Hidden headlines: What journalists get wrong about poverty

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Michael Clay Carey is author of The News Untold: Community Journalism and the Failure to Confront Poverty in Appalachia, published by WVU Press in November. Carey worked as a journalist for ten years at newspapers such as Nashville’s The Tennessean and USA Today. He is assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Samford University in Birmingham. Find him on Twitter: @byClayCarey

BOOKTIMIST: What drew you to this topic?   

Carey: I’ve always been interested in the roles local newspapers play in communities, especially rural communities. A lot of people who write about journalism tend to focus their attention on large national news organizations in big cities, because they’re seen as more glamorous institutions. But people in small towns and underserved communities have news needs as well, and I wanted to write about the organizations that work to fill those needs.

BOOKTIMIST: Why focus on Appalachia? 

Carey: In addition to community journalism, I also study representation and stereotyping. Entertainment media and news media often paint a very particular picture of rural communities, and especially rural Appalachian communities, as lands full of uncivilized outsiders . . . we’ve seen that play out in a parade of condescending “view from Trump Country” stories that have been published since the 2016 election. (Elizabeth Catte has written great commentary about this in Salon, Boston Review, and elsewhere.) But the media Othering of these communities specifically is hardly a new phenomenon. One of the points I make in the book is that community journalism, done well, can serve as a counternarrative to those negative portrayals by providing a platform for residents to tell their own stories.

BOOKTIMIST: Your research draws on dozens of interviews and thousands of newspaper articles. Yet you write about silence. How did that happen? 

Carey: It happened because silence was the prevailing message about poverty that journalists delivered to their readers in the three communities I wrote about. One of the more interesting parts of the project, to me, was the ways local journalists justified the lack of poverty news. A few said that news routines and accepted professional practices limited what they could say about poverty. The ideas of journalistic objectivity and detachment were big obstacles in that regard – some editors and reporters felt that if they brought up the issue, they were creating the news rather than reporting it, and they were uncomfortable with the idea of doing that.  But there are a lot of other external and internal pressures weighing on journalists that keep news about local poverty out of community newspapers. My sense was that most journalists didn’t think their readers really noticed all that much, but when I talked to people in the community, that’s not what they told me.

BOOKTIMIST: You urge journalists to report on people who are “often seen but rarely known” and consider how newspapers play into larger narratives about poverty. How can a reporter balance daily – or even hourly! – deadlines with pondering the structural implications of their work?  

Carey: That is a great question, because journalists not only need to carve out time for pondering – if they conclude that they need to act on those reflections, then they have to make time for that as well. I’d give two pieces of advice to a journalist who wanted to make this a priority. One easy way to bring in different perspectives is to force yourself to talk to a broader array of people. I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s easy for a local news reporter to fall into a routine of talking to the same set of sources all the time. So if you’re a journalist, ask yourself who you call on a slow news day when you’re looking for a story. The mayor? The chatty city council member? The folks at the chamber of commerce? What if you called someone else instead – say, a community organizer? Or what if you went to a thrift shop and asked people what they thought the newspaper should pursue? I did that at one point in my research for this book, and I was presented with a couple of really solid story ideas that the local newspaper in that town had never touched.

The second piece of advice involves established newsroom routines. If you are a journalist, are there things you do every day, or every week, that don’t always serve your readers? I’ll give you an example from my own past professional life: I once worked at a community newspaper in Tennessee where my main beat was county government. The county commission had its big meeting every month, where lots of important, high-impact decisions were made. But it also had a bunch of committee meetings where minor things were hammered out. I dutifully covered all of those committee meetings, and the next day I’d dutifully make a couple of follow-up calls and write a story or two (even if what happened wasn’t that important – if I went to the meeting, I felt like I probably needed to write something about it). In an average month, I might invest eight or ten hours on those stories, and the only people who ever seemed to read them were the county commissioners who were at the meetings I covered. What if I did something different with those eight or ten hours? The counterargument is that the journalist needs to be at those meetings to hold the powerful accountable, and sometimes that’s true. My bigger point is that we as journalists often hold on to old habits not because they help our readers, but because we’re hesitant to stop doing something we’ve always done.

BOOKTIMIST: What did you learn about journalism that you did not know as a working reporter and editor? 

Carey: The most interesting thing that I learned from writing this book is that people will read meaning into the clear absence of a logical media narrative. Most journalists expect, or at least hope for, some reaction to the content they do produce. If I write a story about some problem in my community, maybe corruption at the local water treatment plant, I would hope to see some sort of visible response – a firing, or a policy change, or maybe even an indictment. Or if I do a story and I get something wrong – maybe I make a factual error, or I overgeneralize – I expect a different type of response: criticism. In those examples, journalistic actions produce a reaction. But one of the more interesting aspects of the book is the evidence that not acting produces a response as well. My hunch is that many community journalists don’t think about those results as much, or they underestimate how much impact failing to act will have. That was certainly true of the journalists I interviewed for the book.

BOOKTIMIST: What can academics learn from journalists?  

Carey: I think the goals of good journalism and good scholarship are fundamentally the same: to give people the tools and information they need to make sound decisions that benefit themselves and their communities. Journalists have to think often about how they deliver that information . . . their livelihoods depend on it. As academic writers think about achieving that fundamental goal, we have to start thinking more about delivery methods as well. A lot of great public scholars communicate their ideas through creative means – podcasts, social media, and other types of community engagement. As academics, we have to continue to find innovative ways to broadcast our ideas, and universities as institutions must continue to consider ways to encourage and reward that type of innovation.

BOOKTIMIST: You advocate for a smarter, more thoughtful community journalism. Would you like to name some reporters and newspapers that exemplify these practices?  

Carey: Some outlets that come to mind for doing, or for having done, this kind of work would include The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, The Taos News in Taos, New Mexico, and The Appalachian Voice. If you want to see examples of solution-focused reporting on social issues that includes diverse voices, you can check out the Solutions Journalism Network’s Solutions Story Tracker, which includes links to articles by some very talented writers. Some other non-newspaper outlets that do good work in this vein include Appalshop and the “What’s Next, West Virginia?” series (which involves West Virginia Public Broadcasting, among other groups).

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