San Francisco has a major image problem

Read some national and even international news headlines and you can see it: San Francisco has an image problem.

It’s not just the conservative media that criticize the city. The New York Times, the Economist, even British publications like the Independent and Sunday opening hours have published recent articles on the state of San Francisco, ranging from its highly visible housing issues to its shoplifting issues.

“Why San Francisco’s City Government Is So Dysfunctional,” reads a headline from The Economist. “Crime is fundamentally legal in San Francisco,” says another headline from the Daily mail. The New York Times, meanwhile, has just published an article declaring that “the banal crime of shoplifting has spiraled out of control in San Francisco, forcing some chain stores to close.” (SFGATE has released a more in-depth investigation into this claim.)

Ian Davis, professor of media studies at UC Berkeley, told SFGATE: “Yes, the progressive image of San Francisco in the American mind makes it a prime target for conservatives. It often functions as a symbol of liberal or democratic policies.

Indeed, a quick search of Fox News headlines from the past week shows an obvious bias in the coverage. “San Francisco families no longer ‘feel safe’, hire private security service amid crime spree,” reads big title published last week. On the same day, the media site organized a story read: “San Francisco prosecutors leave office of progressive DA Chesa Boudin, join recall efforts.”

Davis quoted from a Fox News story from 2019 on the homeless crisis which he said named his bias: “In the summer of 2019, Fox News embarked on an ambitious project to chronicle the record of progressive policies on the homelessness crisis in four cities on the west coast: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, ”reads a note at the top of the story.


“All fair points about housing policy failures aside, Fox’s article presents the problem as a failure of the ‘Democrats’ and the progressive ideology that SF symbolizes in the American imagination,” a- he declared.

“In stories like this, the city is used as a symbol of progressive political failures,” he continued. “The city is a character in a story that confirms the correctness of conservative politics. Selective quotes also allow the reader to see the problem of homelessness through the eyes of those who are inconvenienced and uncomfortable by the “scary” people on the streets. “

The problem of biased media is a historical problem. Davis said that until the 1980s, “Americans lived in a low-choice media environment,” which “had the advantage of putting Americans on the same page on the major issues we faced in as a nation “.

“Academics and journalists could identify something as a unified, mainstream public debate,” he explained.

But in today’s media environment where choice is high, a paradox has arisen.

“The diversity of perspectives available was meant to be more democratic and empowering, but the media environment of choice paradoxically allowed us to isolate ourselves from opposing views and information,” said Davis.

Twentieth-century journalists saw news as “a kind of school, offering information to promote voting and self-government,” he said, noting that “the 21st century has changed the role of ‘information in public life’.

“The school metaphor has given way to another metaphor: the church. Americans are increasingly using news as a way to support a common ideological faith, ”he said. “Conservatives look to Tucker Carlson to confirm Nancy Pelosi’s misdeeds and complain about the dangers of ‘creeping socialism’. MSNBC viewers tune in to see if Trump will be charged for his role in the Capitol riots after Biden was elected.

“In many ways, our choice of news is a choice of worldview,” he continued. “The faithful don’t go to church to learn something new about what happened to Jesus. They will participate in a community of shared values.

In an interview with SFGATE, Sam Singer, one of San Francisco’s top communications strategists, addressed the problem of San Francisco’s image from a public relations perspective. A former journalist, Singer has worked with Chevron, Airbnb, Disney, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle both belong to Hearst but operate independently of each other).

“Perception is reality,” he said.

The singer believes the image of San Francisco in the media and beyond “sits somewhere between ‘The Wire’ and ‘Squid Game.’

“San Francisco has a deep-rooted and significant image and reputation problem,” he said. “In fact, I would say the city is in crisis mode. ”

Singer said San Francisco’s high-profile corruption issues at City Hall and the Building Inspection Department contribute to the city’s reputation. He noted what he called the city’s reluctance to arrest and prosecute criminals, leading to viral videos showing thieves running out of Walgreens with their loot or through Neiman-Marcus with purses. of stolen creators. (The town hall and chamber of commerce did not respond to SFGATE’s request for comment.)

Singer also said the city’s housing crisis, as evidenced by its visible homeless population, makes San Francisco seem inhospitable to tourists and locals alike.

“You are looking at a city that is beyond the pandemic, which is experiencing a pandemic of mental health issues, drug addiction, crime and corruption. And the city has to start tackling these issues or it will fall further and further behind, ”he said.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, pushed Singer away.

“Homelessness is not a public relations issue,” she told SFGATE. “It’s a problem of poverty. It is a question of racism. And it’s a question of disability and homophobia. These are huge systemic problems that need to be fixed.

For Friedenbach, the question isn’t necessarily why San Francisco has such a severe homelessness problem, but why does such a wealthy city have such severe poverty?

“For a lot of people who visit, what I constantly hear from them is, ‘Why don’t you have guaranteed accommodation?’ And that’s a great question because almost every other westernized country is doing it, ”she said.

While viral videos like the ones mentioned above ignite the perception that crime is on the rise in San Francisco, that’s not exactly the case, according to crime statistics.

At a press conference in July, San Francisco Police Department chief Bill Scott noted that cases of rape, theft and theft / theft were all down in San Francisco. Homicides and aggravated assaults were fairly stable between 2015 and 2021, but the number of victims of gun violence almost doubled in 2021 compared to the last two years.

When it comes to auto-related crime, including break-ins and theft, both saw an increase from 2020. Scott also noted that burglaries, in general, were on the rise in 2020 and 2021.

“There is a lot of misinformation in San Francisco,” Scott said. “But at the end of the day, we have to use this data to make decisions about our policies and our investments.”

An increase in some crime is not a problem unique to San Francisco. new York and Los Angeles, among others, have also seen an increase in crime in the era of the pandemic, according to local media and law enforcement.

But for many, the question remains: how does San Francisco fix its image?

According to Singer as a public relations expert, the city must first admit its problems.

“Anyone worth their salt in communications, public relations, reputation management or crisis communications is not going to try to tell you to sweep the issues under the rug,” he said. “You have a problem and you need to act. “

He said he would ask the mayor to “declare a crisis not only on the streets of San Francisco, but against theft and petty crime.”

In Singer’s view, the city also needs to increase “accountability for the results of municipal agencies and non-profit organizations as well,” and design not only a better communications plan, but also an operational plan.

All major cities have problems, sometimes very visible. But as those of us who live here know, these issues extend far beyond the realm of public relations. Can San Francisco fix its image to reflect the reality of life here? Time will tell us. The problem, as Friedenbach noted, is deep-rooted.

“I think San Francisco is being used as a symbol of a progressive left-wing city by conservative interests, which greatly exaggerate the situation here,” she said.

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