By Celeste Hedequist
In October of 2021, Boston’s most vulnerable residents began receiving notices to vacate a tent encampment at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard (also known as ‘Mass and Cass’). The mainstream local media covered the story from different angles, though similarly at different times, including coverage of Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s executive order which called for the clean-up of the encampment citing public health and public safety concerns. Janey’s executive order was issued on October 19, 2021. On the same day, a new temporary court was set up at the Suffolk County jail for those failing to comply with the executive order.
In the following weeks, clean-up efforts ensued, tents were taken down, and personal belongings, such as shopping carts, sofas, and other household items were tossed. Subsequently, on November 4, 2021, the mainstream media reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) seeking injunctive relief, and actual and punitive damages for the destruction of personal property as a part of the displacement process. On November 5, 2021, Mayor-Elect Michelle Wu, who was voted in by Boston on November 2, 2021—during the clean-up effort—told news sources that she would make changes to the handling of the encampment and that she believed that “no one should be arrested while waiting for treatment.”
Wu, who took office on November 16, 2021, stated that she is “working to quickly hire a ‘Mass and Cass’ chief to oversee efforts in the neighborhood.” On November 17, 2021, the SJC denied the ACLU’s request to stop the municipal government’s clean-up and clear-out efforts. It’s unclear where things stand presently, but the SJC has denied relief to those living in the encampment and at risk for incarceration or further institutionalization under the original executive order.
Media Coverage of the Encampment’s Removal
During October 2021, local news media sources covered the story of the homeless encampment in Boston mainly from the perspective of justifying why the clean-up was necessary with regard to public health. Headlines such as these ran: “Boston begins clearing homeless camp, citing opioid crisis,” and “Camps near ‘Methadone Mile’ given Monday deadline to leave.” The media focused on Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s efforts to clean up the public space by removing tents and belongings of those who resided there. News articles referred to notices posted by Janey on tents and in the area, and flyers which were distributed stating that “[d]ue to health, environmental and sanitary concerns … the City of Boston will conduct a clean-up of this public space … warning tent-dwellers all property left at that time would be thrown out by city workers.” During this cycle of news, photographs of the homeless encampment appeared showing tents with notices taped on them, some looking colorful, yet dilapidated, with personal belongings strewn about in the street or in shopping carts. Some news outlets mentioned that Janey’s notice provided assurances for those who were being displaced, but the details regarding the execution of her plan were not specified. The plan simply provided that “[n]o unsheltered individual will be required to remove their tent unless shelter, housing, or treatment is available.”
News reports which followed just one week later told another story. Outlets during this next week focused on Janey’s creation of special courts for arrests at Mass and Cass. The Boston Globe stated that a “new court for people arrested in the vicinity of a sprawling homeless encampment in Boston began hearing cases Monday … three men [were] detained … just steps from the makeshift proceeding.” The same report went on to describe a dire situation for these three people who were living in the encampment stating: “All three men were brought in on warrants ranging from drug possession, to larceny, to breaking and entering. They were led one by one in handcuffs and marched from police vehicles in the street past protesters who held signs and chanted, ‘Healthcare, housing, stop the sweeps!’” These follow-up news reports had a different tone and attitude than previous ones. What was initially depicted as a public health crisis posed by those who were living in the encampment was subsequently described by the media as a humanitarian crisis, citing rogue efforts by the local government to criminalize homelessness.
At least one media source acknowledged that the shelter option was not a viable one, even though it was touted by Janey and media sources at the outset of the clean-up as an alternative to encampment. Another news source claimed that criminal justice advocates said exaggerated concerns regarding public health were pretextual and being used to arrest and detain people. Referring to the Boston Globe, NBC News declared that the city needs to hold court in a jail facility because the homeless people living in the camps are medically compromised.
Media Coverage of Legal Challenges
Subsequently, media outlets began to report yet another development: the ACLU had stepped in and wanted to stop Boston’s plan to remove the Mass and Cass encampments. However, despite the ACLU’s efforts, many of the tents in the encampment had already been removed. The ACLU filed suit with the SJC on November 5,2021 seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages on behalf of those being displaced. The complaint alleges that it violates the Constitution and disability discrimination laws for the city to threaten criminal sanctions for those failing to comply with the clean-up. Second, it alleges that by removing people and destroying their personal property, the city violates the Fourteenth Amendment and the guarantee of due process.
