Behind the Facade: The perverse media feedback loop shaping public perception in Lexington

by Paul Oliva, Web Editor

Lexington, Kentucky, known for its picturesque landscapes and rich history, presents an image of prosperity and charm. However, beneath this carefully curated facade, there are stories that remain untold, issues that are overlooked, and voices that are unheard.

Screengrab from a January 2, 2023 Herald-Leader article by Beth Musgrave titled ‘From hotel on Manchester to Town Branch Park, here’s what’s new, what’s coming in 2023‘ (

The Lexington Herald-Leader, Lexington’s most prominent local newspaper, has been at the center of this narrative control. This column aims to shed light on the feedback loops of traditional media, the influence of powerful groups and advertisers, and the impact on free and open access to information.

An out-of-place shopping cart stands discarded in front of the facade of the new Manchester Hotel, built in the middle of Irishtown, a historical neighborhood prominently settled by immigrants. (The Lexington Times)

Feedback loops in traditional media and the role of advertisers in shaping news content

The feedback loop of traditional media. (The Lexington Times)

Feedback loops in traditional media are a complex, yet integral part of how news is disseminated. These loops begin with the selection of stories that are likely to appeal to people with disposable income, the primary target audience for advertisers. The focus on this demographic often leads to a skewed representation of events and issues, leaving out those that might be relevant to the less affluent.

The Herald-Leader’s coverage, or rather the lack thereof, of the homelessness and addiction crisis in Lexington is a glaring example of this bias. Despite the visibility of these issues in neighborhoods across the city, from Northside to Southside, their stories remain largely untold. This selective reporting extends even to significant drug cases involving sophisticated Drug Trafficking Organizations, which are often left unreported, preserving Lexington’s quaintly charming image as the ‘Horse Capital of the World.’

The influence of powerful groups and advertisers on media content is another concerning aspect of this feedback loop. The Herald-Leader’s dismissal of a Pulitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist following the publication of “controversial” cartoons about a GOP gubernatorial hopeful is a case in point. The newspaper’s landlord, Chad Needham, a prominent businessman and owner of a significant portfolio of properties on the East End and Northside, further complicates this web of influence. Needham’s extensive property ownership and his role in the changing demographics of these neighborhoods have led some to label him a “gentrifier,” but the Herald-Leader has been less-than-eager to cover this side of the story, preferring instead to focus on highlighting the many upscale businesses he hosts at their neighbor, Greyline Station.

Councilmember Tayna Fogle. (Photo by Amy Wallot)

In a recent phone interview, District 1 Council Member Tayna Fogle spoke passionately about the need for media to cover the city’s pressing issues, such as homelessness and addiction. “What are we going to do about the people on the ground that’s trapped?” she asked, highlighting the human suffering in Lexington that often goes unreported.

Fogle also discussed the mobile Dignity Station, a concept she developed with the Catholic Action Center to provide basic bathroom, shower, and laundry facilities for the unhoused population. Fogle successfully secured funding for the station in the form of a $79,500 budget amendment. However, we have a duty to note that this innovative solution received scant media coverage in local reporting on the City’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget, especially when compared to Mayor Linda Gorton’s significant expansion of police surveillance in Lexington.

The Herald-Leader, who endorsed Gorton, a registered Republican, touted this surveillance expansion alongside City talking points as a great step forward for Lexington, while giving nary a mention to Fogle’s Dignity Station and the reasons behind the need for it. Yet, it’s crucial to note that this surveillance system is part of a larger framework that addresses the symptoms of crime rather than its underlying causes, which may perpetuate harm in the community.

The challenges faced by independent media in this context are immense. Yet, they have a crucial role to play in breaking these feedback loops and ensuring free and open access to information. As Fogle told me, “I love talking to people like you that you’re doing the work, you’re engaging. You won’t let, like this rich, rich history get away from folks.”

An out-of-place shopping cart near a Starbucks in South Lexington. (The Lexington Times)

A rising tide?

The conclusion of this piece should serve as a call to action for the Herald-Leader and other local media outlets. It is time to shift the focus from restaurant openings and topics that cater to affluent individuals, and instead prioritize coverage of significant issues that impact the broader community. This sentiment is echoed in two recent letters to the editor of the Herald-Leader, printed on Sunday.

Two letters to the editor (outlined) in the Sunday, August 6 Lexington Herald-Leader. (Clipping from August 6, 2023 Herald-Leader, Transformative Fair Use for educational and informational purposes.)

One of the letters, penned by Suzanne F. Jones, expressed discontent with the cancellation of Joel Pett’s editorial cartoons and criticized the newspaper for making a series of poor decisions. Jones lamented the lack of substance in the paper, noting that the writers often rehash natural disasters and excessively highlight restaurant openings and closings, “as if they are groundbreaking events.”

The other letter, written by Pete Horine, raised concerns about the concept of “affordable housing.” Horine, who struggled to find a suitable place to live, questioned who exactly qualifies for affordable housing. He shared his frustrating experience with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Housing Authority, where he made multiple unsuccessful attempts to seek assistance. Horine expressed his desire for a decent place to live and requested guidance in finding affordable housing options.

Clipping from The Lexington Herald-Leader – Thursday, June 22, 2023,  Page A1.

In contrast to Horine’s account from on the ground, the Herald-Leader’s coverage of “Affordable Housing” consists mostly of Gorton administration talking points, and includes no discussion of whether the city-subsidized housing units are actually affordable to the people who live in the neighborhoods where they are built. (They aren’t.)

These letters underscore the need for local media to pay attention to the issues that matter to the community. The Herald-Leader, as the most prominent local newspaper, has a responsibility to provide comprehensive coverage of significant issues, from affordable housing to the homelessness and addiction crisis. It is time for the Herald-Leader to prioritize quality over quantity, substance over fluff, and community over advertisers. Amidst the continual upscaling and ‘revitalizing’ of our neighborhoods, the people of Lexington deserve a media outlet that tells the truth and serves their interests, not just those of the affluent and powerful.

Concept renderings for a ‘reimagined’ Eastland Shopping Center. (Imagine New Circle)

Top photo: The office of the Lexington Herald-Leader on Loudon Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky. (The Lexington Times)