How to report on rural America: A conversation with Ken Ward, Jr.

The 2016 election of President Donald Trump surfaced an enormous amount of reporting on rural America—much of it conducted by “parachute” reporters who arrived in small towns and communities before returning to urban newsrooms to explain the cultural phenomenon of Trump’s election. But many reporters who live in rural towns and communities resist the narratives imposed by outsiders, arguing that coastal and urban media can often misrepresent rural areas due to lack of context and experience.

On March 8th, I’ll be moderating a panel in Austin at SXSW on this issue, Reporting on Rural America Under Trump. In the lead-up to the event, I asked one of our panelists, Ken Ward, Jr., to answer a few questions over email about how newsrooms can better cover rural places. Ken has been a reporter at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia for more than 25 years, where he has reported tirelessly on the coal, chemical, and natural gas industries and the way they affect Appalachian workers, communities, and the environment. His reporting earned him a MacArthur Genius award in 2018. 

What do urban media organizations tend to miss in reporting on rural places?

It seems to me that what media organizations based in urban centers miss when they report on rural areas is the same sort of thing that we in rural America miss when we make generalizations about urban areas. America is a wonderfully diverse place, and everyone who lives in one kind of place is not the same as everyone else who lives in that kind of place. Journalism is hardest when we try to over-simplify each other, and coverage that tries to boil complexity into sweeping narrative is the hardest kind to pull off—especially if the people and places you’re over-simplifying are going to actually see the journalism you produce.

Despite the push from many places that “change the narrative” about rural communities or “Trump’s America,” this really isn’t rocket science. You can’t really capture a place or its people just by skimming the clips and spending 36 hours there. Nuance is hard, both to convey and to understand.

What is lost when we lack comprehensive coverage of rural America and rural issues?

A lack of comprehensive coverage of anything or anyone leads to misunderstandings and can drive wedges between us, rather than bridges between us. When you boil an entire place down to a nice, neat narrative of “Trump’s America” or “coal country” or “farm country” or “urban center” or “suburbs,” you risk a lot of misunderstanding. In this instance, so much of the coverage seems really aimed at painting rural Americans as “the other,” as if lots of people who live in cities and suburbs didn’t vote for Trump as well.

What are the top issues affecting the communities where you live and report today?

In West Virginia, we face the continuing an inevitable downward spiral of our coal industry, a loss of thousands of jobs and—despite many warnings—a lack of planning to diversify our economy. At the same time, we see the natural gas industry leading us down the same sorts of unsustainable paths as we saw with coal. And we struggle to get the attention of national leaders so that a region that powered the industrial revolution can get the help we need to survive.

Have those top issues and conversations changed under the Trump administration?

The narrative now from the national media is all about saying “told you so” to people in West Virginia—to paint us as suckers who bought into Trump’s promises to bring back the coal industry, only to be forgotten again. Now, I guess if your goal in life is to say “I told you so” then you can. But I’m not sure how that builds coalitions or makes the country stronger.

How can media organizations that seek to report more or better on rural places improve the quality of their work?

Stop parachuting in with big-time correspondents. Work with local news organizations. ProPublica and Report for America are doing this very effectively.