Monday, October 22, 2007


Advertiser bias on Superferry shows and grows

by Larry Geller

Plenty of people on Kauai have been upset with the way the startup of the Superferry has been handled. They've been upset enough to speak out and demonstrate in large enough numbers that their concern ought to be respected as one strong voice of the community.

The Advertiser, which thinks of itself as the newspaper of record, should take care that this voice is properly reported. Instead, individual articles and the aggregate coverage appear to disrespect those who oppose the Superferry through nuances of language and through consistent selective omissions of key fact. Today's Honolulu Advertiser 20071021Breaking News article Kaui crowd demands EIS before Superferry sails is but the latest example.

The article uses the word "crowd" to describe the residents of Kauai who gave up their time to speak to visiting legislators. From other reports it appears that possibly 400 or more people filled the room with about another 175 outside. They were reported to have spoken well, and the community was consistent in emphasizing that they wanted no exemption of the law, no special session, and that the ferry should not sail until an EIS determines it is safe to do so. Not your average "crowd."

In the selection above, "crowd" is used not once but three times. This is either just poor writing or there is something going on in the Advertiser newsroom that readers should know about.

I was not present, but if reports of more than 500 people in attendance are accurate, then the use of "Dozens of people" also needs to be explained. Later "dozens" becomes "The audience at its peak was estimated at 250 to 350 people."

Let's look at my pet peeve, the reporting of Lingle's recent visit. In this article we read:

Lingle was booed and heckled when she visited here last month to talk about a new federal security zone for Superferry at Nawiliwili Harbor and to warn protesters of arrests and prosecution for breaking the law.

This wins no prize for accuracy. Lingle was heckled after she distributed papers warning protestors of arrests, fines, jail time, and CPS action. Why not report it as it was? What's wrong with the facts? The above paragraph totally loses the action/reaction, the cause and effect, that took place that day. She threatened, she got heckled. That's accurate. It also omits that many (most?) attendees assumed that Lingle was there to listen, but that was not what happened.

It's a common characteristic of right-wing papers in particular to employ the word "environmentalists" as a pejorative label for anyone opposing certain corporate actions. For example, opponents of development, mining or other resource extraction are often branded as environmentalists or even "tree huggers." The term is used as a marker for obstructionists, public enemies, radicals, extremists, doomsayers, and more recently even "terrorists."

This article begins "Environmentalists pleaded with state senators today...". I guess it was a crowd of 400 environmentalists pleading.

In contrast, the Garden Island, in its Superferry story today, accurately described those who would be giving testimony as "residents," a neutral, non-pejorative and quite accurate description. They also used the terms "community members," "constituents," and "the public." They accurately reported that "Groups for and against Superferry have made sample letters available..." without characterizing those groups.

Why is this important? By and large, the people attending today's meeting, and the residents of Kauai who object to the Superferry for one reason or another, are not "environmentalists." Aside from its use as a pejorative term, it implies a separation of these pesky extremist folks from the rest of the population. At best, it's a repeated inaccuracy. If the 400-500 people attending today's hearing were all environmental activists it would be a bit remarkable. Most are ordinary people, concerned citizens, and not upstarts in any way.

In another story today we find "Some environmentalists, however, are asking...". The term appears five times in the story. Yes, there are a few true environmentalists involved. But let's go on...

Oct. 20--the story begins: "Environmentalists on Kaua'i concerned about Hawaii Superferry...". The term is used twice more, and envelops cultural practitioners and those who object to the legal issues (for example, overruling the courts), as well as those who just think an EIS should be conducted without being themselves environmentalists.

Oct. 19--the story begins: "Environmentalists from Maui warned state lawmakers yesterday..." Yikes! Now these evildoers are becoming real threats! The term is used eight more times in this article. Sure, sometimes it is accurate to use the term, as when identified environmental groups such as the Sierra Club file a lawsuit. In this article, it would not have hurt to specify exactly who said what.

A number of earlier articles referred to "environmentalists" and "activists" but not with such repetition. The drumbeat, however, has grown louder and louder.

Just as an aside, the Garden Island has done well in representing the viewpoints of Kauai residents. Today's article referred extensively to the views of Rep. Jimmy Tokioka. Here's a snippet:

Although the state spent $40 million on ferry-related harbor improvements statewide, which included a boarding ramp at Nawiliwili Harbor, the representative said he believes Kaua‘i lacks the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the operation.

Tokioka noted no bathrooms — “not even a portable toilet” — exist at the end of the jetty road where hundreds of residents would check in and disembark from the daily service to and from O‘ahu.

