How media can restore public trust by becoming bridge builders after COVID and election

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Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY
Published 12:01 a.m. ET May 20, 2021

The Hidden Common Ground initiative will explore areas of agreement on major issues facing the nation and how communities have worked to solve issues.

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Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey’s new book, “Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age,” published with permission from Polity.

They’re hillbillies. 

They’re unemployed coal miners. They’re uneducated.

They’re religious wackos. They’re conservative wingnuts.

The harsh stereotypes of the people of Appalachia are deeply entrenched in the American consciousness. During the 2016 presidential campaign, those ugly caricatures flooded the airwaves, newspapers, websites, and social media accounts of powerful news outlets responsible for accurately depicting the people of a sprawling region that ranges from portions of southwest New York state southward through Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and into parts of Georgia and Alabama.

“Welcome to Trump County, USA,” Vanity Fair blared in a headline on a story reported from Monongalia County, West Virginia. The writer led the story with a lurid anecdote: “It is a little after midnight on a Friday in late January. I am in a strip club in Morgantown, West Virginia, drinking (expletive) American beer that tastes like ice and newspaper. A man is passing me a semi-automatic handgun and telling me to pull the trigger,” the story begins.

“I am in West Virginia to understand Donald Trump,” the writer explains later in the story. “At least, to the extent that the political embodiment of a Hardee’s commercial needs to be understood. Specifically, I’m here to understand the people who want him to be president.”

Nathan Bomey's book, "Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age," available in May 21, 2021. (Photo: Polity)

It was evident in Morgantown that the exploitive portrayal of Appalachia was deepening the divide between journalists and the public. At West Virginia University (WVU), journalism professor Dana Coester was fed up.

“At one point, I had a PowerPoint slide of all the headlines from ‘Trump Country,’ ‘Trump Nation,’” Coester told me when I visited the WVU Reed College of Media’s state-of-the-art multimedia journalism center in Morgantown. “It was the Atlantic, the New Yorker – everybody had done their stint in West Virginia or Appalachia. We started to joke that there aren’t even that many miners left, but all of them had been interviewed by national media to be representative of the region.”

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Albeit with some notable exceptions, the coverage had a generally acidic tone, highlighting extremes and regurgitating tired stereotypes. For Coester’s journalism professor colleague Gina Dahlia, it was hurtful. The typical story highlighted “the redneck that was drilling a hole in the side of the truck and putting the Confederate flag in it,” Dahlia said.

She was not surprised. “I was born and raised in West Virginia, so I’ve been here my entire life,” she said. “So I’ve definitely seen media swooping in.” She recalled TV journalist Geraldo Rivera descending upon West Virginia to cover the Sago Mine disaster of 2006. “He was trying to interview exactly the stereotypical West Virginian. It didn’t matter if there were educated people standing around. He wanted the toothless, coal-mining wife to interview,” she said. “That was just one example of what I’ve seen living here my entire life.”

As Trump’s victory turned the world’s gaze toward the nearly defunct U.S. coal-mining industry and pockets of rural poverty, the media’s emphasis on Appalachia’s extremes intensified. Numerous outlets dispatched correspondents to the region to puzzle out how Trump had prevailed – ignoring the fact that polls showed the extent to which educated, wealthy, suburban voters had played a crucial role in hoisting Trump into the White House.

How media can restore public trust by becoming bridge builders after COVID and election

Nathan Bomey, a USA TODAY reporter and author of "Bridge Builders, Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age." (Photo: USA TODAY)

“Our phone rang off the hook after the 2016 election,” said Tim Marema, vice president of the Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies and editor of the nonprofit’s Daily Yonder, a rural news publication. “It’s not hard to tell which journalists already had their story before they called and were only looking for information and sources that confirmed their preconceived opinion, which is literally the definition of prejudice. Some people talked to us like we were a casting agency: ‘I’m looking for a coal miner who voted for Trump.’”

To be sure, some outlets pieced together coverage providing nuanced perspectives on the region. But many reporters simply exploited locals who voted for Trump, worsening the disconnect between journalists and the public at a time when trust in the news media was already suffering.

