The News Untold: Community Journalism and the Failure to Confront Poverty in Appalachia

The News Untold: Community Journalism and the Failure to Confront Poverty in Appalachia

by Michael Clay Carey

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943665976
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 252
Sales rank: 1,049,169
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Clay Carey is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Samford University in Birmingham. He researches the impacts of stereotypes and the roles media play in the formation and maintenance of individual and group identity. Carey spent ten years working as a newspaper reporter and editor. 

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Poverty and Community Media in Rural Appalachia

Downtown Greenburg was once a hub for regional activity. A busy rail line brought people and money in and raw materials for production out. When profits from coal production, salt mining, and manufacturing fueled the local economy, the town was a destination for residents from other communities looking to spend cash and have a good time. It was, a Greenburg native in her eighties told me, a "Saturday-night town" where young people from nearby counties would congregate to drink and socialize.

Today, however, many of the storefronts along the town's main drag, a half-mile stretch lined with taverns and clothing shops in the 1950s and '60s, sit empty. People don't drive into Greenburg looking for a good time anymore. Now they drive out in search of better jobs and more comfortable lives. The folks who own businesses downtown work hard to create an aura of prosperity in Greenburg's tiny city center — they use grant money to patch sidewalks, and hang baskets of purple petunias from ornate metal lampposts in the spring. They recruit barbecue festivals in the summer and hold business open houses in the winter. Those efforts help make Greenburg a better place to live for some people. But they do not change the fact, many residents say, that the small Central Appalachian town is in decline. Walk past the historic courthouse, just down the road from the statue of a well-known Civil War general, and you will pass boutiques and cafés and payday loan shops and boarded-up storefronts. One spring day, I paused at a bench in front of a three-chair beauty salon a block from the courthouse. The door was propped open, and inside I could hear women talking about how high their electric bills were, and how difficult they would be to pay. Such struggles are not unusual for those who live in Greenburg, or in the sprawling, hilly countryside that surrounds it.

The office of the Greenburg Star, the town's small daily newspaper, is right around the corner from that small downtown salon. The Star is not unlike many other small daily and weekly community newspapers in Appalachia and across the United States. Readers will find on the pages of those publications announcements of upcoming festivals, local award winners, rosters of the recently arrested, family reunion notices, and other bits of information that may be pieced together to reflect a version of local life. That down-home news — the fish fries, the middle school graduation photos, the Rotary Club meeting announcements — affirms the links among members of those communities, just as it does in towns and neighborhoods all over the United States. It is, as journalism professor and former newspaper publisher Jock Lauterer wrote, news designed "to persuade people their lives are important."

But there are some aspects of community life readers will not regularly see in the Star, or on the pages of many of its contemporaries. Stories about the struggles of the poor to find and keep jobs, to get adequate health care, or to manage the stigma of accepting local charity or government welfare are rare. So too are the voices of those who live on the economic fringes, getting by for now, but one late paycheck or expensive breakdown away from financial turmoil. When news about poverty does appear in the Star, and many other local newspapers, it usually appears in one of journalism's more sterilized forms: press releases about unemployment rates burdened by bureaucratic language or small announcements about clothing giveaways tucked away near the back of the publication.

In Greenburg — one of the most economically distressed communities in the United States — the omission is especially pronounced. The dissonance reflected by that omission is the core subject of this research. This book describes the relationship between newspapers and their audiences. It is a story of action and inaction that describes the ways a ubiquitous community institution can (or could) help or hurt individuals through the provision or withholding of information. It is also a story about intentional and unintentional acts of representation, and the consequences of those acts. The book's main characters are the community journalists and residents of three Appalachian communities, Greenburg, Priorsville, and Deer Creek (all three communities were assigned pseudonyms to protect the identities of research participants). The communities are among the most economically distressed in Appalachia, and the United States, and many of their residents wrestle daily with poverty, unemployment, and associated issues. Print and digital journalists in those communities face those issues too, but sometimes in a different way — they struggle with how to cover economic need in a manner that is constructive for the community, good for their own professional interests, and also sensitive to the needs of local individuals. Because of the magnitude of that struggle, community journalists in the three towns rarely broached the issue of poverty. This book describes the motivation for that omission, as well as its intended and unintended consequences.

By talking about poverty in certain ways — or by not talking about it at all — journalists in Greenburg and other towns create broad social narratives about what it means to be poor in rural Appalachia. Those narratives join others generated through other community institutions like strands in a rope to establish how poverty as an issue, and how the poor as individuals, should be viewed, talked about, and treated. In their 1977 essay on the sociology of Appalachia, David S. Walls and Dwight B. Billings pointed out that "being poor involves a social identity which is learned early and enforced by informal relationships in the local community." Those social identities enable or restrict the accumulation of social capital. They alleviate or accelerate stratification and inequality. Social interactions that take place in schools, workplaces, and government offices establish and enforce these social identities. Those interactions also take place in and through local media, although comparatively little scholarly attention has been paid to the ways such mediated interactions are structured or interpreted by those who take part in them.

