Crime is down dramatically in Oakland this year, and yet you’d never know it by reading the daily newspapers or watching TV news. Moreover, news reports often portray shootings and homicides as being citywide issues in Oakland, and not problems localized to certain sections of the city. And despite a renaissance that has led Oakland to become one of the most talked-about cities nationwide, the cacophony of negative news coverage in the Bay Area continues to cloud public opinion and is hampering Oakland’s ability to grow economically.
“People are getting a skewed perception of Oakland — it scares visitors away and [keeps] residents and businesses from coming here,” said longtime Oakland resident Elmano Gonsalves. “I think it’s unfair, and it’s holding us back.”
Gonsalves grew up in Oakland, and over the last several months has embarked on a campaign to set the record straight about his city. He has sent dozens of emails to local journalists and TV news directors, complaining about news coverage that ignores crime problems in San Francisco and San Jose, while perpetuating negative stereotypes of Oakland.
Following four homicides that occurred in four days last month in San Francisco, Gonsalves wrote that, in contrast to the attention Oakland receives when such murder sprees occur, media coverage of killings in San Francisco typically includes no mention of the running total of homicides there. The news coverage of crime in San Francisco and San Jose also tends to lack a sense of outrage that is often included in stories about Oakland. “If this recent spike in violence were occurring in Oakland, the mayor of Oakland would have been held responsible, the police chief would be answering questions and columns would be written about the situation,” Gonsalves wrote in a recent email to Bay Area journalists.
Gonsalves said he also often notices a simple storytelling device that news outlets — such as the San Francisco Chronicle and most of the local television stations — employ when crime occurs. When there is a shooting in Oakland, it’s framed as a citywide issue, whereas in San Francisco the headline typically focuses on a specific neighborhood. Crime in traditionally low-income neighborhoods in San Francisco, such as Hunter’s Point, the Tenderloin, and the Bayview, are often treated as localized events or problems, not ones that are endemic to the entire city. For instance, last month four people were injured during a shooting and hit-and-run in San Francisco that included an eighty-year-old woman in her apartment being injured by a stray bullet. “Four injured in Bayview shooting, crashes,” said the headline in the Chronicle, followed by KGO-TV report, “Police investigate shooting in San Francisco’s Bayview district.”
However, two days later in Oakland, when a seventeen-year-old was shot at Brookdale Park in East Oakland, the headline from KTVU-TV read, “Drive-by shooting at Oakland park sends victim to hospital.”
In addition, the same news story contained another well-used device to negatively portray Oakland: It spotlighted a neighbor who said she was tempted to flee Oakland because of the violence. “I was already planning to leave,” a woman, described as a “mother,” told KTVU, “but this is even more reason why I’m going to leave. These kids should be able to play in the park freely. They shouldn’t be scared of being shot, in broad daylight, in a park.”
The constant barrage of negative stories about Oakland by local news media also comes in sharp contrast to the stories published by national media. The New York Times, for example, has published numerous positive stories about Oakland; its declaration two years ago that the city was the fifth best place to visit in the world is still repeated by residents and politicians alike. Shortly thereafter, the Boston Globe touted Oakland’s foodie scene, stating, “Leave your heart wherever, but eat in Oakland.”
Gonsalves, of course, isn’t the only person who notices how unfairly Oakland is portrayed in the local media. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who has had an often contentious relationship with the local media, agrees that an inequity exists when it comes to the way crime stories are covered on each side of the bay. “I’ve noticed the Chronicle, in particular, is very protective of San Francisco,” said Quan.
Quan recalled that the one-year anniversary of Oscar Grant’s death occurred without incident in Oakland four years ago, yet the Chronicle continued publicizing a shooting in Oakland that had occurred four days prior even though there had been a shooting that night in San Francisco. “There needs to be some acknowledgment crime is down in our city and that our regional and international tourism is picking up, as well,” said Quan, who added, “I think that it’s also unfortunate that there are still some of these stereotypes about Oakland. I have to deal with it all the time. “
Kim Bardakian, director of public relations and partnerships for Visit Oakland, the city’s tourism bureau, also sees the drumbeat of negative news stories as holding back Oakland and has recently taken steps to meet with local news directors. “It’s an exciting time to be in Oakland,” she said. “Historically, there’s been lots of attention on crime in Oakland and it’s hard to get rid of those stereotypes.”
Bardakian found that simply providing newsrooms and reporters with clear and detailed maps of Oakland and its neighborhoods was a big step toward encouraging them to localize stories rather than framing issues as citywide problems when they’re not. “The changes in news coverage we’re seeing is already encouraging,” she said, but added that the maps were not necessary for many San Francisco-based reporters who happen to reside in the East Bay. “Reporters who live in Oakland don’t need a map,” she said. “They already know how wonderful it is here.”