Sunday, February 15, 2009

Appalachian reaction to '20/20' story is mixed, but the complaints appear stronger than the praise

Diane Sawyer and ABC News have elicited strong reactions to their "20/20" documentary, "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains." As of 4 p.m. Monday, 1,633 comments had been posted on the story's Web page. In Central Appalachia, the focus of the Friday night report on poverty and social ills in the region, the initial complaints appear to be stronger than the praise. But the dialogue continues.

Chris Green, a teacher of Appalachian literature and culture at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., told the local Herald-Dispatch "that while the broadcast touched on the severe problems faced by some in the mountains, it was ultimately a gross stereotype," Bill Rosenberger reported. Green said, "Sawyer has selected special cases and represented them in a way that blames the victim by providing almost no discussion of the larger social economic realities, both in Appalachia and in America. We would all have been better off without it."

But Dee Davis of the Eastern Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, who appeared on the show, said it told some uncomfortable truths that need to be told about persistent poverty, low education, poor health status and prescription-drug addiction. In an interview with The Rural Blog, he noted the report's point that that southeastern Kentucky's 5th Congressional District has the nation's lowest life expectancy life expectancy, "less than Mexico and China," and asked, "Who’s dealing with it? The newspapers aren’t spending a lot of time dealing with it, the television stations aren’t dealing with it. Where are our journalists dealing with it?" If Sawyer and her producers "weren’t gonna tell that, who’s gonna tell it?"

Perhaps the most common criticism was that in 39 minutes of journalism, the report offered little explanation for causes of the problems, and no menu of solutions. "I wondered why Sawyer didn’t go into more depth on the probable cause of the poverty and the vicious cycle that kept these places poor," Betty Dotson-Lewis wrote for the Daily Yonder. "I wondered why she did not bring in a panel of experts to give viewers ideas on how this cycle can be broken and if people want to help, how." (Read more)

The ABC team did conduct reporting on causes and solutions, and Producer Claire Weinraub told The Rural Blog that Sawyer and ABC are considering more reports that would address public-policy questions. "We want to have a dialogue [to] figure out what policies are out there that are viable," she said. Meanwhile, we will continue to follow the dialogue -- and encourage journalists in Appalachia to do their own reporting on the issues, not just the complaints.

UPDATE, Feb. 17: As often happens with such projects, the documentary has prompted charity for its subjects. Sawyer reported on "Good Morning America" today that a child with a drug-addicted mother is getting a tutor and an education trust fund; another is getting clothes and house repairs; and a high-school football star who lived in a truck to escape his dysfunctional family has been offered college scholarships and jobs. Also, Pepsico will help a dentist who tagged its Mountain Dew as a major cause of tooth decay; "We will tell you about that later this week," Sawyer promised.


Anonymous said...

I am from Eastern KY. I graduated from the same school Shawn Grim did. Some of you look at this as an insult but I see it as the truth. I think 20/20 did a great job. If you don't like what was depicted on the documentary...start making changes.Quit making excuses. We all know how bad it is in the areas that were reported. I love Eastern KY but my family and I moved to eastern TN for jobs and better educational opportunities for our child. My roots are there, family is still there but so is the poverty and hopelessness that has plagued East KY for many many decades. Lisa in TN

Anonymous said...

I second what the other person said. I live in Eastern KY (not from there) and I can see it is just a forgotten part of this country. There is a massive, and I mean MASSIVE, drug problem. Now I do not feel pity on those who choose to abuse drugs but there is nothing there to stop the cycle. Sure arrests are made and then the person usually rats out a few friends to get minimal time. The cycle just keeps going on and on.

PennyLoafer63 said...

I lived in Eastern Ky for the first 36 yrs. of my life,I live in Tn now also,Actually I can't say the documentary was that far off the truth,No one really has a chance there,teacher's pass the kid's when they can't even spell their own names,Drs. hand out dope like candy because that's the only way they make money,miner's work to live and die of black lung,user's are jailed while supplier's roam free! I felt like I was in NY when I moved here because it's a whole different world and a person who remain's there think's the world out here is no different.....Believe me...IT IS!!

Unknown said...

Does anyone know the name and address of the church that was on the show. It showed ladies singing and the pastor saying how the people who attended were poor... I want to get in touch with the pastor of the church so I can find ways to help the people of the church and that area. I don't want to go by way of organization . I want to go directly to the church.

Thank you,