This book explains the structural aspects of social life and journalistic practice that limit local news coverage of poverty and related issues. It also examines limits on the poor's ability and/or willingness to engage in local discussions about poverty through local media and the ways their absence contributes to feelings of powerlessness and stratification in rural Appalachian communities. The three communities studied in this book are different in many ways. But in all three, local journalists' approaches to poverty combined with readers' interpretations to reinforce a long-standing, dominant view of Appalachian poverty as a cultural deficiency that exists because destructive values and behavior are passed from generation to generation, creating large groups of people who are ill-equipped to participate in broader social life. Rural sociologist Cynthia Duncan described the "culture of poverty" understanding as the impression that

individuals are trapped in poverty because poor families pass on bad values and norms of behavior that prevent successful participation in mainstream social institutions. Poor places are condemned to stagnation or deterioration because they do not have the human or natural resources to sustain economic activity, and social institutions are backward.

This view, which is the dominant way poverty is understood by U.S. policy makers and, in many cases, local residents, can be an accurate way to describe the conditions associated with economic need. However, it often leads to victim blaming and social stratification that further separates the poor from opportunities to engage their communities economically or socially. This book shows how the absence of poor voices in news stories is interpreted in ways that reinforce an understanding that the poor remain poor, and are responsible for their own condition, because of their own cultural deficiencies. Some individuals had knowledge, and sometimes a willingness, to add to the public discussion and understanding about what it means to deal with poverty in a rural community, but they felt limited in their ability to express that knowledge because of barriers that restricted (or seemed to restrict) their ability to interact with their local news outlets, contributing to a sense of powerlessness that has been pervasive in Appalachia for decades. Those barriers are not intentionally set by journalists. The attitudes, philosophies, and routines they encounter daily establish a social habitus for journalists, but a habitus can be changed. Journalists in rural Appalachia can alter limitations if they choose to engage the production and dissemination of news in different ways. This book concludes by suggesting some ways that might happen. The newspapers in this book are all located in rural Appalachian communities, but the ideas their stories illustrate are relevant to many rural communities both in and outside the region. In any community, there will be social outsiders. In some ways, the stories of the poorest residents in Greenburg, Priorsville, and Deer Creek are their stories as well.

History shows that local media can work to combat cultures of silence on social problems in Appalachia: Abolitionist newspapers took root in the mountains in the early 1800s, and in the 1960s and 1970s, regional publications such as Mountain Life and Work (published by the activist Council of Southern Mountains) and Hawkeye (published by the Highway 997 Community Action Council) challenged the perceptions of (and control by) outsiders, including the companies that operated local mines. More recently, local newspapers such as the weekly Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, have actively campaigned against mountaintop removal mining and other exploitative enterprises. However, research suggests that such efforts are the exception rather than the rule.

Scholars of poverty and inequality in Appalachia have occasionally criticized local newspapers in the region for doing too little to speak up for their readers or to encourage unity and action among community members. In Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, John Gaventa wrote that local newspapers in the region do little "to encourage people to think about the important issues they face, nor about themselves as actors upon them. ... The power of the media rests just as much in what is unwritten and unsaid as in what is." Rural sociologist Cynthia Duncan likewise took the local media in Appalachia to task for reinforcing what Gaventa called a "culture of silence": "The current paper [in the Appalachian community Duncan visited] is in no danger of violating the norms of silence — it consists mostly of advertisements and coverage of some high school sports events," Duncan wrote in Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America. Reflections such as these are fair critiques of many local newspapers in Appalachia and elsewhere. But they are also flyover views of institutions that hold — or may hold — great social influence. Existing scholarship tells us little about why those who manage such news outlets act as they do, and how they might reorient themselves to better address long-standing social problems. This book provides more insight into the routines, pressures, and philosophies that drive their decisions. It is not, however, my intent merely to critique a set of local newspapers. By understanding how they work and recognizing how their work influences those in the communities they serve, we can identify opportunities for news outlets to push for substantive local change.

