The corner of Third Avenue and Pine Street is a bit of a ghost town now, with not much besides a constant police presence to remind passersby of the block’s previous crowds. On March 3, the area saw a crackdown — or cleanup, depending on your politics — as part of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s “Operation New Day,” a spate of police interventions targeting areas designated by the city as “hot spots” of crime, drug sales and violence.
So it was a bit of a surprise to see a March 15 headline that read “Citing crime concerns, Amazon pulls workers from office at former Macy’s in downtown Seattle” in The Seattle Times. The piece revealed that the vast majority of those workers had been working remotely and would continue to do so, meaning that, at least for the company’s knowledge workers, exposure to the issues at Third and Pine was functionally nonexistent.
The piece – which appeared in similar form in national and international outlets like the Daily Mail, the National Review and Bloomberg, as well as nearly every local news outlet in Washington State – included comments from the heads of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), but none from advocacy groups for the unhoused, any actually unhoused people or anyone involved in street vending.
Amazon, as well as these business groups, had been calling for the cleanup, but why would it continue to bemoan the area’s woes after the operation?
To find out, we spoke to Amoshaun Toft, a professor of media studies at the University of Washington at Bothell, whose work deals extensively with how unhoused people are portrayed in the media. In 2008, Toft worked with Real Change on a report examining media coverage surrounding the Nickelsville encampments, which documented how media and city government were using “categories of deviance” — dirtiness, drugs and danger — to set apart unhoused people from the rest of society.
“These representational practices served to depersonalize participants by Othering ‘druggies’, ‘drunks’, and ‘addicts’ as people not like ‘us’,” he wrote in a 2014 article for the journal “Discourse & Society,” based on the data from 2008.
He said it’s the same story here.
“As I do my own reading of the news on homeless encampment sweeps and this emphasis on crime and property theft in Seattle, I’m seeing a lot of similar stuff. It seems like the same playbook, really,” Toft said.
He also noted that the presence of Amazon and a number of other tech companies have exerted extreme pressure on the housing market. Toft surmised that news coverage that tacitly associates crime and drugs with unhoused people might help shift the focus away from the structural issues at play. Recent research has linked Seattle’s tight housing market with its disproportionately large population of unhoused people, so if we went looking for the structural causes of homelessness — and, by extension, any crime or drug use associated with it — the breadcrumb trail seems to lead right back to Amazon. Thus, even though Amazon got the cleanup that it was asking for on Third and Pine, the company still has plenty at stake.
“When homelessness was on the news agenda, city officials and journalists would rely on dominant narratives that blamed the poor for their own poverty and focused on criminalization or individual redemption as appropriate policy solutions,” Toft wrote in his report. “In situations where substantive policy debates are mediated by the perceived legitimacy or deviance of participants in the debate (i.e. mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, unwillingness to accept offers for help), the materiality of inequality can easily become lost in a cacophony of class-based stereotypes.” Basically, if you want to keep people from seeing the causes of homelessness, hammer away on crime and drugs.
He was writing during a different era of the homelessness crisis, but if we go looking for instances of class-based stereotypes in today’s media environment and for uses of the language of deviance Toft cites — “dirtiness, drugs and danger” — there are current examples.
A Feb. 28 article in The Seattle Times titled “‘We’ve been here before’: Fatal shooting underscores longtime problems at Seattle’s Third and Pine” about the shooting death of a 52-year-old man places a sentence on the area’s issues with drugs and violence directly next to a sentence about the proliferation of tents downtown.
“Though the open-air drug market was momentarily disrupted, it was never completely quashed. During the pandemic, tents flourished downtown for a time as the downtown core was emptied of office workers, commuters and tourists,” it reads, going on to list data from the DSA on how few office workers have returned and how many businesses have moved out. This quote also represents the piece’s third reference to the area as an “open air drug market.”
Another thing asserted here, sans attribution, is that on Third and Pine, “[p]eople openly hawk stolen goods on sidewalks crowded with drug users and dealers.”
The article about Amazon’s decision to pull workers is similarly rife with subtle nudges. Its lede, for example: “In downtown Seattle’s commercial core, retail workers have doubled as first responders, doormen have been deployed to keep unwelcome visitors out and some buildings are still sitting empty as employers worry about the safety of workers and customers.”
Who exactly are the unwelcome visitors here? Why do they make employees and shoppers feel so unsafe? The reader does not get the answers to those questions — only eight individual mentions of safety, four references to crime and a paragraph citing an employer survey that directly connects homelessness with a lack of public safety.
This is not to say that every single piece on homelessness from mainstream news outlets employs deviance narratives — The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless reporter Scott Greenstone covers unhoused populations with a keen eye for the structural issues at play. There are more than a dozen Seattle Times articles focusing on crime at Third and Pine.
