Opposition to garden demonstrates media reality distortion field effect

Russ Grayson reports…

THE ISSUE of alienating public land for community gardens flared in a minor way last May as gardeners were building their community garden in

a small park in Ultimo.

Two people who live near the park objected to the garden, claiming it would take land away from the local community. This was challenged by the community garden group, which is made up of local residents, who said it would provide new opportunities to create a place where local people could go to grow some of the food they eat and for social reasons.

The Ultimo Community Garden.


Changing landuse is controversial

The mini-controversy is typical of what happens when there is a proposal to change landuse in the city in places where open space is in short supply.

This was amply demonstrated last year when the Sydney City Council displayed ideas for the makeover of Fitzroy Gardens in Potts Point. There was no community garden in this, but locals were divided over the new design and the Gardens ended up getting only a minor upgrade. The controversy, however, was continually reported in the media and the reporting portrayed it as a black and white division of opinion and reported few of the nuances in opinion.

Media reports exception

The media, of course, focuses on exception and disagreement and in doing so can create the idea that what is actually the objections of a small number is actually held by a large number. This reflects the lack of analytical reporting in local media where investigative journalism has traditionally been lacking.

Journalists are taught that their role is to give space to major opinion and not to try to mediate a situation as that would be intervention. Yet, the selective process of  news production is itself an intervention that blows out of proportion what can be opposition held by a relatively small number. Reporting, rather than being the straightforward writing of an issue so as to describe it to readers, reframes it in terms chosen by the journalist or editor and it is this reframing that splits communities further and distorts reality.

This happened when the Inner West courier, which is distributed in the Glebe/Ultimo/adjacent areas, reported the objection to the community garden with a full colour, front page photo of one of the objectors standing in front of the community garden, with an accompanying story. Maybe it was a slow news day, but its hard to believe the community garden’s objector warranted such prime page one real estate for what is surely one of Ultimo’s less important issues. What was interesting were the responses to the story in the newspapers public comments blog, the vast majority of which supported the community gardeners.

This focus on disagreement rather that a more comprehensive reporting of the community garden, that included their benefits, demonstrates how the well-intentioned media practice of giving equal weight to all opinion distorts the reality of issues. While reporting the objections of opponents of the community garden, the paper could have made clear that their numbers are quite a lot less than those who participate in the garden of otherwise don’t mind its presence.

Generally, reporting of community gardens in the press and on television has been positive and the gardens have been framed as a good thing. The difficulty with reporting in the old media—newspapers and television—is that stories are limited by column centimeters or duration and this leads to important detail, especially where there is controversy, being edited out. This suggests that online media is better for such reporting and it is this, in part, that drives people to online media sources and contributes to the falling sales of newspapers.

Sun-Herald reports…

Following is the Sun-Herald, a sydney tabloid, report:


“Community gardening no bed of roses as neighbours lose the plot

Rachael Olding May 22, 2011

NOT EVERYTHING is rosy in Sydney’s community gardens.

Neighbourhood feuds are erupting as more public land across the city is usurped by membership-only gardens. The last of the planter boxes in Wattle Lane Park in Ultimo were only laid yesterday and already neighbours are divided.

Susan Rymer, president of the Ultimo Community Garden Club, invited a disgruntled resident, Colleen Robinson, to join the garden, only to be surprised earlier this month when Mrs Robinson was on the front pages of local papers accusing the membership-only garden club of being gifted public parkland and a $10,000 grant by the City of Sydney council.
”There have been a handful of people objecting, saying we’ve taken the park, but we haven’t,” Ms Rymer said. ”We welcome anyone with open arms … in walking or cycling distance to the park.”
Glovers Community Garden in Rozelle has thrived for 25 years but members were shocked when a rogue neighbour recently snuck into a section of the garden one night, planted his own vegetables, changed the padlocks and barricaded off a section.

In Lilyfield, residents have grown frustrated as they sit on a waiting list, sometimes for years, for the White St Garden.

Further afield, angry Melbourne residents displayed protest banners in their windows to thwart a Carlton North community garden last year.

”Because you’re on public land and because the garden is usually locked up, it does create a feeling that there’s no access so it’s important we have talks and open days,” says Gillian Leahy from White St Garden.

Russ Grayson, co-ordinator of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, said the number of community gardens in Sydney had grown to about 50 in the past decade. He said it was no different to a sporting group taking a portion of public land.

A City of Sydney council spokeswoman defended the Ultimo garden, saying gardens provide ”much needed open space for residents to get their hands dirty and grow their own food in the heart of the city”.

A $20 joining fee covers insurance and tools. ”For the few negatives we’ve had 100 times more positives,” Ms Rymer said.”





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