San Francisco– Read a smattering of national and even international news headlines and you can see it: San Francisco has an image problem.
It’s not just conservative media slamming the city. The New York Times, the Economist, even British-based publications like the Independent and Sunday Times have run recent stories on the state of San Francisco, ranging from its highly visible housing issues to its shoplifting problems.
“Why San Francisco’s city government is so dysfunctional,” reads a headline from the Economist. “Crime is basically legal in San Francisco,” says another headline from the Daily Mail. The New York Times, meanwhile, just ran an article stating that “the mundane crime of shoplifting has spun out of control in San Francisco, forcing some chain stores to close.” (SFGATE has published a deeper investigation into this claim.)
Ian Davis, a professor of media studies at UC Berkeley, told SFGATE, “Yes, San Francisco’s progressive image in the American mind makes it a prime target for conservatives to criticize. It often functions as a symbol of liberal or Democratic policies.”
Indeed, a cursory search of Fox News headlines from the past week displays an obvious bias in coverage. “San Francisco families no longer ‘feel safe,’ hire private security amid crime spree,” reads one headline published last week. On the same day, the media site ran a story reading, “San Francisco prosecutors quit progressive DA Chesa Boudin’s office, join recall effort.”
Davis cited a Fox News story from 2019 on the crisis of the unhoused that he said named its bias outright: “In the summer of 2019, Fox News embarked on an ambitious project to chronicle the toll progressive policies have had on the homeless crisis in four West Coast cities: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore.,” a note at the top of the story reads.
“In stories like this, the city is used as a symbol of progressive policy failures,” he continued. “The city is a character in a narrative that confirms the correctness of conservative politics. Selective quotes also permit the reader to see the problem of the unhoused through the eyes of those inconvenienced and made uncomfortable by the ‘scary’ people in the streets.”
The biased media problem is a historical issue. Davis said that until the 1980s, “Americans lived in a low-choice media environment,” which “had the benefit of putting Americans on the same page about the major problems we faced as a nation.”
“Scholars and journalists could identify something like a unified, mainstream public debate,” he explained.
But in the current high-choice media environment, a paradox has emerged.
“The diversity of available perspectives was supposed to be more democratic and empowering, but the high-choice media environment paradoxically allowed us to insulate ourselves from opposing views and information,” Davis said.
Twentieth-century journalists considered news to be “a sort of schoolhouse, offering information to foster educated voting and self-governance,” he said, noting that “the 21st century has shifted the role of news in public life.”
“The schoolhouse metaphor has given way to another metaphor: the church. Americans increasingly use news as a way to endorse a common ideological faith,” he said. “Conservatives look to Tucker Carlson to confirm the evils of Nancy Pelosi and commiserate about the dangers of ‘creeping socialism.’ MSNBC viewers tune in to see if Trump will be indicted for his role in the Capitol riots following Biden’s election.”
“In many ways, our choice of news is a choice of world view,” he continued. “The faithful don’t go to church to learn something new about what happened to Jesus. They go to participate in a community of shared values.”
In an interview with SFGATE, Sam Singer, one of San Francisco’s top communications strategists at Singer Associates Public Relations San Francisco, approached San Francisco’s image problem from a PR perspective. A former journalist, Singer has worked with Chevron, Airbnb, Disney and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another).
“Perception is reality,” he said.
Singer thinks San Francisco’s image in the media and beyond “is 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 that the city is in crisis mode.”
Singer said San Francisco’s publicized corruption issues at City Hall and the Department of Building Inspection contribute to the city’s reputation. He noted what he called the city’s unwillingness to arrest and prosecute criminals, which leads to viral videos showing thieves running out of Walgreens with their spoils or tearing through Neiman-Marcus with stolen designer purses. (The mayor’s office and the 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 appear inhospitable to tourists and locals alike.
“You’re looking at a city that is beyond the pandemic, that has a pandemic of mental health, drug abuse, crime and corruption issues. And the city needs to start to address those issues or it will fall further and further behind,” he said.
Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, pushed back against Singer.
“Homelessness is not a PR issue,” she told SFGATE. “It’s an issue of poverty. It’s an issue of racism. And it’s an issue of disablism and homophobia. These are huge systemic issues that need correcting.”
For Friedenbach, the question is not necessarily why does San Francisco have such a severe issue of homelessness, but why does such a wealthy city have such severe poverty?
“For a lot of folks visiting, what I hear from them constantly is, ‘Why don’t you have guaranteed housing?’ And it’s a great question because almost every other westernized country does,” she said.
While viral videos such as those mentioned above inflame the perception that crime is increasing in San Francisco, that’s not exactly the case, crime statistics show.
At a July press conference, San Francisco Police Department Chief Bill Scott noted that rape cases, robberies and larceny/theft are all down in San Francisco. Homicides and aggravated assaults were fairly stable between 2015 and 2021, but the number of gun violence victims was almost double in 2021 compared with the past two years.
As for automobile-related crimes, including break-ins and thefts, both saw increases from 2020. Scott also noted that burglaries, in general, were up in 2020 and 2021.
“There’s 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 uptick in certain crimes isn’t an issue unique to San Francisco. New York and Los Angeles, among others, have also seen a surge in pandemic-era crimes, according to local media and police departments.
But for many, the question still remains: How does San Francisco fix its image?
In Singer’s view as a PR expert, the city must first admit to its problems.
“Anyone worth their salt in communications, PR, reputation management or crisis communications won’t try to tell you to sweep the issues under the rug,” he said. “You have a problem and you have to take action.”
He said he would call for the mayor to “declare a crisis not just on San Francisco’s streets, but on theft and petty crime.”
In Singer’s opinion, the city also needs to increase “accountability for results from city agencies and nonprofits as well,” and devise not just a better communications plan but an operational plan.
All major cities have problems, and sometimes highly visible ones at that. But as those of us who live here know, these issues extend far beyond the realm of PR. Can San Francisco fix its image to reflect the reality of life here? Time will tell. The issue, as Friedenbach noted, is entrenched.
“I think San Francisco is getting used as a symbol of a progressive left city by conservative interests, who are greatly exaggerating the situation here,” she said.