Neighbourhoods in the limelight

Neighbourhoods in the limelight

At present, hardly a day goes by when the Schilderswijk in the Hague is not negatively portrayed in the news. Some years ago, Oosterwei in Gouda suffered the same fate.

When following the news coverage on disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods, one would almost forget that it is possible to live normally there. The popular image of deprived urban areas in the Netherlands that resemble war zones has never been corroborated by research findings. Moreover, many inhabitants do not recognize themselves in this image. But the popular media continues to paint a depressing picture of urban neighbourhoods where social life is under threat. Residents are primarily quoted as fearful, desperate and calling for repressive government actions. And other actors who want to attract the attention of the media know where to go. Newer images that tap into fears of multicultural neighbourhoods have recently arisen: the urban neighbourhood as either a sharia zone where the government is out of control or as a zone where the government is omnipresent and the police supress daily life. Residents and experts who try to temper these one-sided views are almost routinely accused of denying actual problems. Inevitably, the media will always find an expert who warns of riots, if not ethnic riots, if far-reaching steps are not taken immediately.

To some extent this type of media attention seems rather innocent as it satisfies a need for sensation and urban danger among the public. It may also serve and be influenced by local political interests. Moreover, one cannot deny that the problems reported on do exist, so they do deserve attention, albeit proportionally. But the continuous biased media attention is not that innocent. It may even bar the regeneration of disadvantaged areas by keeping away visitors and tourists. Tourism going beyond the beaten path – such as urban safaris, exotic shopping tours and thematic neighbourhoods - is increasingly seen as one of the ways out of deprivation for deprived urban areas. There is also another problem: the on-going negative attention may demotivate residents, entrepreneurs and professionals who live and work in these neighbourhoods and who feel that their efforts and successes are being undermined by negative attention and neighbourhood stigmatization. They are the much needed ‘drivers’ of positive developments.

Of course, censorship is not the answer. Asking journalists and reporters to put more energy into reporting on positive developments does not sound very promising either. Good news is no news. I recently read that according to neuroscientists our brains exhibit a "negativity bias", meaning it reacts far more to the stimuli of bad news than to good, so we cannot just blame journalists for an obsession with problems. But we could do with a quota. When a certain neighbourhood is mentioned more than ten times in a row, either positively or negatively, it is time to report on another neighbourhood. There are plenty of interesting urban neighbourhoods with all kinds of issues to pay attention to besides Oosterwei or the Schilderswijk. An added bonus would be that media coverage on urban issues would become more varied and less stereotyped. In the meantime those working and living in these areas can do what they are supposed to do: get on with their lives.


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