-term goals is to change people’s behavior (an opponent calls it “social engineering”), and that means getting people out of their cars. That means increasing density on the leeward coast. It means, according to Dan Inouye, removing the (traffic congestion) barrier for people who live out that way from opportunities in town. I think that gets glossed over because it’s hard to explain and hard to understand.

And for the people who are pushing rail, it’s hard to sell. It’s hard to tell somebody they should invest this time, this money and this energy now for something that’s going to benefit their grandkids in 2050. I think that transit-oriented development should really be more of this story. It’s something I should focus on more. I try to, but there are some challenges to it if you’re trying to figure out who’s gonna get rich from rail, which is something we always try to do with our coverage…. It’s a good thought exercise to try to envision what the place is gonna look like, who’s going to benefit and how does rail fit into the future and shape the future of Honolulu beyond the political realities….

There is the lawsuit, there is the mayoral election and there is the federal funding, and they’re all hanging in the balance. They’re going to be decided soon, and that’s going to make or break the project, so you’re going to see a lot of daily coverage from myself and everybody else for now. And it’s gonna be hard to talk about the vision for 2050 when you’re not even sure the project’s gonna survive until 2013. That’s the reality right now, but I think when we’re talking about how the media cover rail you have to acknowledge that beyond the horse race, beyond the daily story there is a big big story underneath the surface. It’s lurking right there, and some people have touched on it a little bit. I hope the media, myself included, focus more on that. There needs to be more coverage of how this is gonna change the future of Honolulu….

The two-hour session was a refreshing confirmation for those of us believe mobility-enhancing, travel-time-reducing, development-guiding, transportation-equity-ensuring and job-creating Honolulu rail project deserves more and deeper coverage than what it's receiving from the Honolulu news media. 

This post has been added to our "aggregation site" under the Project's Goals, and more heading.

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