The assignments took similar shape: “Go find someone on food stamps who voted for Trump” or “Go find someone on disability or Medicare who voted for Trump,” Marema said. “There was a degree of empathy in these stories for difficult conditions some Americans face. But that was lost within the paternalism and self-righteousness.”

In the months leading up to the election, Coester and WVU visiting journalism professor Nancy Andrews had begun researching and preparing a proposal for a news project to provide better coverage of the region. But they still didn’t know exactly what they wanted it to be. The day after the election, however, they sprang into action. (Full disclosure: Andrews was one of my editors during my tenure as a reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Detroit Free Press from 2012 to 2015.)

“It’s actually kind of funny because we had pages and pages of reports and planning and meetings,” Coester said. The day after the election, they set the plan aside. “We wrote this one-paragraph mission statement. And then we just got started.”

Their initial concept was simple: launch a “pop-up publication” to blanket Appalachia with comprehensive news stories and multimedia coverage during the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

How media can restore public trust by becoming bridge builders after COVID and election

USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey's book, "Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age." (Photo: Polity)

Within weeks, the leaders formed a collaboration between the WVU Reed College of Media, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and the Daily Yonder to tell authentic stories with the hope of rebuilding trust, forming new connections, and bringing attention to the region’s multiplicity of issues. They named the project 100 Days in Appalachia, aiming to make a national impact with coverage of the region: “Our feeling was if we can surface a more complex narrative about this region, then we’re training an audience how to look with more complexity at whatever community they’re reading about, not just their own,” Coester said.

As a native of West Virginia, Dahlia couldn’t pass up the chance to help lead the project. “I definitely felt a personal interest in trying to change that narrative because I’m so tired of people assuming that we’re not as good as them, that we’re not as smart as them, that we’re not as educated as them,” she said.

How media can restore public trust by becoming bridge builders after COVID and election

The Cheat River forms from tributaries high in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia and flows northward to meet with the Monongahela River just before crossing into southwestern Pennsylvania. (Photo: Provided/100 Days in Appalachia)

From the beginning, the goal was to use journalists embedded in local communities to highlight the region’s challenges and opportunities, failures and victories, insularity and diversity. In doing so, the editors envisioned forming partnerships with for-profit and nonprofit news outlets, enabling those organizations to publish locally generated stories on a broader platform.

“The whole vision for this was to create a regional publication that was actually talking to national media – and to external, national audiences – to say, ‘Whatever you think you know about the region, you’re probably wrong,’” Coester said. “We wanted to create a very assertive counternarrative, which also had the goal of trying to restore some faith in coverage. I mean, there is a very legitimate reason why people do not have trust in media coverage and representation of themselves.”

Andrews saw this first hand. The multimedia editor and photographer led the online publication’s initial feature, “100 Days, 100 Voices,” a series designed to authentically depict the people and places of the region through photography. She resolved not to fall into the trap of lazily training her camera lens on blighted communities and seeking out only explicit images of poverty. Instead, she sought to deliver a kaleidoscopic view of Appalachian schools, churches, businesses, and residents, without ignoring the region’s problems, but also without exploiting them.

“We tend to think of stereotypes very much in visual terms. I’ve joked that when a photographer comes to Appalachia, the color is somehow drained out of their camera,” Andrews said with a knowing laugh.

“We’re all black and white and dirt,” Dahlia added.

There’s a reason for it. “Because it fits the narrative,” Andrews said. “So one of my basic rules was that I would always publish in color. No matter how monochrome the scene looked, Appalachia is in full color.”

As the veteran multimedia journalist ventured into Appalachian communities, she began hearing story after story of disenfranchised locals who felt misrepresented and mistreated by the national media.

At one point, her project took her to a church in McDowell County. “McDowell County is one of the poorest counties – it’s often the poster child for different issues. It’s a place on politicians’ punch list,” Andrews said. Rather than rundown and rickety, she said, the church had spotless carpeting, beautiful oak floors, and bright-red curtains. When she was sizing it up for photo opportunities, a parishioner came up to her, held her hand, and looked into her eyes. “Please, please be kind to us,” the church member told her.

