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The Unintended False Narrative Created about Local Government

Christmas Hallmark Channel movie season has come to an end. The new year has begun. If you had watched any of these movies, chances are at some point you said to yourself, “oh, I love that actor. He’s from this other thing that I watch but I can’t put my finger on his name.”

Some actors make an entire living out of this strategy of persistence over fame. It’s what academics call the mere exposure effect. We are comfortable with what we see often even if we don’t know much about it. This repeated stimulus to the same thing will increase our preference for it in the future.

This can be as harmless as Dermot Mulroney, a C level acting talent with an A grade ability to persist, but it can also have a dark side. Instead of warming up to the idea of certain people, we can instead normalize certain narratives that would be otherwise untrue.

This has happened a couple of times at the national and state levels with the best of intentions.

In the late 1970s, six-year-old Etan Patz went missing and he became one of the first children to be featured on a milk carton. This instance, combined with a few other high profile abductions which the media covered closely, fundamentally led to a change in the way most people parent their children. This has led to effects which we are seeing today even though child abductions are quite rare, and in over 99% of the cases in which they do happen, the adult is someone related to the child.

The three-strike law adopted by many states is another behavior change in response to assuming an untrue narrative based on heavy media coverage. This narrative is that violent criminals are walking the streets because criminal penalties are not harsh enough. This may be true in some exceptional cases, but the three-strikes law has also led to some extreme sentencing for minor infractions.

Both of these mindsets are a result of misunderstanding an assumed narrative because of the disproportionate amount of news coverage a single idea receives.

The Chronicle, as with any media outlet including this one, can be guilty of this at the local level. It’s particularly noticeable when it comes to the coverage of the city of Crystal River.

This week was a perfect example. Last Sunday’s Chronicle editorial assigned grades to 10 community goals that the paper laid out. The result wasn’t pretty.

The county received two F’s, two D’s, a C-, C, and C+ but also got two B+s to top it off. No A’s were given. The result amounts to a 1.80 grade point average (GPA.)

In contrast, the lead local story on the front page of the Chronicle yesterday, the first edition of 2022, was a similar piece except it highlighted each goal that the city of Crystal River achieved. No grades were given but you could tell it would have been a straight A, 4.0 GPA had it been done.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of news coverage. Crystal River did have a great year and the staff’s accomplishments should be recognized.

What is problematic, though, is the idea that Crystal River does everything right and the rest of the county is like the gang that can’t shoot straight. The governing comparisons are simply not the same.

Crystal River achieved its good year in part through a significant property tax increase which raised the millage from 4.8 to 6.59 mils. This might work for the city where people expect to pay more but people who choose to live in the unincorporated areas for the lower tax rates have different priorities and expectations of their government.

The solution is not to start publishing critical stories about Crystal River (something, rest assured you, the Chronicle was not in danger of potentially doing) nor is it to cover each area of Citrus County with an equal amount of attention.

The Chronicle can be more mindful of false narratives its content can create however. These could have more detrimental effects on the county’s ability to attract businesses or other sources of revenues to the unincorporated parts that would help offset the need for more tax increases.

Former County Commissioner Brian Coleman once described his vision for local business sustainability as unaffected even if another manatee never showed up in our springs. A continued heavy reliance on Crystal River will never make that vision a reality.


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