Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Journalists influence what and whom we see. This seems obvious to me now, but at the start of my communications career in the early 1980s, it wasn’t something I personally understood. That changed during my first newspaper job, a part-time position at my hometown weekly paper in Berea, Kentucky.
On Independence Day, my editors, Jack Hall and Lea Schultz, sent me to cover the citywide July 4 celebration at the high school football stadium. I shot dozens of photos of kids, a rock band, fireworks, a greased pig contest, and more. Later that week Lea helped me design a photo spread for an inside page.
Late on the night we published, the phone rang at my parents’ home. I answered to hear a man, obviously in his cups, who wished to know if I was the Tim Marema who covered the July 4 event for the newspaper. (We were the only Maremas in the phonebook, which was about as thick as a half-used legal pad.) When I said I was Tim, the caller spent several sorrowful minutes asking why I hadn’t included a photo of the band in the photo spread.
“There’s a little boy with a balloon who got his picture in the paper,” the gentleman said, with a great deal of dignity and a slight slur. “There’s a little greased piggy who got his picture in the paper. But there’s no picture of the singer.”
And then he taught me something about the power of media: “If you went by what you saw in the paper, you wouldn’t even know there was a singer at the July Fourth party.”
I didn’t feel great. I had photographed the band, but I ruined that roll of film in the darkroom. I can’t remember much of what I told the singer. I doubt he remembered much, either. But I didn’t forget the lesson.
Leaving a participant out of the story has consequences. In the case of the singer, who was a volunteer, his hard work rehearsing and entertaining the crowd didn’t get the credit he deserved.
But the consequences of exclusion can go far beyond the impact on one individual. When groups of people — defined by geography, income, race, or other characteristics – get omitted from the story, the problem expands from one person to entire populations. The whole community suffers.
Rural people know a thing or two about this. There’s a lot of great national reporting on rural news, but it’s also true that rural people get left out, stereotyped, and misrepresented in some national coverage.
What may be a little harder to comprehend is that rural and small-town media can do the same thing locally by failing to include segments of the community that get taken for granted or reported on in ways that don’t do them and their experiences justice. You might not even know they are there, based on what you read and see in local media.
Journalism scholar Andrea Wenzel has studied this phenomenon and helped design projects that try to correct the problem. I first met Andrea when I attended a workshop in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a few years ago where she was part of an effort to help build trust and collaboration between media groups and community representatives. That project and several others are part of her book, Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust (University of Illinois Press, 2020). The book describes Andrea’s work in Kentucky and other states to create communication alliances designed to build stronger communities. A lot of her work has been in urban areas, with the exception of Bowling Green, which is the center of a metropolitan area of about 230,000 residents, and neighboring Ohio County, which is rural.I asked Andrea to expand on the ideas she wrote about in Community-Centered Journalism and how they might apply to rural and small-town journalism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tim Marema, Daily Yonder: Why is it important to study how local journalism responds to community needs and inclusion? Is there anything in particular about small markets and rural areas that make them more relevant to the principles of community communication that you’re exploring?
Andrea Wenzel: My starting place is generally the questions around the communication health of a community, not necessarily what’s the health of the journalism outlet. I’m not as interested in how to save journalism as how to help communities by having good communication networks. If I take that as my starting point, it kind of shifts the way I approach any given set of questions.
I also come from a research tradition of looking at the communication health of different communities and the relationships between residents, local media, community organizations and other kinds of actors. When there’s strong connections between those different parties, there tend to be higher levels of civic participation and a greater understanding, a shared understanding of our challenges and issues in the community. Which then can allow people to think about what they want to do to respond to them.
In the research I’ve been doing over the years, I would encounter communities that had historically been stigmatized or marginalized in different ways. And that dynamic put so much strain upon those relationships between residents and local media, and it really damaged trust between them. Some of my case studies are looking at Black, Indigenous and people of color communities, but in a majority white, rural community, there might be other kinds of dynamics that have stigmatized or marginalized those communities in a way that can be just as problematic.
I think that in places where there is a history of marginalization, it’s even more important to look at the communication health of those areas and think about how those relationships can be strengthened, and how trust can be built between residents and local media.
That’s what drew me to look at a place like Ohio County, Kentucky [population 24,000]. Subsequently I’ve been collaborating with another colleague looking at a few other case examples where we were looking at small towns. But in particular, looking at the dynamics for Black and brown residents of those small towns, where they’re often not visible in the discourse around rural and small-town life, particularly in news outlets that just have never really paid attention to those communities.
