Common Ground: I Say Potato, You Say Farm-Raised Organic Arugula

By RJI on June 27, 2008 0 Comments

by Tom Avila

Tom Avila is a contributing writer to Metro Weekly news magazine and a staffer for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).

I belong to my neighborhood listserv.

Originally, I joined so that I could keep track of things I couldn’t find elsewhere. When an individual was mugged getting off the subway stop I use to go to the grocery store, I learned about it from the listserv. I also found our dog walker and contractor there.
But the listserv is also a discussion board for a neighborhood that is feeling the positive and negative effects of gentrification, and I’m often stunned by the tone these discussions take on. More than that, I’m consistently amazed by how quickly communication can disconnect.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have paid so much studied attention to the back and forth between my neighbors. I’d write off most of what was said as neighborhood chat, except instead of talking between stoops as we did in my old neighborhood in South Philly, we talk online. And here’s the difference between the women across the street talking about the sister who showed up to a christening empty handed (this is really bad) and the chatter on my neighborhood listserv: Online conversations go further much faster.

For example, even though statistics offered by public officials are just starting to bear this out, for some time anecdotal evidence on the listserv pointed to what seemed to be a rising number of violent incidents in our neighborhood. Raising tensions was the fact that these were not muggings, but seemingly random assaults reportedly being perpetrated by various groups of black teenagers.

The situation led one neighbor to suggest a march – as a show of defiance – to and through a nearby housing project where some believed the attackers lived. The discussion grew heated as many found the racial and economic overtones difficult to swallow.
The individual who proposed the idea, and several supporters, attempted to clarify that this was a march on criminals and those using violence against others in the neighborhood. They also felt that there was no way to avoid having some see the march as being racist or classist but that that wasn’t its source or intention.

It was a day or so later that I opened the Washington Post’s free morning tabloid and found, in the blog section, the following: “Other than blaming the victims, what suggestions do Hill East gentrifiers have for Potomac Gardens? Most involve razing the buildings and exporting the poor to other neighborhoods, as if they would be welcome there ...

This resulted in more anger on the list, including individuals who were concerned that what had been being talked about on a closed community listserv was suddenly being shared and, to some, misinterpreted in a paper distributed across the city. The context of their discussion was gone. The background, internal disagreement and voices of reason were stripped away. There was no foundation.

While the situation raised a number of questions for me, what I’ve found myself thinking increasingly about is the divide.

My neighborhood is a limited area. Granted, because it is in a major metropolitan city it includes individuals of numerous social, ethnic, religious, educational, intellectual and financial backgrounds, but the residents are neighbors in the geographic sense of the word. You see our differences written in small ways, as when we all face off on whether dogs should be leashed, and in large ways, as when we discuss whether a facility will be an “ex-offender services facility” or a “halfway house.”

It seems little wonder, then, that we sometimes have great difficulty communicating with one another. Sure, we all speak English – or, more accurately, it’s what we all use when communicating on the listserv – but we are sometimes speaking an entirely different language. When I hear the phrase “ex-offender,” the definition in my head is that of someone who has committed a crime and completed some form of reparation for their actions. When some members of my listserv hear that same phrase, the mental image they have is that of a criminal who will affect the safety of the neighborhood.

So what’s the lesson here for journalists?

It’s that there is no single audience for the stories that we write. Even when our readers, viewers and listeners live one next door to the other, we cannot assume a common ground or understanding. Particularly as we enter an election season, where issues like same-sex marriage, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and adoption rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people may once again become so-called wedge issues (to say nothing of immigration law, issues of faith in public life and tax reform), the foundation of common understanding we once believed the Internet would enable cannot be relied upon.

Stories have to be built from the ground up, using language that leaves no room for misunderstanding. If it’s a term you’ve used a dozen times, like “ex-offender services facility,” “transgender” or “evangelical,” define it again. When the subject is marriage rights for same-sex couples, leave your readers a trail so they know how far the issue has traveled in their community. What are the limits? What are the benefits? When Sen. Barack Obama brushes imaginary lint from the shoulders of his suit, make sure your audience knows that it’s a reference to a Jay-Z song.
And when you’re wondering about that plumber, ask your neighborhood listserv. They won’t be afraid to tell you what exactly they think.

Tom Avila lives in the Hill East neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where he belongs to his neighborhood listserv. On the listserv and in this column, the opinions he expresses are his own and not those of his employer nor the vast majority of his neighbors.