On November 17, 2021, almost three weeks from the time Janey initiated the clean-up, the SJC denied the ACLU’s request to stop the removal of the tents. One media source summarized the status of the situation, stating: “The city has been giving homeless people an eviction notice[s] of 48 hours and providing bins for people to put their belongings in if they are forced from tents, citing concerns over substance abuse, fires, motor vehicle accidents, sexual assaults, robberies, and homicides.” After the judge’s ruling denying temporary injunctive relief, there was a consensus among media outlets that the rollout of Janey’s plan missed the mark and that more needed to be done to avoid incarceration of those living in and around the area of Mass and Cass.
Media Coverage of Government Officials
Boston’s new Mayor, Michelle Wu, who was voted in on November 2, 2021 (the same day as the eviction deadline for the homeless encampment), spoke in response and promised to pause the dismantling of the encampment until the court proceedings ended, but it is unclear what would happen after the ruling was made. The local media sources covering the developments failed to sufficiently address and question why neither Janey, the governor, nor Mayor Wu had anticipated these challenges prior to issuing the Executive order. Further, the media’s coverage never reconciled claims later made by public officials expressing an intent to avoid incarceration or institutionalization of those in the encampment with their blatant earlier efforts to establish a make-shift special court at a local jail.
Why was the special court necessary if there was no intent to criminalize the victims being displaced by Janey’s Executive order? The local media outlets almost unanimously failed to cover many of the “why” questions in their reporting of the government’s position from the start.
Assessment of Overall Media Coverage
The media’s coverage of the Boston homeless encampment situation presents many conflicting values and principles. Those working in media face deadlines and limits on their time, and on the resources available to investigate, develop, and produce a story. News agents must consider running stories which will inform and interest an audience while also considering the need to generate revenue from advertisers. Additionally, stories reporting on issues that are of public concern are of higher news value and hold more currency, however, it’s not always possible to cover every angle because of the scarcity of space and time. Thus, deciding which angle to cover and at which time should be subject to enormous ethical scrutiny, as the selection process potentially narrows the lens through which the audience will construct reality. In the case of the homelessness crisis, local media sources almost uniformly covered the story using different angles at different times, begging the question of whether the media ethically reported the events or whether it’s selection of related content and timing of its release drove a particular narrative.
Although the homelessness crisis and clean-up could have been told in many ways, at the outset, media outlets mainly focused heavily on the sensational aspects of it, citing the problem of drugs, addiction, sexual assaults, and the spread of disease within the vicinity of the encampment. News media providing detailed information about an emergency executive order to remove tents on Mass and Cass should have further sought to balance the subjects’ privacy rights with the public’s ‘need to know’ principle and the freedom of the press under the First Amendment.
Despite efforts of conscientious journalists to be objective and accurate, news reports are often unintentionally distorted, and thus flawed beliefs can provide the basis for public opinions. In turn, public opinion guides the formation of potentially flawed public policy which might have steep costs for society. Did the news media fall short of its responsibilities in this case, and if so, how did it impact public opinion? Was it ethically justifiable to select the most tantalizing aspects of the homeless encampment clean-up story and publish photos of the tents and personal belongings of those living in the encampment? Are news agencies morally liable for omissions of pertinent information which could have changed how a vulnerable population was treated if that information had been shared in a timely manner? Is it ever justifiable for news agencies to serve an agenda of the government despite the appearance of a conflict of interest which erodes public trust?
The Moral Agents of Media Coverage
The moral agents in this case are the editors of the news agencies. The news editors of local news agencies covered the story, including the more enticing aspects of it, such as drug abuse, crimes, arrests, violence, and disease, all which likely had the greatest appeal to the largest audiences. Because the public enjoys these themes in media content, news agents might have felt compelled to lower their ethical and moral standards to meet their audience’s desire for entertainment. Further, the media operates within a competitive business environment in the United States, and therefore, media practitioners must be cognizant of what content will drive profits.
