What Can Engaged Journalism Offer Rural Communities?
I grew up on seven acres of retired farmland surrounded by corn fields, cricks, creeks (yes, there’s a difference), woods, and cow pastures. In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about the Friday night football games, the quaint covered bridges, and restlessness of life in rural Pennsylvania.
Ten weeks into my formal education in engaged journalism, I’ve observed a discourse carried out largely by city-dwelling journalists. I’ve heard compelling cases for how engaged journalism is helping reporters inform urban audiences about what life is like for many rural communities and small towns in America. After the 2016 election, national media organizations rushed into Appalachia and America’s heartland to report on the urban-rural divide. Many of the resulting stories were good for clicks from befuddled coastal liberals wondering what the hell just happened.
The more I learn about engaged journalism, the more I wonder: What good, if any, is this discourse doing for folks who live in rural communities?
I couldn’t shake the feeling that engaged journalism only sounds novel to journalists trying to cover too many communities or too large of a community to spend time on the ground building relationships. I pulled a page out of my shiny-new engagement playbook and asked the Experience Engagement Facebook Group for perspectives on how engaged journalism serves rural communities. Engagement strategist Joy Mayer chimed in and shared her reflections on a day she spent with community paper editor Dave Marner. She confirmed what I was having a hard time articulating:
“As journalists, we talk about community engagement only if we don’t have it. Dave spoke eloquently about his job and his community all day, but when I threw that word in there, it was clear it wasn’t one he used. He has no need for it. He’s living it.”
While there might not be much use for the word engagement at small community papers, engaged journalism practices may offer value by equipping larger outlets to better cover rural communities. When an event of national significance takes place in a small town, the vast majority of the news produced and consumed will be provided by statewide and national outlets. In some cases, building relationships proactively can be the difference between those outlets getting it right and completely missing the mark. We also risk sowing further mistrust when we parachute in only when something goes horribly awry.
In British Columbia, our neighbors to the north confront similar challenges in rural reporting. Just as Oregon has the East (and Central and South), BC has the North. In the fall of 2016, Discourse Media, a platform for in-depth journalism, sent reporter Trevor Jang on a listening road trip through communities along the proposed route of a controversial Liquified Natural Gas pipeline. Jang wasn’t sent there to “get” any particular set of stories. Instead, he used a Facebook group to facilitate conversations between local community members on opposing sides of the pipeline debate. Some of his listening events were a bust, but without a strict set of deadlines, he stayed with it.
On the Facebook group, Jang observed two women with strong opposing views. One worked for a local watershed conservation coalition and opposed the LNG pipeline, while the other woman was a LNG industry consultant in favor of the project. After trading barbs online, they eventually decided it would be best to meet in person, and Jang tagged along. During the meeting, the two listened patiently and eventually found common ground over shared desires to see more investment in renewable energy and in the entrepreneurism of young people. Once they realized they also shared a love of horseback riding, they set a date to ride together and a friendship emerged where before there had only been hostility.
Did a Vancouver-based media company single-handedly close a deep and enduring rift in the fabric of this rural community and ease tensions about the gas project? Probably not. Still, Jang made a difference. Local chiefs who threatened to sue him if he continued his reporting eventually thanked him for telling the story so thoroughly and fairly.
Because Discourse partnered with BCBusiness to publish these stories, they were able to communicate local issues directly to seats of power regarding the development of fossil fuel infrastructure. Rural communities don’t often benefit when outsiders attempt to “give them a voice” without taking enough time to listen. However, if the listening is earnest and active, an urban platform can offer an important message valuable amplification and direction toward the hearts and minds of key decision-makers.
Furthermore, Jang and Discourse built genuine relationships that proved invaluable when running future stories on the North. Lindsay Sample, the editor on the project, readily acknowledged that despite the fact that Jang stayed in these communities for two-and-a-half weeks, the assignment would still have amounted to parachute journalism had Discourse not committed to maintaining and cultivating local relationships. Today, the company has a local media fellow based in Northern BC who is going to spend six months listening deeply to the public to tell better stories.
While some city platforms (both traditional and new) have made earnest forays into bridging the urban-rural divide, the path to an elevated understanding across a diverse and vast spectrum of American communities likely lies in rebuilding, supporting, and modeling media platforms after the best qualities of local journalism.
Immediately following the 2016 election, Kansas-raised journalist Sarah Smarsh made a rousing case for this approach.
“For much of the country, less and less of that [the realities we perceive] come from journalists who’ve stepped foot in our own states, let alone our towns or counties. Due to the economic withering of local news outlets, most of the journalists I trained with at the turn of the millennium have been laid off or fled to industries with more stable incomes. Much was lost in that decline, but perhaps more was gained in the opportunity we now have to rebuild local journalism in a way that not only rectifies geographical imbalances but includes voices from previously unrepresented communities; harnesses technology to engage and include previously passive readers; and makes the stories of previously isolated people available not just to themselves but to the world.”
Platforms such as 100 Days in Appalachia are part of this burgeoning renaissance. When West Virginians found themselves dubbed “the heart of Trump country” by the national media, a collective of local journalists built a site for stories that highlighted the full diversity of experiences in Appalachia, challenging preconceived notions that every person in the region is poor, white, and angry. Like Discourse Media, they are operating on the basic premise that there’s a market for quality, in-depth journalism. Communities of all stripes appreciate when their stories are told with care and without pretense.
My intent is not to romanticize all aspects of small-town reporting. As in all levels of journalism, there’s a tendency for dominant white perspectives to shape narratives, and centralizing news within one or two individuals and their biases can be a perilous endeavor. There’s also the obvious challenge of keeping the doors open at local papers.
At a time when our personalized news feeds reinforce narratives of a divided nation — red vs. blue, urban vs. rural — an exercise in parsing traits of large urban papers and small local papers feels unproductive. Engaged journalism’s legacy may ultimately be a needed course-correction from the manufacturing of cheap stories with broad, shallow appeal toward something that more honestly resembles local journalism and beat reporting. Rural communities and engaged journalism can inform one another in ways the can bring about both stronger communities and better stories. The two are intertwined.
For conversations on engaged journalism to remain constructive, it’s important to keep an ear out for the echo in the room. We’re really talking about courageous journalism — courage to be vulnerable and uncomfortable in ways that lead to deeper connection and understanding.
Reflecting on the Burns Times-Herald’s coverage of the Malheur occupation, Oregonian reporter Samantha Swindler offers:
“I spent most of my career in small, rural newspaper and I consider it, perhaps, the highest form of journalism. You are truly accountable to the people you write about. You never write something about a person you wouldn’t say to that person’s face — because in a small town, you’ll be seeing that face again. It doesn’t mean you can’t write pointed things; it just means you’d better stand by them. That accountability makes you a better journalist and a better person.”
I believe in the value of engaged journalism. I view its tools and strategies as orbiting a central premise that a quality journalism emerges at the confluence of courage, connection, and accountability.
Jay Kosa is a writer and producer with a penchant for telling stories that explore people’s relationships with the natural world. He is currently as student with the Portland-based Masters in Multimedia Journalism program at University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communications. Jay wrote this piece for Reporting in Communities, a course exploring the art and practice of engaged journalism.