Early this month, in the days after Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he'd be moving forward with a plan to require thousands of Detroit businesses to buy into a costly surveillance program intended to reduce crime, a sponsored post that looked favorably upon the program appeared at the top of our Facebook timeline.
The linked content — "Inside the Real Time Crime Center, DPD's 24-hour monitoring station" — had all of the trappings of a news story. There was a headline, a byline, a mix of quotes and information. It was published at a site called "theneighborhoods.org," suggesting it may have been the work of a community news nonprofit.
But the story was not journalism. It was written by the Detroit city government — more specifically, its "Storytelling" department.
The department created by Duggan last year is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. Staffed by six people, some of them former journalists, its primary objective is to populate a website and cable channel called "The Neighborhoods," which launched as Duggan was in the midst of a re-election effort that hinged on his ability to thwart perceptions he'd let the city's neighborhoods languish during his first term. The company line at the time was that the site would "give Detroiters and their neighborhoods a stronger voice," filling a void department head and "chief storyteller" Aaron Foley claimed traditional media hadn't.
Five months in, the website appears to be fulfilling that mission — in part. The Neighborhoods' story grid is primarily comprised of features on local businesses, notices on city services, and "things-to-do" listicles that include some neighborhood happenings. But the story posted Jan. 10 did not give Detroiters a "stronger voice" — it omitted their voices almost entirely. In covering the controversial and costly Project Green Light surveillance program following word of a possible mandate, the piece did not include the voices of Detroit business owners who might oppose being forced to buy the technology, nor did it provide quotes from any residents concerned about being filmed — it featured only voices from the law enforcement and counterterrorism intelligence communities.
To the undiscerning reader, the report may have seemed innocuous. Project Green Light, a program in which businesses pay for cameras that stream video footage directly into Detroit police headquarters, is generally known for helping drive down crime where it's present. The Neighborhoods' story gave readers a glimpse into the Real Time Crime Center where the footage is streamed, and it supplied an anecdote in which police were able to quickly find and arrest a shooting suspect who was caught on tape. The story also did offer a few words about privacy concerns — though only to quickly shoot them down via an officer who said that if people were made to choose between protection and privacy, they'd choose protection.
But the program has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, and business owners have questioned its benefits. Earlier this month we reported that the expensive technology doesn't appear to be helping stop crimes in progress, and that some business owners feel they benefit only from the perks of the system, which include "priority 1" police response times of 14 minutes.
“It’s more of a ‘pay and we’ll come or don’t pay and we’re not coming,’” Billy Jawad, who runs a gas station on 7 Mile and Meyers, told us.
The Neighborhoods story overlooked these dynamics, but it also neglected to mention a glaring news peg. Just days earlier, Duggan had said “the votes in council are there” to pass a law that would require any business open past 10 p.m. to buy the technology — at a cost of at least $4,000, plus monthly fees of $140 and up. The proposal, which the city later said would not come for about a year, could impact up to 4,000 businesses, according to Crain's Detroit Business.
At the time the Neighborhoods published its piece, late-night business owners were abuzz with concern over the possible mandate, prompting headlines like WDIV's "Detroit's proposed Project Green Light mandate draws backlash from business owners." Journalists were looking into the possible impacts of a city-wide surveillance program, with stories like Bridge magazine's "Detroit is violent. But is constant video surveillance the answer?" And there was our report, "Project Green Light faces scrutiny as Detroit eyes mandate for thousands of businesses."
Amid the flurry of content, the Storytelling Department took an extra step that helped ensure its uncontextualized report would break through: In a rare move, it paid Facebook money to "boost" the post, sending it to the top of the feeds of a targeted audience of its choosing. By late-month, about two dozen Facebook users had shared it with their own followers — by far the best reception of any story posted to the Neighborhoods' Facebook in January. In a city that, as of September, had an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent, it appears the Storytelling Department opted not to pay to boost a recent post on a series of job fairs; during this month's blistering cold snap, it did not boost content that conveyed where Detroiters in need could find warmth.
The move suggests that the Duggan administration is using the Neighborhoods website as a tool to further its agenda. And, of course, it makes sense that the government would cast its various initiatives in a positive light on its own channels. The concern lies in the fact that the propaganda could be perceived as traditional news, says a media ethics expert with whom we spoke.
"The city needs to be more transparent about what the site is," Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute said upon reviewing the site. "It is designed to look like a regular news site and there's no indication that it's part of the city whatsoever. This is misleading and deceptive to the citizens of Detroit."
The lack of transparency extends to the Neighborhoods' Facebook page, where the website identifies itself as a "cause," when "government organization" is an option.
Lakshmanan says that the website should be revamped to more clearly state what it is and where its funding comes from. More than $250,000 has been allocated to the Neighborhoods, with the salaries of staff members who work on the site and cable channel paid for by Comcast "PEG" fees intended to support public, educational, and governmental programming. Local governments require cable operators to provide the funds to maintain those channels, and cable operators pass the cost down to their cable TV customers. Such PEG fees are typically used only to support cable channels. We could not find another city that also uses the funds for online-only content.
A financial disclosure would have been particularly beneficial in the case of the Green Light story, Lakshmanan said, as Comcast is a beneficiary of the Green Light program. Comcast is one of just three internet providers in the city of Detroit that offer speeds high enough to run the technology. The other providers, Rocket Fiber and Cronus, have a more limited service area than Comcast, meaning Comcast may be the primary internet provider for Green Light participants. Additionally, Crain's reports that it was Comcast that installed all the of the city's approximately 230 Green Light video systems.
When asked whether the city should more clearly identify the Neighborhoods website as a function of the government, mayoral spokesman John Roach more or less said no. He indicated that a section at the bottom of the site that contains the city of Detroit logo and a list of various city offices is sufficient for helping readers identify the source of the content. Also helpful is the website's color scheme, he said, which is consistent with the city's official logo (the color scheme, however, does not match that of other city of Detroit web pages).
Roach added that "countless news stories" have been written about the Neighborhoods website, all of them framed around the fact that it's produced by the city government. (A story we wrote about the website's August launch has received only about 500 views from people throughout metro Detroit. In other words, it's unclear whether that publicity reached a significant number of Detroiters.)
Roach declined to comment on why the Neighborhoods doesn't disclose its source of funding. Separately, he said he did not feel the story warranted the disclosure of a potential conflict of interest — even though it touts a technology that requires some users to become Comcast customers, and was written by someone whose salary is funded by Comcast.This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. on Feb. 1 to include information from the "about" section on the Neighborhoods' Facebook page.