Coastal Media Create False Image Of Rural America

admin's picture

By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Rural America was labeled in the last presidential election as “Trump Country.” With that label came a pack of not-so-flattering characteristics and images applied to rural residents by many in the coastal press elites.

“Trump didn’t create the rural-urban divide…but he successfully exploited it,” Mike Cavender, the executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, says of our current president. That exploitation has accelerated the image of a rural-urban divide as the nation’s media avidly covers his rallies focusing on gun rights supporters, anti-immigration posters, combative personalities, and Make America Great Again hat-wearing acolytes.

Another presidential election is now upon us, and those of us living in rural America are most likely going to see a continuation of Trump’s exploitation of the narrative and the coastal media’s focus on it.

In his coverage of the Robert Wood Johnson’s Life in Rural America symposium on the state of rural journalism, The Daily Yonder’s Tim Marema focuses on the comments of author and journalist Sarah Smarsh. She provides some insights into the problems with the news coverage of rural America and the issues it creates.

 “The story that’s told about [rural places] is largely a false narrative, and there’s great dissonance between the prevailing stereotypes and tropes about rural America and what’s actually happening on the ground,” Smarsh said.

She points out that in most states in 2016, “almost two out of five people voted for the candidate who lost in that state. So we’re sort of rendering invisible millions of people when we use terms like ‘Trump country’ and reduce regions to political monoliths.”

Just as with coverage of political campaigns where too often the horse race is the focus, the stories of who said what nasty thing about the other one, or who made the most recent gaffe, the coverage of rural America is shallow. The coastal media focus on the divisive story because it keeps the viewer’s attention.

 “If you’re a cable news network, and you like conflict, and you want to whip up the idea of cities versus country (which drives up ratings and enforces some sort of unfortunate cultural identities), then you put up a map of the United States where each state is colored either red or blue, as though that monochromatic color would represent everyone in that state,” Smarsh said.

That division is easily illustrated as the commentators, reporters and anchors put up the maps of red and blue America, coloring everyone of us living in the Midwest, the Great Plains, and the South as a monolithic red and those on the coasts a singular color of blue.

“Of course, there’s not just one rural America,” Smarsh says, but “whoever gets to set the narrative has a blind spot to the spaces with less power.” Sometimes their narrative reflects “malice,” and other times “ignorance,” she said. Rural America is more diverse, politically, and demographically, than is often reflected in the news media.

The coastal media too often have a stereotype of a rural person and community in mind when it sets out to cover us. It is a preconceived impression that paints us all with a similar character, whether we live in rural Minnesota, rural Georgia, or rural Colorado. Even those of us in rural Minnesota have a picture in mind when we think of rural southerners versus rural Midwesterners, so it is easy to understand how those who rarely step foot outside their bustling metropolises come here with a mindset that taints their reporting.

Reporters are taught to recognize their innate prejudices and be wary of how they can subtly influence their reporting. Editors are taught to look for it in the work of their reporters. Race, gender, and religion are the most recognizable biases that can enter into our reporting. However, Smarsh says reporters aren’t as aware of what deep-seated prejudices may lie in their approach as they report on rural America. 

“I’m not sure that we, as often or if ever, have that conversation about things like class and place,” she says. “I think a lot of what happened, certainly during the 2016 election, and to some extent after it, was like, ‘We’re going to send somebody in to report on all those angry people.” Those reporters find the angry people, film or photograph them in a visual setting that enhances the image that fits their preconceived image of rural America, and file their stories.

There are consequences for rural America to the narrative of the metropolitan press portraying us in their narrow way. “If every story being told about you is that you’re backwards, ignorant, your community is dying, why don’t you just leave, and meanwhile, you’re doing the work of picking the lettuce in California or raising the wheat in Kansas that’s on the plate of the people who are carelessly levying those condescending comments, that is a bitter pill to swallow spiritually and psychologically,” she said.

“That has reverberations in the way of wellness and health, whether it’s that shame or a sense of not being validated somehow,” she says. “It’s related to a general malaise and a need to self-medicate. The stories that we tell about ourselves and about specific populations within our country, they affect the wellness of those communities.”
 

It also has a far-reaching impact on rural America’s ability to thrive. How do we get young people to want to work and live in small towns if it is repeatedly drilled into their minds that we are a backward backwater? How do we get entrepreneurs to bring their businesses to rural America when we can’t attract the workers they need?
It is up to rural media, which often means the community newspaper, to provide the stories that show our towns and rural areas, our people, are every bit as innovative, progressive, and talented as those in big cities and on the nation’s coasts. It’s difficult to change the perception of a divided country when people turn increasingly to either Fox News or MSNBC for reporting.

It also doesn’t help us reach the people we want to think about living in rural America.

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (2 votes)