Freedom of the press and the public’s right to know afford practitioners great latitude in making choices regarding content. With the protection of the First Amendment, there is little hope of preventing a creeping cycle of sensationalism, not to mention desensitization to certain issues among news consumers. Moreover, the public has the right to know the truth even if it offends moral sensibilities. Indeed, people’s right to know even the more gruesome or scandalous aspects of stories arguably remains a legitimate reason for media practitioners to publish and distribute content that disregards privacy rights, is morally offensive, and/or harms subjects or others.
The moral agents in the present case would have weighed all these factors quite heavily against the need to balance truth, accuracy, fairness, and the right of privacy of those featured in their reports. Also, the pictures used arguably depict the situation more accurately than words alone, which might have been deemed yet another reason to use them.
However, the news agency editors in the local media did not behave fairly when they did not tell the entirety of the story, which should have explained why so many had lost their former homes in Boston, and also should have highlighted the perspectives of the homeless subjects. Closer scrutiny of the selection of the perspectives shared and the timing of the content should have been given to avoid the harm that ensued to subjects.
Additionally, the moral agents did not act fairly when they published and disseminated the most sensational aspects of the story, and they did not behave justly when they shared personal information including pictures of tents and the personal belongings of those in the encampment. The pictures arguably added a level of entertainment, but was it necessary to inflict additional harm on an already vulnerable population to drive profits? The story could have been told without these attributes and there were alternative ways to pique interest in the story. Certainly, running headlines about drugs and addiction might have been the easiest and most profitable route, but in this instance, perhaps other attributes of those living on the streets could have been spotlighted, such as their courage, perseverance, resilience, and adaptability.
Moral Liability in Media Coverage
As to whether news agencies should be morally liable for omissions of pertinent information and whether it is ethically justifiable for news agencies to serve an agenda of the government, one must consider other competing values. Among these are values such as journalistic integrity, independence, harm to subjects and others, the appearances of conflicts of interest, erosion of public trust, as well as harmony and the greater good. In this instance, the media practitioners responsible for the homeless encampment clean-up story failed to provide proper context and omitted information early on which could have led to greater social activism by those in the community who wished to prevent the government’s abrupt ultimatum to those living at Mass and Cass.
With an election looming, the news media had an obligation to clarify information which they received from public officials to better inform the public about the candidates and their views about the encampment clean-up. As watchdogs, the news media should have demanded answers from public officials and sought to reconcile conflicting messages from Acting Mayor Janey and others. Instead, the news agents regurgitated these conflicting messages by government officials. There was pertinent information which was known but not reported until after the clean-up began and after Michelle Wu was elected to be the new mayor of Boston. Wu, who had been consistent with Janey on her plans for the encampment prior to the election, softened her approach afterwards, but did not take issue with the SJC denial of the ACLU’s request to enjoin the clean-up efforts. This arguably led to an appearance of a conflict of interest because the press, whose role it is to monitor the government for examples of overreach, plausibly aided the government in its effort to remove those living in the homeless encampment without any real push back until it was too late.
The questionable reporting of the events, the change in tone, the failure to ask tough questions of public officials and seek additional content, as well as the shift from a public health crisis to a humanitarian one within just a few weeks raises questions about journalistic integrity and independence. The harm to the subjects and the harm to the institutions which the news agents represent should have been deemed more important in order to avoid undermining public trust in the media.
To be fair, there are significant external factors to consider, as well. The most obvious external factor in this case would be the imminent election for the mayor of Boston. The news editors, as moral agents, might have arguably deviated from general precedent of how local media would usually cover a homelessness crisis in the past because there was more at stake with an upcoming election. Perhaps, the typical watchdog role of the local media regarding human rights issues and social responsibility was subordinated to the goal of election integrity and voter turnout.
It’s long been accepted that mass media impacts public opinion and in turn, public opinion impacts public policy and elections. That being the case, it behooves editors to scrutinize more carefully what is at stake and who is harmed by their decisions, and to accurately convey such by being as transparent and as accountable as possible. The lack of any clear instruction in law, codes of conduct, or guidelines was another external factor which could have contributed to how the homeless encampment story was initially depicted by the local Boston media.