He also questioned the impact of loading and unloading 150 to 250 cars onto two, one-way roads within a 45-minute window every evening except Saturday.

“I’m saying no way ... that’s crazy,” Tokioka said.

Superferry is “by far” the biggest issue statewide that has prompted constituents to communicate with their legislators.

I admire the paper for bringing out the views of its readers, residents of Kauai, so clearly. No toilets! Oahu residents might benefit from hearing this.

They read it in an op-ed in the Advertiser in March:

The Hawai'i Superferry has a capacity of up to 860 passengers and 280 cars and trucks per trip. This translates into the possibility of 1,720 people and 560 cars entering each harbor area — loading and unloading — during a relatively short window of time. It further translates to miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic in each direction, in areas immediately adjacent to individual harbor entrances.

With the Hawai'i Superferry scheduled to begin operations in July, a cursory review of the Neighbor Island harbor facilities shows that negligible improvements have been made to these areas. There are no bathrooms, no ticket booths, no security screening areas and no vehicular "wash down" facilities. We have been told that at Kahului and Nawiliwili there will be a "tent" put up as a passenger holding area, and that portable toilets will be provided. We have also been informed that there will be no parking provided at all, and minimal, if any, improvements made to the adjacent roadway infrastructure.

Would it not be refreshing if the Advertiser checked whether there were indeed toilets, tents, car rental agencies or other facilities, and reported those concerns, as the Garden Island did, not as the views of a bunch of "environmentalists?" I'm not saying that Kauai points of view have been omitted, but that the paper could do better.

I hope I'm not getting picky. Legislators read the Advertiser, so the paper plays a critical role in forming public policy as well as opinion.

For all the years I've lived here, the Advertiser has helped inform me, and its influence on my understanding of issues and events has been powerful. It could do better on this important issue, IMHO.


Nathan Eagle at The Garden Island is the reporter responsible for the excellent coverage of Superferry issues from a Kaua'i perspective. Thanks for noticing his professionalism! He is much appreciated by those of us involved in the protest movement here.

While the Advertiser isn't as thorough as the blogs, it has done a better job of covering the SF than the Star Bulletin or any of the television stations. Unfortunately, talking points and labels rule the media world.

I agree -- the Advertiser has done better than the Star-Bulletin.

I don't do much press criticism, just occasionally. My expectations are higher for the Advertiser, I'll have to say, but that could be a personal quirk. Very often the SB turns out astoundingly good reportage. Helen Altonn's writing on science and health is consistently the best on the issues she covers, and she is willing to dig deeply when appropriate.

I did remark on their poll, which I felt was unfairly presented. For those who read the SB, the paper helps inform them, and so a little feedback once and awhile is ok. I'm sure others write to them as well, but I've got this little blog here, so here is where I blog...

A big thank you for the timely info on writing testimony for the hearing today on Maui. I agree the Advertiser is doing a little better job of getting more out there. Funny because the SB broke the Broken Trust story. I expected better from SB.

Your comments on skewed reporting are well taken as Maui News often so lopsided with water issues and development. Letters continue to be the best part of that paper with lots of people reading it but sometimes difficult to get a word in edgewise. MauiKai

The Maui News has been one of the worst offenders with their reporter Harry Eager, several times printing HSF and Cruise Ship PR handouts verbatim. Things are getting a little better since Melissa Tanji has stepped in.

I agree, I rarely read their articles but the letters are good. Since they spend so little effort writing their news, they should just replace it all with letters to the editor.

The first woman who spoke pro-ferry on Maui (an employee) got boo'd but no one reported that it happened after she called us "hysterical". Also it was not reported that she was an HSF employee.

Thank you for highlighting the biased language used by the Advertiser. I'm glad somebody is pointing out how they are influencing their readers against ferry opponents. You can see the result of that influence in their public forum threads about the ferry, where environmentalist is almost always used pejoratively by ferry supporters and other name-calling abounds.

And that brings up something else I wonder about: why are some people so upset about losing something they never had? As if they built their dreams around all that ferry advertising. Kauai and Maui residents are the ones being imposed upon. They're the ones having to worry about losing some quality of life and having to spend time petitioning lawmakers, not someone who was looking forward to driving a vehicle to another island.

I've wondered about that too. My current theory is that the extreme reactions we are reading in online comments and letters to the editor are the result of something deeper than just the ferry. It's like the ferry has dredged up some long-standing and deeply held divisions.

I don't know what it's really about, but I think it's worth exploring. I'm planning a radio program to help look into this. Details to be posted later, if I can pull it off.

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