As it addresses local media representations of poverty, this book also considers broader parallels to the ways Appalachia as a region is portrayed in news and popular media. The integration of new voices and new perspectives on poverty and other social issues opens the door to a broader, more inclusive depiction of Appalachia. Almost all the individuals who participated in this study said they saw regional and national news reports on Appalachia and popular culture representations of the region as demeaning. Some were upset by those images, but others were not, in large part because they did not feel those negative images represented them personally. They said they had the power to ignore those images and, as a result, saw no need to challenge them. A view of stereotyping as an individual experience rather than a communal one is problematic in the same way that understanding poverty as an individual rather than a social issue is problematic. If local news organizations in Appalachia rededicate themselves to serve as platforms for the lived experiences of all residents, including the poor, they also make possible a broader retelling of Appalachia.

News outlets are most effective when they approach their work as a concerned friend of the community — what former newspaper publisher Gil Thelen called a "committed observer," candid and interdependent with the needs of the individuals in the communities they serve. As concerned friends of their communities, local media outlets must provide flexible, open forums for the frank discussion of social problems in a community. Local newspapers can contribute to a broader consciousness of the ways the fates of all members of a community — rich or poor — are linked. By addressing the ways their own communities discuss poverty, they may help their readers reconceptualize community need in a way that challenges the traditional understandings of poverty that dominate cultural stereotypes of Appalachia. In the process, local news organizations create an opportunity to address the way poverty is discussed at the regional level, and to contribute to a strong external narrative about Appalachia that may serve as a counter to the often demeaning dominant narrative of Appalachia as a land of Others, separated economically and culturally from civilized America.

Media and the Creation of Culture in Appalachia

To understand those opportunities, it is important to consider local media as not only a means to stay informed, but also as tools individuals use to place others, and themselves, in a community. The inclusion and exclusion of information and sources in narratives about local life and the whitewashing of community problems send signals about what (or who) a community values and what (or who) it does not. Scholars who study social production and reproduction through media have traversed the ground associated with those processes in many different ways, including but not limited to audience studies, gatekeeping research that explain the process by which "news" is identified and produced, and critical analyses of media practices and representations. Those works add value, but they often do so as snapshots of particular stages in the media production process. This book takes a less common approach, offering a holistic view of the full social circuit of media texts, from inception to dissemination to interpretation. In the process, the stories included here help us better understand how a community institution shapes, and is shaped, by the social world around it. Journalists' views of poverty, the poor, and their communities influence the ways they write about social need, but journalists do not operate in social vacuums. Histories, relationships, and cultural views influence the creation, interpretation, and internalization of media messages. In this messy process, ideas are produced and reified not always as broad, explicit judgments of right and wrong, but rather as subtle but no less powerful conceptions of "us" and "them" that influence local attitudes.

The sets of ideas and attitudes broadly referred to as cultures are not fixed identities. They are rather in a constant state of flux, being made, maintained, and remade. Media and other forms of communication are key components of that making and remaking in that they provide a forum for the "reading of prevailing behavior" that often determines how individuals in a community will act. The narratives created by media and other forms of local and national storytelling contribute in important ways to the "stream of sociocultural knowledge" that help individuals decide how to act and how to best place themselves and others in a common communal body. Certainly, the development of commonality through patterned interactions and shared social experiences (including experiences mediated by newspapers and other communication outlets) help individuals situate themselves in communities and develop local cultures. Cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall argued that cultural identity also is formed by focusing on and describing what a group is not. In the process of that construction, power is wielded through discourse that turns outsiders into "Others" and calls members of the group to adopt certain positions based on cultural understandings. Individuals do have the ability to resist that calling, however, because of the agency they have to construct self-identity. The shaping of media messages that set out dominant understandings of what a community is and is not, the subsequent interpretations of those messages, and the way those interpretations are integrated into individual and group identity all are influenced by their own sets of fluid social relations. Professional ideologies, tools of production, and journalistic routines are a few of the many factors that weigh on the journalist as she or he translates some aspect of daily life into a "communicative event" we might recognize as news. As a news message makes its way through those social relations, Hall argued, they encode upon that message dominant social codes and structures of meaning that lead to understandings we might broadly define as common sense: what is right, what is wrong, and what should be valued. The process of encoding is clearly vital to understanding how "common sense" is created via the news, but dominant media codes in and of themselves wield no social power. It is only when media messages are decoded by audiences that they may be "put to a 'use'" in the ongoing maintenance of culture.


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Table of Contents


1 Poverty and Community Media in Rural Appalachia 1

2 Greenburg, Priorsville, and Deer Creek: Community Case Studies 27

3 Dominant Frames in Local Poverty Coverage 52

4 Pressures, Philosophies, and the Encoding of Media Messages 89

5 Decoding Poverty Coverage and Broader Images of Appalachia 131

6 How Local Media's Silence Influences Views of Poverty 173

Appendix A Research Methodology 195

Appendix B Action Steps for Journalists 204

Notes 217

Bibliography 227

Index 237

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