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April 15, 2006

Representing a Community in Conflict

In creating any news article, a writer and her editors make numerous choices along the way that shape the final text: whom to interview, which sub-stories to cover and in what depth, which of numerous facts and interview quotes to include given limited word counts and reader attention spans, and more. In covering the struggle to save the South Central Farm for TNS, I had to make some tricky decisions regarding focus, especially around one particular sub-story.

As I interviewed farmer-organizers and representatives from various local and national organizations with stakes in the outcome of the dispute, I became aware of the intensity of the animosity between some stakeholders with opposing positions. My ears burned as several sources relayed increasingly nasty – and difficult, if not impossible, to prove -- allegations about each other. I wasn’t sure if the nastiness of the tension between these stakeholders reflected a particularly significant struggle-within-the-struggle, or if it was just (sadly) ordinary community drama that I’d do best to not engage with too deeply.

Uncertain about how to proceed, I consulted with my editor at TNS. She encouraged me to think first and foremost about what was at stake in this story – who stands to be most affected by the possible outcomes. Through that lens, it was easier to prioritize painting a broad, contextualized picture of the land-rights struggle over getting mired in he-said, she-said reporting of mostly unverifiable trash-talk.

I was writing for a national, public-interest publication, and, with consideration and helpful guidance from my editor, it seemed increasingly clear to me how I should approach the story: Introduce readers to the current situation, contextualize it as part of a history of struggles over the use of the land in question and global movements for green space and food security, and present the campaign to preserve the community garden through the voices of those who stand to be most affected by its loss: the farmer-organizers.

All that said, the fact that members of another group with a history of grassroots activism in the community had positioned themselves as opposed to the farmer-organizers struck me as significant. To not acknowledge their stance would, to my mind, have been to paint a falsely simplistic, romantic picture of the situation. That might be appropriate for a writer of PR materials for the campaign to save the farm, but not for a journalist committed to complex accountings.

So how to address the conflicts within the South Central community without spending lots of words on he-said, she-said reports of community members’ hard-to-verify allegations about each other? I decided to focus on what I saw as the substance of their differences, which served the dual purposes of acknowledging the intra-community conflict and bringing into the piece what seem to me some of the core questions provoked by this story.

Where Mark Williams of the nonprofit Concerned Citizens of South Central was expressing his opposition to the farmer-organizers’ tactics in terms that reflected a determination to work within the system (respecting property rights, etc.), Tezozomoc of South Central Farmers Feeding Families argued that the struggle to save the farm demanded looking beyond, or outside of, the system – privileging social and environmental values over individual property rights and profit.

Where Concerned Citizens has previously supported turning the land in question into an industrial park that would create jobs in the community, the farmer-organizers maintain that the already highly industrialized neighborhood has a greater need for the green space, food security, and community space created by the community garden.

The tensions between these worldviews are at the center of the struggle over the 14 acres in question. Acknowledging that these tensions are playing out within South Central community organizations allowed the TNS article about the farm to address intra-community conflict (rather than evading it) and to represent these different perspectives through the voices of people with deep investments in their community and its future – without getting bogged down by the nasty gossip inevitable in any community drama.

Comments...

marcus99nd: Representing a Community in Conflict

Great entry! This is good stuff, seeing the process by which you have to make difficult choices and produce a story that is credible and keeps its focus without over-simplifying or romanticizing the nature of the struggle. Thanks for the insight.


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.