Another external factor might be the dissatisfaction in nearby communities of those impacted negatively by the encampment. Perhaps there was pressure on editors to report the clean-up efforts as highly necessary in the beginning to appease community members who were also consumers of the news and financial donors of the local news agencies, candidates for Boston mayor, and others in political arena. Did pressure from the local non-encampment community—where more members might vote—steer a narrative in the media leading to distortions of the truth? If so, then it is possible that ulterior motives, even bad intent, existed in the media’s early portrayal of events.
As moral agents, news editors may have initially appeared motivated by genuine concerns about addiction, crime, and unsanitary conditions. In contrast, they arguably later appeared more influenced by politics when they released information about Acting Mayor Janey’s make-shift court at a jail which went unexamined in any meaningful way as the tents in the encampment were being tossed. Perhaps it was the media’s duty to the general public surrounding the encampment which prevailed and fostered reports that negatively depicted the encampments and those living in it. What is clear is that the local media did not press public officials for answers to some of the most obvious questions regarding a special court for those who failed to comply with Janey’s ultimatum.
The media did cover the ACLU’s effort to stop the removal of the tents, but initially there was little, if any, effort to highlight the foreseeable and pertinent legal and ethical issues with respect to it. Also, the media’s coverage of the homeless and their feelings about the clean-up was not as in-depth as one would have expected given that the media has a social responsibility to expose government overreach and dubious dealings with its citizens. Criminalization further subjects an already vulnerable population to greater difficulty finding shelter, brings them into more frequent contact with law enforcement, and potentially results in incarceration and an increased risk of violence perpetrated during arrests. Moreover, deference should be given to innocent subjects of any story. Government efforts to rid cities of homeless tents and spaces where homeless people can sit or sleep, and the media’s coverage of such, together send a disturbing message to the public that the homeless are not innocent victims, which is a distortion of the truth in many cases. The duty owed by the media to these subjects should have weighed heavily in favor of their protection at all costs, first, as innocents, and second, as being the more at-risk group when compared to other societal groups to which a duty was owed.
As to the photos, the private lives of citizens should not be exposed in a public way unless the benefit to doing so would outweigh any invasion of privacy. The photos of the encampment depicted personal belongings and were of an intrusive nature, but arguably, the public’s need to know trumped other considerations. Perhaps in order to shape public opinion about the encampment and justify the clean-up, it was preferable for news editors to capture the gravity of the circumstances through photos, which often convey a richer picture than simple words.
As the mayoral election in Boston grew closer, the homeless encampment at Mass and Cass suddenly became an urgent public health crisis, though the details explaining the timing of why were left out by the media. Some questioned the emergency nature of the order to remove the encampment, which had already existed for a while and throughout the duration of COVID pandemic. Only after the clean-up commenced and after some were arrested did the tone of media reports soften, and the humanitarian issues surrounding the criminalization of those who were displaced receive significant media attention.
The Boston mayoral election occurred on November 2, 2021, the same day which served as the deadline for all tents to be removed. That left those living in the area seriously distraught about finding housing and at risk for being arrested and incarcerated. The humanitarian issues and the risks for criminalizing homelessness should have been covered at the outset and prior to the mayoral election so candidates could have been vetted about these issues. The media outlets had access to Janey’s roll-out plan for the clean-up and knew it involved a special court for those who were noncompliant with her executive order. When news editors acting as moral agents behave in ways which compromise their credibility and create appearances of a conflict of interest, this damages their reputation and the reputation of the media generally, who is supposed to act independently from government and serve the public interest.
About the Author
Celeste Hedequist is a lawyer and advocate in Massachusetts. As a self-motivated individual, and someone who values education, Celeste holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from Boston College, a Master’s of Public Health in Environmental Sciences from Columbia, and a Juris Doctor from the Boston University School of Law. She combines her passion for law, advocacy, and the environment to assist in opportunities for locally and abroad.
Alongside her professional achievements, Celeste is also an avid traveler and has ventured across the United States and various parts of the globe with her husband and children. Her travel blog recounts her family’s experiences with the different people and cultures they have encountered on their visits.