In rural America, reporting subjects like drugs and immigration presents challenges unique to the complexities of small-town life.
By Crystal Huskey
Whether they live in big coastal cities or small Midwestern towns, Americans want local news. They want information about local politics, about the opening of new businesses, about the people doing good and bad things in their communities. They want interviews with local artists. Q&As with the mayor. They want calendars of events.
But covering these things in rural America is different, and in some ways harder, than covering them for large-circulation dailies and magazines. This is something I’ve come to realize while working for newspapers in rural East Tennessee over the last several years.
For one thing, in rural towns, readers generally know the subjects of any story, and these stories almost always affect a greater percentage of the population. The opioid epidemic, illegal immigration, the decline of coal, rural homelessness, the income disparity — all of these things are front and center in a direct and personal way.
Painkillers and heroin have injected a poisonous theme into the story of many small towns, where it can be hard to find someone who isn’t directly affected by the opioid epidemic. When it comes to illegal immigration, it’s easy enough to find examples of bigotry that feed an us-versus-them narrative, but there is also a burgeoning kinship and web of connection that is different from that found in bigger communities. This is especially true among the working poor.
Rural journalism doesn’t have a specific set of requirements as much as a code of conduct. There can be a resistance to outsiders and a strong distrust of the media — for good reason. If you have trouble accessing health and dental care, and get mocked for a lack of teeth and a strong accent that’s been passed down for generations, you might be distrustful, too.
Cultivating local sources brings a unique set of challenges, and building trust within a tight-knit community takes a lot of work. I found this to be true when I was investigating a local factory for exploiting undocumented workers and multiple labor violations. I knew there was more going on than it seemed on the surface, but finding someone who would give me the full story was not easy.
Marie Walden, a former employee of the factory, became an unlikely friend and ally during that time.
A former meth and pill dealer, she sought me out after I reported on a protest in front of the Campbell County labor department. She told me what the factory’s employees were afraid to talk about: a sprawling story of alleged human trafficking, exploitation of undocumented workers and labor violations.
She also eventually told me about her father who passed away from stomach cancer. And her miscarriages. And her desperation to make ends meet. At one point in her life, she made it a habit to cook meth up in a tree stand in the woods because “cops don’t look up.”
She told me about her last illegal act that landed her in jail and cost her the right to visit her two children, and about her constant anxiety that her fiancé would be deported. And then who would watch the kids?
The most divisive issue in rural East Tennessee is not race, gender identity or even politics: it’s drugs. The divide between those who blame the person in addiction and those who blame the drug is wide, especially if the person in addiction is a pregnant woman.
In Campbell County, where I work, meth and opioids are threatening to swallow up an entire generation. More than 60% of students are being raised by someone other than their biological parents. The foster system is bursting at the seams with children taken away from drug-addicted parents.
Campbell County has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the state per capita. That statistic was shouted from every major local news network in the region last year, but many journalists failed to realize that the number didn’t even include illegal usage.
Evan Sexton, a Campbell County native who now directs admissions at a recovery facility in Knoxville, had an eye-opening experience last year when the rehabilitation center he worked at started accepting TennCare, Tennessee’s Medicaid program. The facility is in Knoxville, the nearest urban center, and patients came pouring in from multiple surrounding rural counties once that changed.
“Treating rural and under-resourced populations has challenges that are different than treating the traditional addict coming to rehab,” he said. “Getting somebody clean is kind of the easy part.”
Patients using TennCare are sometimes on probation or are dealing with major financial issues. Coming up with a plan and getting somebody sober is almost formulaic, according to Sexton.
“But when they can’t keep their lights on, it’s hard to justify getting across town to make sure they can get to meetings,” he said. “You’re cleaning up the wreckage. They’re having to pay back retribution to the courts, fines, bad debts, whatever it might be. The odds are stacked against them.”
Sexton left Campbell County shortly after high school and worked as a counselor in Alaska before coming back to Tennessee. His brother, Shayne Sexton, stayed in Campbell County and is a criminal court judge.
“The way addiction has historically been treated does not apply to marginalized society,” he said. “We’re unkind to moms with addiction, to people who have been trafficked. There are so many that are underinsured and under-resourced. There are a lot of medical problems including co-occurring mental disorders.”
Sexton’s family on both sides were coal miners. He remembers Campbell County in the 1980s and 1990s. There was beer, there was marijuana. But pills? Heroin?
