Reporting on rural America: Pamela Dempsey talks about what’s missing.

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 their communities 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 a couple of our panelists to answer a few questions over email about how newsrooms can better cover rural places. Last week, we heard from Ken Ward, Jr. This week, Pamela Dempsey weighs in. Dempsey is the executive director at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit newsroom that covers environment, agriculture, and energy in the Midwest. 

What do media organizations that are based in urban centers tend to miss in their reporting on rural places?

Context and the ‘why.’ It can be easy to cover the ‘who’ and the ‘what,’ but too often the ‘why’ isn’t fully explored. Doing so can bring richer context to the story while at the same time making it a more complete story.

Additionally, it’s important to know that an incident that warrants a news story may be an anomaly for the area versus the norm. And those anomalies may not be the best barometer for how most residents feel. Treating those stories as a temperature check of a rural area can further isolate the residents and misrepresent these rural areas.

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

We ignore the needs, wants and problems of nearly 60 million people – 47 million adults and 13 million children. According to Census Bureau data from 2016, rural areas make up 97 percent of the land in America but just 20 percent of America’s residents. That’s one in five people who may not see themselves represented in today’s news coverage.

We also give ample room for public officials to go unchecked through public accountability. Even an elected official of a town of 300 needs to be held accountable for the decisions he/she makes that sets and impacts local policy.

What are the top issues affecting the communities where you live and report today? Have those top issues and conversations changed under the Trump administration?

Jobs, transportation, housing, immigration, health care, crime, money and poverty continue to be top issues.

Under the Trump administration, those issues remain the same but conversations about how to solve them have changed. And sometimes coverage of those issues has changed.

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

Collaborate with news outlets that are based in the areas you want to report on. Newsrooms don’t have the luxury to be competitive; instead, we must be cooperative to produce deeper, more meaningful and impactful work.