[We are] trying to look at community information needs and assets, and then looking at what kind of interventions might be possible in those contexts.
DY: What would you say to well intentioned, public-spirited journalists and outlets about how to do more to represent their communities inclusively and fairly?
AW: I think one thing that can be really helpful is thinking about adapting what have traditionally been community organizing strategies for journalism. I think that a lot of the things when people talk about engaged journalism these days are things that really have been bread-and-butter activities for people who do community organizing. Doing things like having one-on-one conversations with people, doing things like mapping the assets of a community, mapping the power dynamics in that community and doing different kinds of engagement activities or making yourself available for public two-way interactions. Looking for opportunities to be able to hear from people in a dynamic where the power difference isn’t as pronounced as when you’re a reporter going and trying to get a quote from somebody.
There are a number of organizations that have toolkits that try to make this a little bit more accessible for journalists, like Free Press News Voices or the Listening Post Collective. They both have online toolkits that are really useful.
I hope that all of this can be thought of as just doing good journalism. It doesn’t have to be thought of as a specialization, but just thinking about relationship building with community. Which of course in small-town journalism is so natural anyhow.
DY: It seems that you’re transferring some additional responsibilities and activities to news organizations, which are already under a great deal of economic strain. How could a small newsroom draw on the community assets that are there to help them do that work? Or are you looking at a different kind of institution to step into that space?
AW: It’s a great question. And I completely recognize that most of journalism, particularly journalists working in small towns and rural communities, are so overstretched in so many different ways and are trying already to do so much. I [know] asking them to do more is something that really is problematic. There are a number of ways of thinking that through. One of them is rethinking some things that we’ve thought of as the terrain of professional journalists, and thinking that people who aren’t professional journalists can’t do it—kind of questioning some of that.
So for example, there’s a project based in Chicago, which obviously is not a small town, but the project is called Documenters, run by City Bureau, where they train community members to go to different kinds of civic meetings and document what is happening there. And then they enter all that into a database that gets shared with different media outlets, and the general public can also access it. But you’re looking at how can people do what we might’ve called, in the past, citizen journalism. … Of course, not everybody has the time to do that. And is there some basic training … or other technical things that they need to know to be able to do that? That’s still additional work. So it’s not like that’s a quick fix.
Also, I think there can be exploration around collaborations with other sorts of institutions. Things like the library, where you have shared goals of informing the public.
Or it can also just be really simple things like someone already has a community calendar. Can they share that information with the local news outlet? Or the library has regular community meetings or discussions or has the opportunity to host convenings. Can the newsroom do a monthly conversation with people? That could be pretty informal at the library or, or somewhere else, some other organization.
The one thing I’ve encountered … [is] that journalists in a number of contexts have been kind of wary of working with community organizations for a lot of reasons that make sense. Particularly if they’re concerned about being seen as advocates for a certain issue that organizations might be doing. But I think that oftentimes that gets taken too far, and there are opportunities that get lost by not working with community organizations.
DY: The idea of journalists working more with non-profit and community groups has grown in recent years. Would you agree with that assessment?
AW: Yes. I think that connects up with the conversations that have been going around and around: objectivity. I think [objectivity] has always been a problematic concept. And I think more people are acknowledging that. It’s something that can be interpreted in many different ways, but the dominant way it’s been interpreted, I think, has not served journalism well and certainly has not served relationships with communities well. It’s tended to lead journalists to keep more distance between themselves and communities than is helpful. And often it’s actually harmful. It’s also tended to favor the kind of people with power, particularly white men in many contexts, but also just people who have positions of authority. Questioning that throws the doors open to reconsidering the kinds of relationships journalists can have not only with communities and residents in general, but with organizations and different kinds of stakeholders as well.
DY: What have you learned about the business side of conducting engaged journalism in marginalized communities?
AW: That’s a thing that I did not tackle in this book — just looking at the question of how to pay for this work, and what does sustainability mean? And what does that look like?
I don’t think there’s a market answer for most of [the projects I have studied]. It’s certainly not the business model that we’ve traditionally imagined for journalism. There’s more energy in the philanthropic sector, but it’s very uneven and it definitely does not serve rural communities well overall or small towns, or even a lot of cities. …
There’s so much with philanthropic funding. It’s such a problem with what the funders know, and who they know, and where they are. I think that there’s a need to look at other kinds of possibilities in the future that are dreamier, or big questions around public funding or co-op models. And I think there’s a number of people doing [those sorts of investigations].
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.