Getting it wrong, because it’s right

The Press-Citizen ran a page-one story and photo last week to recognize Shelter House’s (a community shelter) first year. The photo shows a mother with one of her young children at dinner time inside the shelter. But much of the caption was wrong, although it seemed right.

The caption reads:

Originally from Chicago, Angel Harris, middle, has been living at the Shelter House for nearly a year with her five children. Harris’ 7-year-old daughter, Anijah, looks out the front window while the family waits for dinner Monday.

According to Shelter House Executive Director, Crissy Canganelli, who spoke with me yesterday, the caption was inaccurate in saying that Harris had lived at Shelter House for “nearly a year.”

In fact, Canganelli said, Harris had been at the shelter closer to two months; she may have been in the Iowa City area for nearly a year, but Shelter House doesn’t allow for people to stay that long, and there was little indication that Harris wanted or needed to stay that long. The PC ran a correction last week for this caption and other problems with the story.

Why’d it happen?

With inaccuracies like this, it is easy for people to blame the photographer. Readers do it. Editors do it. Other reporters do it.

But news doesn’t get put together that way. Copy editors, reporters and desk editors can have a hand in shaping what the caption says about the image. But more than anything, culture does, too.

The inaccuracy such as this may have happened for a number of reasons: poor notes, misunderstanding. Hell, even sources given inaccurate information sometimes. But I am more interested in why this caption, as written, is so believable — that an editor or reader would think that someone would or could be at the Shelter House for nearly a year.

What’s it mean?

Some of the believability comes from a dominant belief that, among other things, that the “welfare state” supports the indigent with housing and money and food and anything the homeless want, whenever they want it, and for however long they want it. Maybe that’s why community shelters keep asking for more and more.

The archetype of the “welfare queen,” usually a Black women in an urban area with multiple children and no father-figure in the house, also feeds the believability of this caption. Harris appears, after all, to be Black and she does have five children. AND, she is from Chicago (the captions leads with this information).

Staying there for a year? Yeah, I’ll buy that.

How’s it happen?

I talked with Canganelli more about how journalists interact with those to stay at Shelter House. I was interested in when photographers shoot at Shelter House, because the dark sky, harsh light and random man at the left of the time, seems to resemble crime photos. The pitch black night signals devious and mystery. The harsh light is surveillance. The random man is danger.

Canganelli said that anyone who wants to be interviewed by reporters and/or photographed must sign a form and consent. Often, this happens in the evenings, around dinner time, when there is more activity. Shelter House is often slow during the daytime while people are busy working, searching for work, or taking care of other personal business.

The worst part

Even more troubling is the labeling of Harris from Chicago, a term, I argue, that means more than just a city. In recent years in Iowa City, Chicago has come to represent “ghetto,” “Black,” “poor,” “dangerous.” What difference does it make that she is “from Chicago?” Actually, if she had been in the Iowa City community for nearly a year, wouldn’t she be from “here?”

“This is the heartbreak,” Canganelli said. “Most often if you are having an informal conversation with someone, people identify themselves still from Chicago even if they lived here for some time.”

And, somehow, for some reason, where people “are from” matters. Why can’t people be “from here?”

Asking where someone is from is generally not interesting or compelling, so here are some other good questions:

– When does the conversation not include a question of where are you from?

– When does a person not call themselves from somewhere else? When can they say, “I am from here now”? Is it when they actually feel welcome and are included in the community?

– Are we asking all people in the same way where they are from, or only portions of our community of sources?


In the end, there may have been factual inaccuracies in this cutline. But more importantly, we see the cultural influence of how these errors made it into the newspaper and — to some degree — the role that culture plays in making the errors seem correct.