In a response to emailed questions, Seattle Times Senior Vice President of Product, Marketing and Public Service Kati Erwert objected to the characterization of the paper’s coverage, saying that the stories Real Change looked at show “a limited window into our overall reporting” at Third and Pine.
“In the instances that you surface, our reporters aren’t working to ‘imply’ anything. They are reflecting the complex dynamic that exists in this area of the city at the intersection of retailers, people who are unhoused, commuters, tourists, passersby, the police and business advocacy organizations,” Erwert wrote. “We continue to strive to reflect the nuance of what happens within these few blocks as well as the broader region to our readers.”
If you move a little further right in the Overton window to KOMO, the deviance narrative is even more aggressive. While reporter Jonathan Choe was recently fired for his online coverage of far-right group the Proud Boys, his unrelenting coverage of homelessness focused almost exclusively on Toft’s three Ds.
Since being let go from KOMO, he has continued to tweet about what his bio calls “Seattle’s homelessness crisis/riots.” Covering the aftermath of Operation New Day at Third and Pine, he posted a video of a person being arrested near Benaroya Hall, admitting he had no context for the arrest but noting that “officers were examining pills.” An April 3 Twitter thread on local arsons concludes with a tweet speculatively connecting the fires to a nearby encampment.
Choe’s tweet reads: “INVESTIGATION ON GOING: Some neighbors say they saw a man setting the vehicle on fire in the Safeway parking lot and running in the direction of the problematic homeless encampment on NW Mary Ave. But unclear if suspect is from this encampment,” implying, without evidence, that the alleged arsonist lives in the encampment. KOMO’s news desk, reached via phone, declined to comment on Choe’s work.
ARSON SUSPECT ON THE LOOSE: Busy weekend for @SeattleFire— Jonathan Choe Journalist (@choeshow) April 4, 2022
Investigators looking for person who torched this car Saturday in Crown Hill Safeway parking lot on 15th Ave NW. Neighbor across street captured this video. #Seattle pic.twitter.com/mpZDLR332F
The issue with this type of coverage, Toft said, is that it tends to not tell the full story, ultimately leaving readers in the dark about what’s behind all the poverty and violence they see in the news. Most reporters aren’t actively trying to shut out other perspectives, Toft said. The issue, he said, is partly that the news business isn’t conducive to shoe-leather reporting anymore.
“In short, journalists don’t have a lot of time to go out and do the original reporting that they should be doing these days because they’re underfunded and understaffed. So, they’ll often turn to the same sources they used before, which are often people in positions of power who they’ve already built relationships with,” Toft said.
But what happens when reporters do engage with the marginalized groups they’re covering? Well, for starters, we get a much clearer picture of what’s at stake.
The Stranger’s Hannah Krieg, formerly of Real Change News, made her contribution to the Third and Pine coverage in the form of an afternoon spent hanging out and chatting with the locals. One observation is from a man named Frank, who spoke to her about who exactly should feel unsafe in the area.
“‘You could stand here for 100 years and never get hurt,’ Frank said, with emphasis on ‘you.’ He said the victims of the violence are the people of Third and Pine. The general public has little to worry about, according to Frank,” Krieg wrote.
As the Capitol Hill Seattle blog reported on March 22, two unhoused men were murdered in March, a story not seen in The Seattle Times. This comes amid a spate of violence against unhoused people nationwide, which has been documented in The Seattle Times.
Recently, a person shot five unhoused individuals between New York City and Washington D.C., killing two. A group of three men in Pontiac, Michigan, suffocated an unhoused man to death with a plastic bag, and a drunk driver in Salem, Oregon, killed four people in an encampment when he lost control of his vehicle.
Last year, in August, a housed family entered an encampment to retrieve stolen items they believed were there, ultimately running over and killing one of the campers during an ensuing altercation. The family was not charged with a crime, but two of the campers were arrested. A KIRO 7 news story on the killing included quotes from a nearby business owner and witness to the violence who blamed the campers, calling on the cops to “get rid of these people.” KIRO did not reply to an emailed request for comment. While the Seattle Police Department doesn’t keep data on the housing status of victims, its 2021 year-end report did note a 122 percent increase in “Shots Fired events with a nexus to homelessness.”
Toft’s article puts special focus on the different ways “danger” is defined, noting that major media outlets are almost always speaking to a housed audience about homelessness and crime with the implicit assumption that unhoused people present the danger. The homelessness advocacy community was much more likely to focus on “danger” as being something unhoused people experience as victims via “weather or violence.”
Crime, violence and substance misuse are all serious issues for society, but Toft’s work is a stark reminder that we should be skeptical of any narratives that blame them on unhoused people rather than the systems that cause homelessness, poverty and scarcity.
The people most harmed by those things are, after all, the people experiencing them.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor of Real Change.
Read more of the Apr. 13-19, 2022 issue.