In recent months, Indy Week, our region’s alternative newspaper, has published some terrific investigative pieces, from Lena Gellar’s investigative work uncovering Durham’s city attorney asking Wikipedia to reveal who was editing “unflattering” information about the mayor and two council members, to Thomasi McDonald’s deep-dive looking at Durham Council Member DeDreana Freeman’s alleged physical assault of two fellow council members. While we don’t always agree with the particular angle the Indy takes, we appreciate the doggedness of their reporters and their willingness to go beneath the surface to find out what’s really going on.
With this in mind, we were eagerly anticipating the Indy’s story on Carrboro’s plans to extend the Bolin Creek Greenway, which reporter Cy Neff had been working on for several months. While Neff took the time to interview a lot of people, and did a reasonably good job explaining what’s happening this fall, the story didn’t shed new light on why Carrboro has taken almost fifteen years to act on the 2009 Greenway plan.
The Trouble with “Both Sides” Journalism
The journalism critic Jay Rosen, who teaches at New York University, has long observed that too many journalists, in an apparent pursuit of “objective” reporting, have instead promoted what he calls “view from nowhere.” As he observes, journalists often consider the fact that they’ve fairly covered both sides of an issue as proof that they’ve done their job. But in practice that means that they’re creating incentives for people who are willing to misrepresent their own position, or those of others, with often disastrous consequences. (Rosen first discussed this issue in 2003, when the New York Times used both-sides journalistic practices to lead our country into war with Iraq).
If journalism is about finding the truth, then giving all sides equal representation, even when one side is lying, ends up misinforming the public. As Rosen notes, if you’re “doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits.”
The Indy piece on the Bolin Creek Greenway is a prime example of “both sides” journalism, most explicitly in this paragraph:
Sources on both sides of the issue hold similar academic and professional credentials, as well as largely aligned political values—everyone interviewed for this story says they care for the environment and are pro-greenway, generally. But the same sets of facts consistently produce disparate, wildly variable conclusions among stakeholders.
Despite making this claim, the only experts the article cites are in favor of building a greenway, including Chuck Flink, whose Triangle-based company Greenways, Incorporated has designed more than 250 greenways and open space plans around the world, and Johnny Randall, the conservation director at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. Neff also includes quotes from a number of Carrboro elected officials, four of whom support the greenway (current mayor Damon Seils, and current council member Sammy Slade, as well as former mayors Lydia Lavelle and Mark Chilton). Only one elected official, Randee Haven-O’Donnell, expressed concern about moving forward with the greenway.
Meanwhile, all of the people quoted who were opposed to the greenway (including Haven-O’Donnell) are members of Friends of Bolin Creek (FOBC), a small local group that has successfully fought the greenway for the past fifteen-odd years (We’d love to see Neff do a deeper dive on the history of this organization, which started as an group in favor of greenways along Bolin Creek until its long-time leader Dave Otto was ousted over his support for the greenway). FOBC members Diane Robertson, Linda Haac, and Tom Cors are all quoted. All three have been fighting this for a long time. The article identifies Haac, who sits on the board of Friends of Bolin Creek, as a member of Bolin Forest Climate Action, but fails to note that this is merely a website that was recently set up by FOBC to rally opposition to the greenway.
While a number of residents and elected officials are quoted in support of the greenway, Neff inexplicably fails to quote the local activists who have worked on building support for the greenway over the past year. While Alyson West and Ryan Byars were interviewed for the story (we checked with them), and even appear in a photograph, along with Allison DeMarco and Byars’s son, they were not quoted. The Carrboro Linear Parks Project, a website that was created by NEXT to support the greenway is not mentioned, and there is no discussion of the canvassing work by NEXT and members of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro chapter of the DSA to gather (as of now) almost 1000 signatures for a petition in support of the greenway. (On the other hand, FOBC’s anti-greenway petition is given prominence at the very top of the story).
Update: After being contacted, IndyWeek added a link to the Carrboro Linear Parks website as a photo caption and added a link to the pro-greenway petition under the term “greenway supporters” half-way down the page.
The Indy piece allows greenway opponents to frame the debate
At its heart, the debate about the Bolin Creek Greenway is a debate about our relationship to the environment. Is the OWASA sewer easement a pristine natural area, or a heavily degraded corridor that is increasingly impacted by the heavy maintenance vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle usage, and would be improved by a path ? How do we balance preservation with access? By using greenway opponent’s framing, Neff sets up the piece as a debate about the greenway which, while interesting, is not relevant to this fall’s discussion. The question isn’t whether or not we’re going to build a greenway — but which alignment it will take, and how it will connect our community.
Some other points we noticed.
- Bolin Forest is the name of a Homeowners’ Association, not an actual forest. The headline suggests otherwise.
While writers typically don’t come up with the headlines for their articles, in this case, the headline for the piece “Will Fresh Momentum Find Room for Compromise Over a Greenway Running Through Bolin Forest?” sets up the piece by assuming that there’s a place called Bolin Forest that’s in danger. The only Bolin Forest in Carrboro is an HOA, named after the suburban, car-centric neighborhood that was built in the 1980s. There is no forest called Bolin Forest. There is a place called the Carolina North Forest, or the Horace Williams Tract, which consists of 750 acres of land that’s owned by UNC.
- The two alternative alignments to the greenway were created so that people could examine tradeoffs. The article doesn’t discuss them in depth.
This fall, the council will be voting on the alignment for the Bolin Creek Greenway. While the Indy makes note that this is what’s being decided, they don’t discuss the details of the particular alignments, only one of which (the creekside alignment) has support of the landowners involved.
The “Upland Forest” and “Bolin Connector” alternates were presented to the public and studied by the greenway designers and ultimately rejected in favor of the preferred alignment along Jones and Bolin Creeks. The Upland Forest alternative would require cutting more trees down and would place the path in conflict with other trail users, like mountain bikers and trail runners.
The Bolin Connector alternate was mostly an on-street bike boulevard that connected to existing forest service roads. This alternative was rejected by folks who showed up at the public meetings, many of whom were parents that preferred for their kids to walk and ride bikes on a beautiful creekside greenway as opposed to sharing a road with cars.
The preferred alignment along the sewer easement was considered the most successful in terms of serving the largest number of neighborhoods, schools, and people across Carrboro. But Friends of Bolin Creek is promoting the Upland Forest alternative, perhaps because they know that it is unviable.
We need more investigative reporting on anti-greenway groups
Early in his piece, Neff mentions the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, whose members have close ties with the Friends of Bolin Creek. (Their websites share a root domain that indicate they’re run by the same person.) While CHALT’s activities in Chapel Hill are well known, the members of FOBC have been even more successful in Carrboro in blocking greenways and housing, which has brought us to a place where homes along the creek now sell for $750,000+ and private playgrounds dot the creekside banks.
Carrboro passed a comprehensive plan in 2022, but has made very little progress in implementing it. FOBC will throw all three of its websites behind the two anti-greenway candidates (Wade, Mills) in the elections this fall, in an effort to further stall progress.(If both win, the council will be divided on the greenway 3-3, with a special election in the spring to decide who will take the council seat of Barbara Foushee, who is running for mayor).
While we appreciate the fact that Neff took the time to learn so much about the greenway debate—which, admittedly, is confusing—we think he’s barely scratched the surface. Keep digging.
Sign up for the Carrboro Linear Parks Project mailing list to get updates on building out Carrboro’s greenway network. Visit the Carrboro Linear Parks Project website for more information. There’s also a helpful FAQ with answers to many questions.