Citizen Green: A test of faith in investigative journalism

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It started as a simple question: Who owns the properties in the poorest areas of High Point?

This question has vexed me since I started reporting on the Triad’s third largest city in 2008, but it quickly became more complicated. I had to understand how it became poor. Was the blight and substandard housing driven by a handful of bad landlords or by deeper structural challenges that prevent reinvestment? Do the landlords operate from out of state or do they live right in High Point?

What was the history of the city’s efforts to address poverty? What were the results of such efforts? Do recent strategies adopted by city leaders represent a new commitment to improve the area or are they just part of a continuing pattern of neglect?

I’ve been doing investigative and data journalism for 20 years, but I’ve never put more time into a project than this one. That doesn’t mean it’s the best work I’ve ever done. But over the years I’ve become a jealous guardian of the integrity of my data, especially after an embarrassing episode almost two years ago when I omitted a development from an ownership study because I failed to align my geographic parameters with a data set I obtained from the Guilford County Tax Department.

I spent more than six months of late nights and weekends keying properties into a spreadsheet for this week’s cover story. After that task was completed, I decided to use voter registration records to identify the race and ethnicity of the property owners, prompted in part by a critique by Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes, who said the previous project overlooked the overwhelmingly white nature of ownership in downtown Greensboro.

Much of the research for this cover story was fairly tedious, and I sometimes struggled to remind myself of the greater goal of the project when I found myself getting lost in the granular detail of the data.

As I reached the conclusion of my research and analysis, and the publication date neared, I’ve felt an increasing sense of anxiety and heaviness. Candidly, I’ve found myself struggling to maintain hope with the arrival of a new president whose divisive and toxic rhetoric seems incompatible with progress and with a state government that seems largely deaf to the concerns of cities.

If all this story does is scandalize readers with a picture of devastation without eliciting a sense of solidarity with the residents or promoting a serious discussion about solutions, it will have failed. But I myself struggle with doubts about whether there are still viable openings for reform.

As I wrestle with my own doubts, I also feel more than ever that journalists are obligated to offer at least some silver lining of hope while being unsparingly truthful about conditions as they are.

By drilling into the data, I thought I might pinpoint the primary culprits for the conditions in the ghetto, but the more I delved into the research the more I realized that the story is complicated. If there were an easily identifiable villain, it would be simple to devise a straightforward solution. While it’s clear to me that past federal housing policies inflicted serious harm on people and created a legacy of abandonment, I’ve concluded that the local players — policymakers and housing providers — have acted from a broad range of motivations, both good and bad.

The communities of people and the economies of subsistence in the ghetto are fragile. The area is familiar to me from years of reporting and weekly distribution runs, but I know that for many readers, not only in Greensboro and Winston-Salem but also in High Point, the ghetto is practically invisible and easily put out of mind. This story may be their first and last impression of the community, making it all the more important to get it right. A portrait of devastation without humanity — “disaster porn” is the term of art — is exploitation. I genuinely care about the people who live in these communities and who work to make them better, and I’ve tried to signal as much by keeping the focus on people.

I don’t want anyone who reads this to feel like they can get away with being a voyeur and not come away with some sense of responsibility for making High Point a better city. There are no obvious solutions, but one thing is clear: It will take a thoughtful debate among citizens and civic leaders followed by coordinated action to make a difference, and it can’t happen without the involvement of those affected.

Ultimately, all I can do is report the facts in good faith. If the facts matter to people who live in High Point, to their elected representatives, to people who care about the vitality of cities and about the Piedmont Triad region as a whole, then it’s up to them to take ownership of the problem and fashion a collective response equal to the challenge. And I’ll be there to cover it, notebook in hand.

  • Angel Schroeder

    If you can figure out what High Point’s problem is, it will be worth many late nights at the keyboard, Jordan! I moved here more than 20 years ago, and I always figured there was something rotten at the core that I would know about if I were a “native,” some kind of deep, dark secret. But I’m not sure anyone knows what the problem is. Every step forward is followed by two steps back, and I honestly have no idea why. Is it race? Inequality? NAFTA? Maybe without the enormous employment opportunites lost, we’re just too big to be self-sustaining right next to another large city (Greensboro). I visited Southern Pines yesterday and thought, if this little town in the middle of nowhere can make it, why can’t we? (No offense, Southern Pines!)

    • Jordan Green

      I can totally relate to your initial sense that there must be some deep, dark secret that was constraining High Point from reaching it’s potential. It’s comforting to think there must be one culprit that can be exposed and brought down. Fortunately or unfortunately, when you really look closely, there are no arch-villains. Someone who would seem to be knowledgeable once told me that High Point was hobbled by the fact that a handful of powerful families own all the slum housing and they’ve been paying off city council for protection. When I looked into it, I couldn’t find a single landlord in the ghetto who has made a campaign contribution to a sitting council member and I couldn’t find any evidence that housing code violations have been handled any way but by the book. If I had to call anyone out, maybe it would be to say that people are apathetic and the city’s leadership doesn’t have a vision equal to the challenge. But even then, caring and rallying people behind a plan doesn’t ensure success.