A newly released report explores the representation of rural people and places in national media, demonstrating a gulf between how rural people view their own communities compared to what national outlets typically report and cover, the report’s authors say.
Revealing Rural Realities: What Fuels Inaccurate and Incomplete Coverage of Rural Issues? is co-presented by the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, the Housing Assistance Council, Hattaway Communications, and the Center for Rural Strategies. (The Center for Rural Strategies publishes the Daily Yonder.)
The report says that a lack of robust rural reporting capacity, compounded by structural changes in the media landscape, means that the full impact of Covid-19 on many rural and tribal communities will go unreported.
Because of underlying health and economic disparities, tribal nations are especially vulnerable and early data indicates the long-term health and economic consequences of Covid-19 may be particularly severe in rural areas due to a lack of health infrastructure, demographics, and, in many places, an economic reliance on hard-hit industries such as small business and tourism.
“Media coverage of what’s happening in America necessarily must include reporting on rural and tribal communities, because the overwhelming majority of both municipalities and the 547 federally recognized tribes, as well as approximately two-thirds of U.S. counties are located in rural regions.” said Katharine Ferguson of the Aspen Institute. “Rather than outsider commentary, reporting on rural America should amplify the voices of rural and native people and be true to local stories and lived experience.”
“The shortage of hospitals, doctors and health care workers and nearly no access to testing have led to significant underreporting of rural cases. Media coverage is essential to ensuring the challenges rural regions are facing get the attention they deserve,” said David Lipsetz, CEO, Housing Assistance Council. “Good reporting about rural and tribal communities helps to make visible the inequality built into the geography of America; it should also showcase the assets, diversity, innovation, cultural richness and natural beauty of rural America.”
“There is good national reporting on rural life—and, increasingly, coverage of tribal communities too. The problem is that much of that reporting isn’t getting to rural audiences that can use it,” said Dee Davis, founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. “It is helpful to have this examination of the way journalism works for rural communities and the ways it doesn’t. It also begins to reveal opportunities for creative solutions to narrow the gap between national newsrooms and local reporters.”
The findings in the report are largely based on a series of in-depth interviews conducted on background with editors and journalists engaged in rural coverage, representing both national and local media outlets, as well as rural residents. In addition, Hattaway Communications conducted a media scan to assess the themes in social media, news coverage and commentary that shape public perception of rural America and rural issues.
“This report offers eye-opening insights on the challenges facing rural media, along with useful ideas from rural reporters and community members. These voices and data can help build a new consensus about the critical importance of rural reporting,” says Doug Hattaway, president of Hattaway Communications, which conducts communications research on a wide variety of topics.
Some of the key issues and findings the report explores in depth are:
- Structural changes in the media landscape have reduced local news outlets for rural communities, in turn reducing the number of rural voices and issues featured in national reporting. Over the past 15 years, more than one in five newspapers have closed, with over 500 newspapers either closed or merged in rural communities specifically.
- Contrary to public perception, national media journalists are highly invested in covering the issues that affect rural America, but resource and time limitations due to structural changes affect rural reporting efforts. Media organizations that have successfully adapted to the industry’s major challenges are often concentrated in the country’s largest metropolitan areas; today nearly one-in-five newsroom employees now live in New York, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C.
- Creative solutions to solving the current lack of rural media include partnerships between national outlets and local reporters, so reporters can spend sufficient time doing the legwork in rural and tribal communities to provide in-depth reporting, which has the benefit of bridging relationships between national outlets, rural-based journalists and rural communities.
- Balanced reporting is essential to countering post-2016 narratives, that are overwhelmingly political and often negative. Reporting about rural and tribal communities can acknowledge distress, but there are many more opportunities to showcase the assets, diversity, innovation, cultural richness, opportunity and natural beauty of rural America.