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Changing Baltimore's negative narrative

Media columnist David Zurawik discusses the messages from City Hall to "change the narrative" and their criticism of the media. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Television critic David Zurawik recently wrote a column, “‘Change the narrative’? That isn’t the answer” (Jan. 7) in which he seemed to be saying that crime, police corruption and city/state government failure to fix Baltimore City is the reality of Baltimore and, therefore, its deserved reputation locally and nationally. He dismissed recent attempts by Mayor Catherine Pugh, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and others to “change the narrative” and to proclaim that “goodness Is on the rise.” He thumbed his nose at them for criticizing the media’s portrayal of Baltimore as a den of drugs, murder, government corruption and abandoned homes.

My immediate reaction to the column was to side with Mayor Pugh and Commissioner Davis. Unlike Mr. Zurawik, I am a native Baltimorean, and countering negative narratives about Baltimore is my passion.

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However, after struggling for several days with this seeming dichotomy between “changing the narrative to change reality” and “changing reality to change the narrative,” I’ve come to conclusion that both Mr. Zurawik and I have fallen for a false dichotomy: that “reality” and “narrative” are equal and mutually exclusive concepts.

They are not. “Reality” is the true state of affairs. “Narrative” is simply an accounting of connected events; i.e., a story. Thus, we use narrative as a tool to tell a story about reality that may or may not represent the whole of that reality.

The true state of affairs in Baltimore includes problems that Mr. Zurawik alluded to — crime, especially murder; a crumbling infrastructure; a failing school system; ineffective and/or corrupt political and governing systems, from the police department to City Hall, from the school board to the City Council. But these problems are only one part of this reality. When we make negative aspects the sole narrative of our city, we lose sight of, and fail to acknowledge, other, equally important aspects of our reality.

Mr. Zurawik cited the enduring narrative of “The Wire” as proof of our negative reputation. My experience of Baltimore does not include the world that TV series espouses, even though parts of my childhood were spent in the very neighborhoods depicted in it. The majority of people in Baltimore are going about their daily lives — going to work or seeking jobs, going to school, spending time with family, and working in their respective community and political organizations to improve them, and thereby improve the quality of life throughout this city. We are doing the hard work needed to change the reality of our city’s ills.

Why shouldn’t the reality of Baltimore also be reflected by these positive narratives?

Jackie Oldham, Baltimore

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