A journalism panel on the first day of South by Southwest 2019 in Austin, Texas, examined the challenges of fairly and accurately covering rural areas amid parachuting-in national reporters and antagonistic state governments.
Moderated by Leah Douglas of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), the panel was made up of journalists working in states such as Iowa, Illinois and West Virginia who cover topics including how trade issues affect farmers, the coal and natural gas industries, and genetically modified crops.
The panelists agreed that many in the media, particularly journalists from national outlets, frequently misrepresent regions in so-called flyover states and fail to understand the perspective of people in searching for pat stories about Trump voters.
Ken Ward Jr., a MacArthur Fellow and reporter at the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette, said he is contacted by journalists looking to drop in for a day or two in search of stories about “coal country” voters.
“We need to get over this because the entire country is Trump country, at least for a couple more years,” he said, adding that national media outlets have positioned rural citizens as “The Other” with headlines that begin, “In Trump country …”
“It becomes this constant ‘I told you so’ story. I don’t see how that advances knowledge. ‘I’m better than you because we didn’t vote him.’”
The sentiment was echoed by Pamela Dempsey, executive director of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, who said she sees a bias in the way, for example, farmers are portrayed as voting against their own interests in stories about trade issues or pesticides.
“It’s such a complicated business,” she said of farming. “They’re hardworking and brilliant.” She said some journalists misrepresent what they’re actually writing about when they approach sources in rural areas.
These journalists should ask themselves, “Were you accurate, honest and forthright about what you’re reporting on?” she said.
It’s a symptom, Ward said, of large media organization abandoning smaller markets that aren’t profitable.
“There’s not enough media self-reflection or media self-reporting on these issues,” he said. Often, he went on, news outlets aren’t differentiating between their audience and their community.
“Audience is the people most likely to read your story. Community is all the people affected by the reporting you’re doing,” he said.
But the panel wasn’t just about the industry’s self-inflicted wounds. It also addressed ways that reporting has gotten more difficult for working journalists under Trump as the national discourse has hardened and state politicians have followed the president’s lead with attacks on the press.
Ted Genoways, author of “This Blessed Earth,” about a farm family in Nebraska, recounted what he experienced when his book was selected for a reading program in a state declaration.
“The governor (Pete Ricketts) in public and repeated fashion not only refused to sign the declaration but went after the book, went after me at the same time he publicly acknowledged that he hadn’t read the book and did not intent do,” Genoways said.
“This is becoming increasingly the norm. I think it’s pre-emptive, this sort of thing to discredit anyone who might be talking about controversial issues and encouraging conversation about controversial issues.”
Ward said in the panel that corporations and state governments have also become emboldened to disparage or disengage with journalists.
“On the state level, that kind of toxicity is really trickling down and part of that toxicity is attacks on the press,” he said.
All of the journalists on the panel agreed that better reporting and more time and resources are needed for journalists to get a better sense of a region or town.
“We all do this thing where we think we have a place figured out,” Genoways said. “There’s a tendency to get in and recognize what all these towns have in common. What you always have to be looking for is what makes that town different from other towns” and to assume nothing.
Ward said many small outlets need better tools and platforms to tell the stories of these places.
In a call to young journalists, he said near the end of the panel, “If you have talents at building platforms, going to a small outlet will help you make a much bigger impact.”