Wednesday, June 26, 2019

At Q-and-A with Ken Ward Jr., 'Heartland' author Smarsh critiques simplistic media portrayals of rural America

Sarah Smarsh and Ken Ward Jr. talk at the Life in Rural America Symposium on May 21.
(Robert Wood Johnson Foundation photo by Shawn Poynter)
At the recent Life in Rural America Symposium, journalists Ken Ward Jr. and Sarah Smarsh spoke about the relationship between "good journalism, community health, and our collective future," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. Ward is an award-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter known for covering West Virginia's coal industry, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Smarsh is up for a National Book Award for her memoir Heartland, which shows readers how her rural Kansas family went from working class to the working poor.

The Yonder provides a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity. Some highlights:

Smarsh said there's a "great dissonance" between what urban residents and the news media think is happening in rural areas and what is actually happening in rural areas. "If you’re a cable news network, and you like conflict, and you want to whip up the idea of cities versus country (which drives up ratings and enforces some sort of unfortunate cultural identities), then you put up a map of the United States where each state is colored either red or blue, as though that monochromatic color would represent everyone in that state," Smarsh said. The reality is not so simple or monolithic.

Ward observed that it might not be appropriate to talk about "one rural America, and to assume that farmland in Kansas and the people who live there have all the same ways of doing things, and thinking, and talking as people in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, or steel country in western Pennsylvania and Ohio."

Smarsh agreed, saying "Of course, there's not just one rural America." She said that those who "set the narrative" often offer a reductive view of rural America, whether through malice or ignorance. But rural America is more diverse, politically and demographically, than is often reflected in the news media, she said. For instance, she said, about 100 rural Kansans showed up at a recent county health event and "every single person in there" supported expanding Medicaid. The bottom line, she said, was to be humble and not make assumptions about people or areas you're unfamiliar with.

Many people have no idea how deep economic equality is in the U.S., and part of the reason is that many rural people are ashamed to talk about poverty or poor health, Smarsh said.

Ward asked how people can find information to better understand what's happening in rural America. Smarsh said paying attention to local news was a good start, but noted that rural local reporting has been weakened in recent years, and many rural people only have access to national news: "We have half the country watching Fox News and half the country watching MSNBC. While I’m all for increasing efforts on the local level, there is something that is so toxic in that top-level system being broken from the rest of the information sphere that that’s, I think, a bigger problem to contend with."

Smarsh said the simplistic, frequently negative narrative about rural America hurts rural communities and people. "If every story being told about you is that you’re backwards, ignorant, your community is dying, why don’t you just leave, and meanwhile, you’re doing the work of picking the lettuce in California or raising the wheat in Kansas that’s on the plate of the people who are carelessly levying those condescending comments, that is a bitter pill to swallow spiritually and psychologically," she said. "That has reverberations in the way of wellness and health, whether it’s that shame or a sense of not being validated somehow. It’s related to a general malaise and a need to self-medicate. The stories that we tell about ourselves and about specific populations within our country, they affect the wellness of those communities."

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