While the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray has sparked a conversation about police brutality, it has also led to negative media portrayals of a city trying to shake a legacy of unflattering depictions.
Under other circumstances Gray’s death after he suffered injuries while in police custody may have remained a local news story. But in the aftermath of recent high-profile incidents involving police and African-American men in Ferguson, Missouri, North Charleston, South Carolina and New York City — and because Gray being taken into custody was recorded, providing cable news networks with the dramatic footage they crave — his death has become national news.
As reporters from media outlets such as CNN, Washington Post and New York Times descended on West Baltimore, they helped reinforce an image the city has been trying to shake since the critically acclaimed HBO series “The Wire” aired. News footage has revealed to national audiences a Baltimore beyond M&T Bank Stadium and Orioles Park at Camden Yards. Photos posted to Twitter by a local reporter prompted Esquire to compare West Baltimore to a fake streetscape on the back lot of Warner Bros.
The national reminder of Charm City’s struggles comes at a particularly bad time. The summer tourism and hospitality season, which plays a major role in the city’s economy, is getting ready to kick off. The Baltimore Development Corp. lists the sector as one of the city’s “key industries.” According to Visit Baltimore in 2013, 23.9 million visitors to the city spent $5.15 billion in the region which generated $266.3 million in city taxes and supported 80,500 jobs.
Visit Baltimore recently launched a $1 million ad campaign featuring celebrities such as Julie Bowen, Common and Mike Rowe crowing about “My B’more” in publications such as Oprah, Ebony and Better Homes and Gardens. The campaign is an effort to bolster city tourism now that the festivities surrounding the bicentennial of the Star Spangled Banner’s composition are over.
On Wednesday, the nonprofit Sail Baltimore showed 30 naval attaches from around the world the Inner Harbor to try and entice them to send their historic ships to the city next year as an additional lure for tourists.
Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, in an emailed statement said the organization’s thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Gray. He added that it’s too soon to know what the impact of negative media attention will be on the city’s tourism and hospitality industry.
“Baltimore has built a strong reputation as a welcoming destination for visitors from around the world. Current media attention has generated some inquiries from convention planners; however, to date, there have been no cancellations of meetings or events planned or hosted by Visit Baltimore or the Baltimore Convention Center,” Noonan said. ”In 2015 Baltimore has a full convention calendar and we stand ready to assist with information on upcoming programs and visits to the city. We have not yet reached our prime tourism season so it’s too early to tell whether visitation will be impacted.”.
Marie Yeh, an assistant professor of marketing at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business, argues that incidents regarding conflict between residents and police are not isolated only to Baltimore. Cities across the nation, she said, struggle to showcase improved areas against neighborhoods still hampered by urban decline.
She said the impact of the Gray story will depend on how long it can hold the national news media’s ever-shifting attention.
“Certainly any negative publicity is not desired, right. Because it’s not going to help the tourism industry,” Yeh said. “Now the nature of what’s going on right now … obviously police brutality is a serious issue … but it doesn’t directly impact people’s perception of Baltimore as unsafe, which I would think would be more of an issue.”
But the impact of negative attention on the city’s economy isn’t an issue some city leaders are currently considering. During a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she’d leave it up to reporters to speculate about the impact this incident could have on the industry.
“I’m really trying to think why, at a time like this, you’d think I’d be thinking about tourism and hospitality,” Rawlings-Blake said.