Expert Commentary

Covering rural America: What reporters get wrong and how to get it right

Tips from Shorenstein fellow Sarah Smarsh on how reporters can improve their coverage of rural America.


Sarah Smarsh reports on socioeconomic class, politics and more for national and international outlets, including The Guardian, The New Yorker and The Cut. Her forthcoming book, Heartland: A Daughter of the Working Class Reconciles an American Divide, delves into her experiences with class and place growing up on a working farm in Kansas. Smarsh spent the spring of 2018 at Harvard as a Joan Shorenstein fellow, developing a podcast exploring the intersection of health and poverty.  She spoke to Journalist’s Resource about what many reporters get wrong when covering rural areas, and how they can improve their work.

“The fact that I work in journalism and in particular for national outlets that have an urban base, and simultaneously I live in a largely rural state and am from a rural area and background makes me sensitive to the problematic ways that a national, coastal media often talks about parts of the country in an overly pat way that I think is not constructive for political discourse,” Smarsh said.

WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG:  They oversimplify and mischaracterize the political, social, and cultural nature of rural areas.

“Often the monolithic portrayal of rural America amounts to a whitewashing along racial lines,” Smarsh said.  “In fact, rural areas are much more racially diverse than one would think from reading national headlines. …Those parts of the country have always been much more than white people, and as we speak they are diversifying, in some places quite rapidly, often due to an influx in immigrant populations taking jobs in industries like industrial agriculture and meatpacking plants.

“Barely a majority of the eligible voting population ends up at the polls, and then somewhere around under half of people vote for the candidate who wins that state, and then the whole square is colored red on a cable news graphic …The underlying poison of this whole discussion is that it renders enormous swaths of this country invisible: people of color in rural areas; moderate or left leaning people in rural areas; and, for that matter, conservative people in urban areas, of which there are many. One of them is now the president of our country.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT:  Editors should try, if possible, to commission stories from local reporters who know their communities.

“I’m most partial to the strategies that essentially harness the reporting power of people who are already there in those places who perhaps were laid off five years ago from their local newspaper,” Smarsh said. “I think we’ll find out the extent to which those strategies succeed over the next few years.

WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG:  They come to the story with preconceived notions about class and place.

“I think there is a consensus within the industry that when we are attempting to suspend our own prejudices that might be conscious or subconscious, that things like race and gender matter,” Smarsh said. “I’m not sure that we, as often or if ever, have that conversation about things like class and place. … I’ve worked alongside people who shamelessly will disparage those places with the sort of stereotypes — let’s say the term ‘white trash’ — that to my ears are essentially hate speech. And it doesn’t strike them as problematic. And then those same people are going into those places to give us the story? I don’t think so.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT:  Don’t just look for the sources your editor wants.

“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,’” Smarsh said.  “The problem with that is that there are a lot of people, maybe most of the people who live in those places, who aren’t angry. They may have voted for Donald Trump and anger wasn’t the undercurrent that caused it. They might have, believe it or not, voted for Hillary Clinton. My whole family from rural Kansas caucused for a socialist from Vermont during the primaries … It’s a fine line between reporting on what seems to be a real phenomenon and going in to get a story that may or may not even exist. So, yeah, if you go and sit in the diner on Main Street, and the loudest blowhard in town is running his mouth about his racism, that’s an important thing to shine a light on. In my experience, it doesn’t represent the whole truth of that place. And I think a lot of those safari expeditions into the dangerous red hinterlands were willfully overlooking Hillary Clinton signs along a lot of rural highways.”

WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG: They edit direct quotations in a way that plays to their personal biases.

“I have definitely noticed in my 15-plus years as a reporter that journalists are more given to correcting the language of sources who are middle- or upper-class or are government officials or they are experts in some field — if they mis-conjugate a verb, that’s problematic for the reporter,” Smarsh said. “If they’re interviewing tornado victims at a trailer park, I find that the industry almost delights in shining a light on their supposed misuse of the English language.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Consider the mission.

“Ask yourself, are you here to document the sound of a place?” Smarsh said. “In that case, this question becomes a little bit more complicated. But if you’re just there to get a story, you should be democratically applying the same approach to direct quotes in rural America as in Washington D.C.”

WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG: They focus solely on politics and the political divide.

“These places and human beings, believe it or not, exist outside of politics,” Smarsh said. “Often coastal reporting on rural areas takes every aspect of the human experience and puts it through a political blender. I think that’s dangerous in a few ways, the most important being that it contributes to a kind of general dehumanization of a place that is easily viewed, in urban and coastal centers, as sort of an inconvenient and unfortunate bummer that it needs to be dealt with in the context of the outcomes of national elections.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Dig for new stories by actually getting to know the people you’re covering and tapping into their community resources.

“Any efforts to tap the resources of information that are native to a place would behoove a reporter’s cause in a rural area,” Smarsh said. “There might be some laid off former reporters around, or they might still be writing for a paper that now prints weekly. The local librarians, there are information resources there … not to mention, of course, the human beings in that place… Humbl[e] yourself to the expertise that people have about their own community and themselves.”

HOW ELSE TO GET IT RIGHT: Find common ground.

“There’s this obsession with how these places are different, and there is some validity to that, but I think it is dangerously exaggerated and, in fact, people are essentially quite similar in rural and urban places,” Smarsh said.

“In that fixation on difference, an opportunity is missed that would even be of good service to urban readers: to explore, report on and establish the direct lines of connection and economic flow in the way in which the lifeblood of this country courses across these borders that we construct … If you eat food, for example, rural America touches you every day. … It is an incredibly sobering experience to be the one who does the very dangerous and backbreaking work of raising that food that the same people who are looking down their nose at you and your view of the world are eating as they disparage you.”

“I think that the stereotypes go in both directions in rural America — they might have erroneous ideas about cities, and certainly vice versa, but beyond pie-in-the-sky ideas about how we’re essentially the same, we are absolutely connected in economic terms and by our resources. Often water that resides in rural areas is pumped underground to allow for the convenient turning on of the tap in a city. So I think that reporters have a really overlooked opportunity to talk about the ways in which these spaces are connected, and how that affects us just in very tangible practical ways, and that is in one part a frame that gets us past this idea of cultural divides — but it’s also just an important story that nobody is telling.”

Smarsh suggests the following underexplored angles to help journalists increase the breadth of their rural reporting:

  • Immigration and diversity in rural America – note the aforementioned influx of immigrants taking agricultural jobs.
  • Solutions journalism – that is, reporting on how people are responding to problems in meaningful ways. “There’s … a dearth of reporting on real community success stories in rural America, of creative approaches that communities are taking to remain economically viable, to embrace diversification,” Smarsh said.
  • The food industry: “I’m biased because I grew up doing agricultural labor, but I always think the food industry and the agricultural industry are woefully underreported,” Smarsh said. “I mean, the farm bill affects our bodies not just the environment and the people who are raising the food, and I’m not sure I’ve seen it on the front page of any major newspapers.”
  • Civic apathy: “I happen to know a lot of people in rural America who did not vote for Trump,” she said. “I think a bigger story there is civic apathy, by which people don’t vote at all.”

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