On Thursday, KUT aired a story, reported by Syeda Hasan and edited by myself, about the language used in the debate around CodeNEXT, Austin’s re-write of its land development code.
We’ve gotten a good deal of reaction to that story — much of it negative.
CodeNEXT is, without a doubt, an issue that has inflamed passions among those who are highly engaged in the process. People feel strongly about protecting their neighborhoods from change — whether that be from more housing, people and cars, or from being priced out. People familiar with CodeNEXT see it as either a solution to some of these problems or something that will make them even worse.
We can all agree that people on all sides of the issue are advocating for what they believe is best for Austin and maintaining the quality of life many of us enjoy here.
That brings us back to the piece that aired Thursday and was published on KUT.org.
We told the story of an October meeting of the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission, during which Austin Neighborhoods Council president Mary Ingle made reference to a zoning case near UT campus. In the course of her public testimony, she said, “This is not Calcutta.”
The Indian city of Calcutta, now called Kolkata, has a metro population of around 14 million people.
The comment stuck out to our reporter, and at least one member of the commission found it “offensive.” Before we published our story, Ingle said she had heard from people calling her comment racially insensitive.
The story was not “fed” to our reporter by pro-CodeNEXT groups, as some have alleged. Hasan was, to her knowledge, the only reporter present at the meeting when the comment was made. She interviewed Ms. Ingle on two separate occasions to get clarification on what she meant by that comparison. Hasan told Ms. Ingle both times that she was being recorded.
From our story today:
When asked about her comment on Calcutta, she replied: “I’ve been to Calcutta. I know what it looks like there. I know how much pollution they have to deal with. I know how packed in and overpopulated it is and how much poverty there is.”
We heard from roughly a dozen people who thought our treatment of Ms. Ingle was unfair. They alleged that we set out to imply she is racist.
One listener wrote:
I find highly offensive and poor journalism your CodeNEXT piece today implying Mary Ingle is a racist as well as all the other CodeNEXT opponents.
We regret that people heard that in our story, and I’d like to extend a sincere apology to Ms. Ingle for that. The focus on the comment was not meant to paint her or any opponents of CodeNEXT as racist.
But let me be clear: It is possible for someone to say something that is perceived as racially insensitive without being a racist.
The larger point, which unfortunately may have gotten lost in the outrage over our highlighting her comments, is that the words people use in their discussion around CodeNEXT can be alienating and discouraging for other people trying to participate in the process — especially newcomers to a process as convoluted and confusing as CodeNEXT.
Email Matt Largey at email@example.com