Nobody seemed to notice the opioid problem around here until it was too late. They noticed that there seemed to be more people walking around like zombies. They noticed that their sons and daughters were overdosing, dying, or in and out of the jail’s revolving door.
Only now are people starting to realize that opioid addiction isn’t a moral failing.
Nearly everyone I met in Campbell County had a story about a friend or relative in addiction. I once wrote about a furniture store’s sixty-sixth anniversary, but the store owner spoke more about his son who had died from an overdose than his family’s business.
When the coal jobs dried up, so did the economy. The economy is now driven by low-paying hospitality jobs due to local efforts to draw tourists to the lakes and mountains.
“And you can’t raise a family on minimum wage unless you’re slinging dope,” Sexton said.
Last year, the county joined a class action lawsuit against a number of pharmaceutical companies for contributing to the opioid crisis.
When it comes to the opioid epidemic, most community newspapers are failing their communities when they cover the subject strictly from a criminal justice perspective. One of the reasons is stigma, notes Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism. Another is a lack of good local sources.
“Often, there are no good, reliable sources to talk about things that have a local impact,” says Cross. “When you’re dealing with federal education policy, surface mining or federal environmental rules, the inspectors won’t talk to you. They’ll refer you to the state or federal office. And when you’re dealing with a disembodied voice that’s hundreds of miles away, you don’t get the same kind of response as you would face-to-face.”
Cross’s Institute aims to teach reporters what questions to ask to get the answers they need, as well as how to tackle difficult subjects like immigration.
Walden met her fiancé when she worked at the factory I was investigating. He was one of many undocumented workers who worked there, and they fell in love. They watched as more and more undocumented workers were brought to the county to work at this factory, and they saw how they were threatened with deportation if they failed to show up for work.
In rural East Tennessee towns, everybody knows everybody. When the story on the protest was first published, dozens of messages and calls came flooding in to our newsroom with people shouting, “She owes me, too!” or “That happened to my grandma!”
That stood in stark contrast to my first position as editor of an online news outlet in an Atlanta suburb. It was very rare to meet someone born and raised in the area I covered near Atlanta. People lived there on purpose and were on a mission to grow their careers and improve their lives.
Most people in the towns I cover can trace their bloodlines back to the pioneer days, and they’ll tell you what side they fought on during the Civil War. Some of them still live on the same land.
Campbell County is 96.6% white, according to the Census Bureau. The second largest demographic is Latino at 1.22%. That population has doubled since 2000.
Around one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. Many of those working at the factory were undocumented workers, but many others were white Campbell County residents. One was an 83-year-old blind woman who received public benefits. Others were receiving disability or some type of other government assistance, and they had agreed to be paid under the table in order to not report the income.
This created a “we’re all in this together” mentality when the factory owner stopped paying them and threatened to turn them in if they stopped working.
The employees who were living in Campbell County illegally — most from one specific town in Mexico — didn’t come to the protest.
When someone did mention them, it was with a lot of caution and hesitancy. Because of Walden, though, I was able to meet with a group of them to hear and share their experiences.
There is almost a violent loyalty to family in my rural reporting district. So many things are done because of an emotional attachment to the way things have always been done. That loyalty extends to the Latinos in town. In this community, at least among the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, there is a familial loyalty no matter the ethnicity.
This is a reality that doesn’t receive much attention: the fact that in many places, white rural American citizens work alongside the undocumented immigrants and have close relationships with them.
At the same time, there is a bit of cognitive dissonance, because there is also a passionate sense of urgency to close the border. It doesn’t always enter their minds that the friends they work side-by-side with came here across the border. Because they’re family now.
Reporters in rural areas often have a bird’s eye view of the problems faced by a community. We see how a lack of resources depletes a community, and how bold speeches from both sides of the political aisle are often far removed from the actual day-to-day lives of people. Hospital closures, food deserts, news deserts, Chinese-U.S. trade war tensions and its impact on soy bean farmers, water quality and maternal mortality rates are all issues that have a deep, lasting impact on rural communities.
And by rural communities, I mean us.
Crystal Huskey is a reporter for multiple local news outlets in East Tennessee.
Production DetailsV. 1.0.3
Last edited: July 24, 2019
Author: Crystal Huskey
Editors: Alexander Zaitchik, Jeff Koyen
Artwork: Photos by Crystal Huskey