“And I knew what she meant,” Andrews said. “She went on to tell a story about her experience with media and how the extreme was shown and how they went and photographed the snake handlers” – an isolated Christian sect that sometimes integrates venomous snakes into its spiritual practices. The West Virginian churchgoer wasn’t protesting the fact that the media had featured snake handlers in the past, but she objected to those images reflecting “the only representation” of her community – “that extreme view of religion,” Andrews said.

When news coverage capitalizes on extremes for the sake of web traffic or ratings, it widens the divide between journalists and the communities they cover.

“It’s really poignant to people,” Andrews said. “That’s where that lack of trust” originates.

Comprehensive, authoritative, nuanced news coverage is increasingly difficult to find in large part because local news outlets, which know their communities the best, have been crushed by the decline of print advertising revenue and paid subscriptions. Their decline has national consequences. In the absence of strong, local outlets – which thrived on trusted personal relationships between journalists and the community – the attention of news consumers has shifted toward national outlets and often extremely partisan online communities that foster polarization through social media. Plus, the news industry’s pivot toward emphasizing reader metrics to maximize revenue has unfortunately led to more sensational headlines and less intricacy in many quarters. Consequently, readers and viewers have grown increasingly cynical about the news content they encounter.

About six in ten Americans “think news organizations do not understand people like them,” according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted from February through March 2020. That includes 61% of white people, 58% of Black people, and 55% of Hispanic people.

“It’s not an Appalachia problem. It’s a universal journalism problem that so many communities feel not well represented almost anywhere you go,” Coester said. “I’m not certain a local journalist can do the labor of fixing that, but it’s probably the first place to start.”

To re-establish trust between journalists and the public – that is, to build bridges between them – requires investing in on-the-ground relationships between the two. Which is one key reason why 100 Days in Appalachia quickly ditched its temporary status. The organization’s leaders decided 100 days wasn’t enough. There were too many stories that would go untold if they limited themselves to that period of time.To keep the project going, Coester secured funding from foundation donors in addition to ongoing support from WVU.

With sufficient funding to continue beyond their initial period, the leaders transitioned the upstart project into a venture with an indefinite horizon and additional partnerships with local and major media outlets. “We quickly realized . . . that our issues have now become America’s issues, and there was no way we could stop the conversation after 100 days because these issues were not going away,” Dahlia said.

From the beginning, the 100 Days in Appalachia crew sought to highlight the voices and faces of Appalachian residents who have been largely ignored in the popular press. The publication launched a 360-degree video series called, “Muslim in Appalachia,” to illustrate how the region is not religiously monolithic.

“Yes, I do wear a headscarf on my head, and I probably don’t look like your stereotypical American,” West Virginia resident Sara Berzingi, a Kurdish American Muslim whose family moved to America when she was 4 years old, said in one of the videos. “Our nation is so great and so powerful because we’re all from so many different backgrounds.”

In one story, Brian Gardner, a student who “defines himself as a biracial, LGBT, religious minority,” is featured joining hundreds of West Virginians protesting Trump’s ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries from visiting the United States.

What these stories demonstrate is that we, as journalists, can be bridge builders. We can use our platform to paint authentic portraits of people and their communities, fostering trust and understanding with readers and viewers. Those seeds of trust help combat the tendency among some consumers – conservatives in particular – to dismiss legitimate journalism as “fake news” when the coverage makes them uncomfortable.

“When people see themselves and hear themselves, there’s an incredible validation and resonance there,” Coester said. “People understand that journalists are going to write about problems, but to do so authentically and also with that nuance [is important] because people are smart, and they’ll see if you’re just sensationalizing an issue or their identity.”

Let me add this: We, as journalists, can also be bridge builders without compromising our core principles of objectivity and truth.

“Journalism can bring communities together,” Andrews said. “Throughout history we have gathered around the campfire to tell a story. So we need storytellers. Sometimes they’re investigative storytellers, and sometimes it’s just how we tell stories so that we get to know each other and know our community. That’s how you know your neighbor. Some of those stories just bring you to tears and make you love your neighbor a little bit more.”

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