January 17, 2017

Since Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in the early 1960s, Appalachian journalists have grappled with the portrayal of the region in the press.

In his foreword to photographer Roger May’s book “Testify,” the Kentucky journalist Silas House lamented that “only the poorest folks got into the newspapers and magazines, perpetuating the stereotype that everyone in the Southern mountains was barefoot, malnourished, dirty-faced.”

Relying on the stereotypes of a region is easy; understanding the nuances of that region is much harder. Appalachia is diverse — there are desperate people who feel disenfranchised, but there are also startups and millennials and college towns and just about anything that exists anywhere else. Painting a picture of a place by a select few extremes is not only easy — it’s simply inaccurate.

A new project by journalists in Appalachia aims to change the narrative about their region. “100 Days in Appalachia,” launching later this week, will narrate the first 100 days of the Trump administration through the eyes of all sorts of people who live in Appalachia.

The project — a joint collaboration between West Virginia Public Broadcasting, The Daily Yonder, and WVU’s Reed College of Media — describes itself as telling “the political, economic and human stories of communities that are more complex than national narratives have allowed.”

The project team — West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Dave Mistich and WVU Reed College of Media professors Dana Coester and Nancy Andrews — has set out clear guidelines for what the project is and isn’t.

It’s not a daily record newspaper, an aggregation site for regional media or a collection of personality profiles. Instead, they’re asking contributors to submit photos, words and multimedia that can respond to questions like, “Does it surprise the reader about Appalachia specifically and rural America in general in any way?” and “Does it challenge or shed new light on stereotypes embedded in identity politics?”

I talked with Mistich, Coester and Andrews about their collaboration, how they’re finding new voices and what they’d like people outside of Appalachia to take away from the project. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

How do you move away from the tragedy porn that encompasses so much of Appalachia coverage?

Mistich: One of the advantages a news organization has in being from Appalachia — a place that’s so complex — comes with a lot of experiences and knowledge of the area. One of the things that comes to mind, is whenever we have major news organizations coming down here, they tend to find voices with the thickest accents to put in their pieces.

That’s OK, and people are careful in fighting stereotypes, and they’re not bad or wrong to include those voices — but that’s only part of the picture.

One of the things I think that we’re going to have to address is the stereotype that Appalachia is Trump nation and just a lot of low-income uneducated people, but that’s not the entire story — there are parts of West Virginia and Appalachia as a whole that have different cultures and different education levels and different socioeconomic statuses — how can tell those stories without exaggerating?

How do you plan to do that?

Mistich: The voices you hear from this region are usually from very expected and very routine. What we’re trying to do is reach people who can narrate the first 100 days that aren’t the expected voices.

When I first started circulating information about the project, it really occurred to me how big of a network there is of really talented people from this area and who really care about this place and this kind of project, too.

I think, internally, we’ve agreed that it’s important we have people working on this project with the ability to spend time in the place they’re covering — rather than swooping in, getting what they need, then just taking whatever broad generalizations with them.

As for commentary and other contributions from others in the region: I think there are a lot of media organizations that tend to rely on the same old sources in that way. You see it a lot in the newspaper columns or commentary about the news. It’s the directors of some long-running foundation, local businesspeople, and — a lot of the time — politicians, whose influence has been palpable for decades.

It feels very status quo to me in a lot of ways, at least here. I’m not trying to discredit their expertise at all, because I feel like we will surely make of those perspectives. They have a lot of institutional knowledge about this place and the economy and politics and so forth.

But I think we need to hear from people on the ground — those with fresh eyes and ideas and how their thoughts and observations juxtapose themselves with more familiar voices in media here.

What happens after the 100 days?

Coester: If we’re successful in building an audience — and if we’re successful in delivering some meaningful content that bursts a few cultural bubbles — we’d love to carry this through midterms and beyond, as a potential source for understanding issues in America that aren’t going away anytime soon.

How are you finding the diverse voices to feature in the project?

Coester: We are recruiting voices from regional and national networks as subjects, contributors and editors. We recognize one of our biggest challenges will be being credibly diverse.

We’re trying to unpack some tough issues, and there’s a lack of trust for media within many communities — all of which are part of Appalachia by the way. And not the rural White underclass cliche´of Appalachia. People of color, Muslim communities, LGBTQ. Progressive millennials. Entrepreneurs. And yes, coal miners.

Andrews: There are so many nuances. I live and work in “official” Appalachia but that doesn’t mean my experience makes me an authority on the entire region that stretches from Mississippi to New York.

I’ll be working on a project with graduate student Justin Hayhurst and others where we publish 100 portraits of Appalachia over the course of the 100 days.

It will be very much a live and living, evolving project over the span of the 100 days. We’ll seek to have the diversity Dana mentioned. Hopefully the body of work will surprise and engage.

So many of us have a view of the region in our head that’s based on photographs we’ve seen from long ago — Farm Security Administration Photos of the Depression era still define the region. Even now, when people come to the region to make photographs — they make the pictures in black and white, somehow hearkening back to those historical photos. We won’t do that. We’ll show you Appalachia in full color.

And, hopefully these portraits with the accompanying text, audio or video will be relatable — we can use photography to bridge the commonalities between us and as a starting point to hear each other so we can then talk about our differences.

What would you like people outside of Appalachia to take away from this project?

Mistich: The thing I want people to take away is that this area is so much more complex and nuanced than what people realize.

I can tell a little story.

The other night I headed to a little town called Buckhannon, West Virginia on a reporting trip and I basically went into it cold. I knew I was looking for reaction to the Commerce Secretary appointment because he had owned a coal mine where 12 miners were killed in 2006.

I figured some folks there might have an opinion about that and I got to talking to people who were a little standoffish. Now, I grew up in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and I went to school in Huntington, spent four years in Charleston and now I live in Morgantown. But this was a really small town and I felt like an outsider even being from the same state.

I asked a woman her last name, it was familiar to me because her husband’s family members had recorded an album with [the West Virginia Public Broadcasting show] Mountain Stage’s Larry Groce back in the 1970s.

After I realized that and made the connection, she opened up to me…you know, places like that are nuanced and complex. Once you figure out the entry points, it becomes less complex as you find ways to find people and their ideas and their subjects. Even in West Virginia, there are some places where I’m an outsider and some places where I’m very comfortable.

People that are from here recognize that nuance and complexity — that’s what I want people to take away from all of this.

That’s sort of our collective complaint of the national media. They really don’t — for lack of a better word — mind exploiting people, and exploiting their trust. I’ll be honest — I get why people here don’t trust reporters. Even being from West Virginia, when I say I work for Public Broadcasting, there was a guy in Buckhannon who flat out said “I don’t want to talk to you.”

And I get that — but finding common ground with a woman over a bluegrass record from the late 70s or 80s was a moment — and we’re going to do our best to find other moments like that.

Correction: A previous version of this post referred to WVY’s Reed College of Media. It is actually WVU’s Reed College of Media. We regret the error.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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