Editorial: Not all news is good news

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On May 4 we published an editorial with the headline “Worcester startup friendly, but not for everyone.”

The editorial pointed out that while the city had been ranked second in New England and 33rd nationally as the best city in which to start a business, it ranked 147th, or third from the bottom, in best cities for Hispanic entrepreneurs.

While traditional media outlets and social media trumpeted the former, only Worcester Sun and GoLocalWorcester wrote about the latter. Indeed, two weeks later there are still mentions of Worcester’s high ranking but nary a sentence about a ranking that speaks to room for improvement.

Worcester's downtown skyline could see many significant changes.

Wikimedia Commons

Worcester — is it really all good?

It is in this context that we present information recently released by the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University. The institute last week released “Data Profiles of Massachusetts Gateway Cities,” statistical information about more than two dozen Massachusetts municipalities.

Worcester’s data profile can be found here.

“Clark University and the Mosakowski Institute have been valued partners for the City of Worcester,” Mayor Joseph M. Petty said in a statement. “They provide the real-time, location-specific research that informs so many of our policy decisions. With this report we’re able to see in brief and broad strokes how Worcester compares to other Gateway Cities in the Commonwealth.”

Clark Economics professor John C. Brown, editor of the project, said the profiles “bring together from a variety of sources what we know about the economies, school systems, housing, and health characteristics of our Gateway cities. The comparisons they provide across the cities and with the rest of the Commonwealth can serve as a springboard for delving into what accounts for both challenges and successes, which is a crucial step in developing effective policy responses.”

This is all well and good. Data is important. However, it’s of little use unless it becomes part of a larger discussion.

Digital media, especially social media, is purpose-built for delivering good news that reinforces narratives and viewpoints with which you agree. Social media’s business model works only as long as people click, and it’s a trend infecting even mainstream news outlets.

Additionally, we live in an age of managed messages where good news merits a public event and bad news, if delivered at all, is distributed via press release at 5 p.m. Friday.

This is not to lament days passed. What it means is that by not discussing the bad with the good we miss important opportunities for the community to improve, even as we celebrate its successes.

  • As the study shows, rents in Worcester are lower than in the gateway cities as a whole. This is a good thing. At the same time, median home value in Worcester is 20 percent lower than the gateway cities as a whole.
  • Average class size in Worcester is 16.6 students, lower than gateway cities or the state at large, and the dropout rates as a whole or among those with low income or English language learners compares favorably. At the same time, proficiency rates among 10th-graders ranks below the state and gateway cities, as does the percentage of those who attend college.
  • The percentage of registered voters is higher in Worcester than the state average, but the state (55.2 percent) had more than double the rate of Worcester voters (27.4) show up at the polls in 2014.
  • Compared to other gateway cities, Worcester had a slightly higher share of households with income of more than $200,000. However, it also had a dramatically higher rate of households with income of less than $10,000 per year.
  • Worcester has a higher percentage of the population with associate’s, bachelor’s or other degrees, but a median income only 75 percent of other gateway cities.
  • Moreover, while 18.6 percent of the families are below the poverty lines, more than a third of all children in Worcester (33.9 percent) are in families who live below the poverty line.

We do not lament days passed. We lament the loss of nuance.

The digital age has little room or tolerance for it. Things are increasingly binary, good or bad, for or against, pro or con. Nothing in between.

Highlighting only the good news is just as damaging to a community as highlighting only the bad. It limits our understanding, which limits our ability to find solutions.

There is much to be proud of in this city. Over time its leaders and residents have built a city generally regarded as a wonderful place to live, work and play. This is even more reason to discuss what should be improved. That’s how we got here in the first place.

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