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How the local news media is framing the DeVos-created AmplifyGR development proposal in the Boston Square area of Grand Rapids

January 8, 2020

Ever since the MiBiz article from Sunday, December 29, there have been at least four additional local news stories about the DeVos-created AmplifyGR 9-acre development proposal for the Boston Square neighborhood in the southeast part of Grand Rapids.

It is always important deconstruct how news organization cover critical topics and how they frame the issues that they are reporting on. News framing is not just how journalists/reporters talk about the subject they are covering, but what internalized values they may bring to a particular story. For instance, the dominant narrative in the US is that whenever development is proposed, it is seen as a positive, even a necessary outcome. There might be concerns raised about development projects, but in general development projects are seen as a community benefit. This is the dominant narrative in the US and therefore it is a narrative that commercial news agencies adopt.

The first article to appear, was from MiBiz, on Sunday, December 29. MiBiz is a business-focused news agency, that includes real estate/development as a primary news category. Their article from December 29 reads like it was based on a press release that came directly from the DeVos-created entity known as AmplifyGR. The story provides a basic narrative about what the proposal includes, a listing of organizations that AmplifyGR has partner with, along with a list of development partners, including companies hired to design and build aspects of the project. There is only one person cited in the story, Jon Ippel, who is the executive director for AmplifyGR. Lastly, the article does mention that there is Grand Rapids Planning Commission meeting on January 9th, which will discuss the project, but MiBiz doesn’t tell readers that there is a public hearing about the project on January 9. In addition, the only image included was one that AmplifyGR provided, which is a rendering of the geographical area of the project.

The next news story about the DeVos-created AmplifyGR project was done by posted on Michigan Radio on January 5. The Michigan Radio story is based upon a public meeting that was held on Saturday, January 4, at the Boston Square Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood group had posted on Facebook that they were hosting the event, so community members came to learn about the project. Someone this writer had spoken to, who attended this meeting, said that AmplifyGR came and also did a formal presentation at the community meeting.

There were two people cited in the story, with the first being the president of the neighborhood association who said he was skeptical about the project and was concerned about the possibility of gentrification. The other source cited in the story was a staff person from AmplifyGR, someone who assured those in attendance that this project would not displace people. The story also mentioned that there was a GR Planning Commission meeting on January 9, but no mention that there was a public hearing about the proposal from AmplifyGR. The only image used in the story was taken  by Michigan Radio, which showed the AmplifyGR staff person and a map of the project area.

MLive ran a story that was posted on Monday, January 6, with a headlined that read, DeVos-backed nonprofit aims to transform Grand Rapids neighborhood. The MLive article was based upon their reporter going to the Boston Square Neighborhood to interview people and to take pictures of the area. The MLive story does provide a basic narrative about the project and some background on what has happened since 2015, when the project began with the purchasing on nearly two dozen properties at the cost of $10 million.

The MLive article cites the executive director of AmplifyGR, someone who serves on AmplifyGR’s neighborhood advisory committee, the executive director of Oakdale Neighbors and a rental property owner who has an office in the Boston Square neighborhood. It should be mentioned that the Oakdale Neighbors received $273,500 from the DeVos family in recent years. The only critical voice of the four cited was the rental property owner and his comments were about the demographic of people in the area and what they could afford in regards to rent.

The MLive article provides a significant amount of space to AmplifyGR to talk about all the positive things the organization has done in the past two years in the neighborhood, but it also lists who sits on the AmplifyGR board, which includes Cheri & Maria DeVos. There are 17 pictures that accompany the article and a link to the what AmplifyGR will be presenting. There is mention that AmplifyGR will be presenting at a GR Planning Commission meeting, but there is no mention of the date for that meeting or that there is a public hearing on January 9.

On Monday night, the DeVos-created AmplifyGR decided to host another meeting for people who wanted to see their development proposal. This event resulted in two more local news stories, one from WOOD TV8 and WZZM 13.

The channel 8 story provides a basic narrative of the proposed project. The two sources cited in the story are the executive director of Oakdale Neighbors and a staff member of AmplifyGR. The channel 8 reporter then says that there are concerns about gentrification, based on what has happened in other areas of the city like wealthy street, but both people cited in the story say that won’t or doesn’t have to happen in this case. The story does mention that the DeVos-created AmplifyGR will be presenting to the GR Planning Commission on Thursday, but there was no mention that there was a public hearing.

The WZZM 13 story also reported from the open house that AmplifyGR was hosting and did address concerns about gentrification, but the only person who viewers heard from talking about gentrification was an AmplifyGR staff person and they believed that would not be an issue with this project. The channel 13 web-based article does use AmplifyGR-provided images for the proposal. There was also mention that AmplifyGR would present to the GR City Planning Commission on Thursday at 1pm, but again there was no mention that this was a public hearing.

Local News omissions

There were some obvious omissions in the local news coverage of the DeVos-created AmplifyGR development proposal. The most obvious was the fact that none of the stories mentioned that the GR Planning Commission was hosting a Public Hearing on January 9 at 1pm. This is a significant omission, since all of the 5 stories failed to let the public know that they could weigh in on this proposal.

Another significant omission with the local news coverage were voices of those who were not part of AmplifyGR or the organizations collaborating with them. While there were numerous mentions about gentrification, there was only one person cited in all five stories who expressed concern about the possibility of gentrification in this project. None of the news agencies sought out other voices in the community, instead they relied on AmplifyGR staff or those directly connected to the project. Such a limited scope of perspectives not only excludes different perspectives, it sends the message (by omission) that there are no dissenting voices.

A third significant omission is the lack of context and the failure of reporters to ask more probing questions. The MLive article did provide some background information, but did not follow that information up with more poignant questions. None of the news agencies talked about how structural racism has played into the disinvestment in the Boston Square neighborhood and non of the news agencies raised issues around the fact that the DeVos/Rockford Construction tandem had begun buying land in the Boston Square area in 2015, but didn’t tell residents until mid-2017. There were some news agencies that identified this project as a DeVos-back project, yet there was no exploration of what that could mean. In other words, none of the local news agencies asked a question like, why did the most powerful family in West Michigan create this non-profit and should people be concerned about their short term and long term intentions? This question is an important one and it is exactly why GRIID has been reporting on the DeVos-created AmplifyGR work since May of 2017

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