When we trust too much

What does it look like when reporters don’t question anything? When they trust too much?


Today, The Gazette ran a column (written by Jennifer Hemmingsen, who I consider a friend) that praises the Iowa City Public Library for planning to open a library location  in a police station on the city’s Southeast Side.

The problem with this is that Hemmingsen’s is the second story (here’s the first) that The Gazette has run about the library branch moving to the Southeast Side — and that it is the second time that the paper has ignored that the library will appear in the city’s only police substation in one of the city’s most heavily surveillance neighborhoods.

Did anyone at the newspaper even think about this? Indeed, did anyone even ask about how people in the city’s Southeast Side will feel going online in a cop shop?

And did no one take a critical look a report from the library earlier this year that discussed what and how the library should do to be more accommodating to marginalized communities in our city?

Did anyone even read it?

I did. And what I found was a report based on troubling methodology, which furthers my concerns that the library-in-police-station seems ill-conceived.

The report’s authors say that their findings revolve around perspectives gathered through a “series of four staff focus groups involving 31 library staff members” and “one-on-one interviews … with 21 community leaders identified by the Library Board and Administration.” There was also a staff survey and an analysis of library use data.

But look at the list of interviewees (on page 46) — it’s skewed by an overcommitment to “community leaders” (whatever that term even means) and their opinions, including:

–       social service workers

–       a city planning worker

–       library board members

–       city managers

–       business owners

–       a local author

–       school district staff members

–       a local banker

So, even with the staff survey, focus groups, and interviews, the consultant’s report managed to exclude voices from the underprivileged, the people the library says it wants to support.

No wonder the report came back saying that the library should wait another decade before looking at the needs of the community library. (What the heck does a banker know about the needs of the underserved?)

A deeper look at the report and how it was constructed helps us understand why our community library would think it a good idea to put Internet-accessible computers in a police substation, even if that station is in a space that is generally distrustful of police.

A report released this summer by graduate students in the university’s School of Urban and Regional Planning about the Broadway Street Neighborhood — a report that focused on the voices of the residents there through focus groups and interviews — was peppered with comments about how police are seen to harass residents.

Of course, one of the recommendations from that report, which emerged from the interviews with residents, is that the police try to build better relationships with the neighborhood. Maybe having computer terminals available is such an effort.

But a library is an already restricted area. Take a look at all of the rules that you must follow to use computers there.

So why did the press report the story this way? Why didn’t reporters question the library and its report?

And, most importantly, why didn’t they question the role of the library in a cop shop — especially in a cop shop in the city’s most racially charged and contested space?

It’s a complicated answer.

The Gazette’s coverage of the library reveals the (blind?) trust journalists place within authority (police) and notions of “good will” (an open public library).

First, it is important to understand that journalists, while part of a powerful social institution (the press), have first been socialized as citizens. Despite how much newsworkers try to shield themselves through rhetoric or “professional” standards and practices, they are citizens like you and me.

They are consumers. They buy crap they don’t need. Many journalists go to college, because it’s what they are “supposed to do.”

They abide by the rules of social order just as much as the rest of us.

The journalistic community may try to operate outside of dominant ideologies in that they attempt to — in the U.S., anyway — perform a watchdog function, for instance. But because journalists are first and foremost humans, subject to influences of culture and society despite their civic position as newsworkers, they have been socialized to obey authority (pay your taxes; don’t speed), buy things (fast food; nice couches; a mortgage), and conform to social norms (marry, perhaps; raise a nuclear family).

It doesn’t make sense, then, that the library wouldn’t operate in the best interest (and in the most inclusive way) to provide a public service. It makes sense that the library would partner with another public service — the police — for the “public good.”

But the story of Iowa City’s library in both its assessment of its services and the introduction of public services in a place of rabid surveillance, such as a police station (not to mention in the city’s Southeast Side) doesn’t make sense once we look below the surface.