Speak Your Piece: Just Say No to ‘Poverty Porn’

When Fox News came calling to do a story about Appalachia, it didn’t take long to figure out what they were really after: examples of doom, gloom, and failure. Nonprofits must shift the focus away from negative stereotypes to show what's working in rural America.

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Right before the November 8th election, Fox News approached Fahe about doing a news piece about Appalachia.

We’re a logical organization to contact, because we work with Appalachian nonprofits covering parts of six states.

At first, the Fox producer seemed vague about the request. What were they really after?

It turns out what they actually wanted was an escort and introduction to the poorest mountain community we knew of. The story they had already decided to tell before they stepped foot in the region was how politicians have forgotten the area and forsaken the people around the issues of poverty and the drug epidemic.

Spoiler: We said no.

Appalachia has always had a problem with media outlets wanting to boost their sales by exploiting “poverty porn.” They come get photos and stories of handpicked, downtrodden people, and instead of offering solutions or asking for change, they quote people of privilege whose answer is that poor people should pick up and leave. Or they blame whichever political party they oppose. They are like a carnival barker hawking a sociological sideshow: “Step right up and see a Third World country in your own backyard!”

Because we know this is the common way for national media to treat Appalachia, “no” was on our tongue even before they got to the meat of the Fox News pitch. But we poked around to see if they would provide any more insight on their intent. We were curious if there was any way to leverage a major news outlet to showcase Appalachia in a positive light.

We informed them that no particular political group has forgotten Appalachia, and in fact we have had bipartisan support in many of our efforts to eliminate persistent poverty. We are a non-partisan group. And we are better for it because we understand that people on both sides do care about what happens to other people and they do care about uplifting families. We can do more by working together within our common interests than we can by expending energy pointing fingers and fighting with each other.

Before we fully said no, we proposed a counter offer.

We can talk about the poverty, but on these conditions:

We will not take you to see only the poorest people. Appalachia has a widely diverse population and not all people face poverty in the same degree. Not everyone who is facing hard times lives in a dilapidated trailer. The face of poverty is not the caricature that people have been shown over the years. That misrepresentation has to stop.

We will not discuss poverty without discussing the solution. It’s a disservice and a cause of hopelessness to only showcase what’s wrong without discussing the efforts of the many organizations, local leaders, people, and politicians working to alleviate this issue. We are not just some backwater, woe is me, group of people. The people of Appalachia have heart and we have real solutions coming from inside our borders. We’re making real progress. Yes, we do have less of an advantage than other areas of the country. Yes, we could use more support from outside groups. But we will never have people willing to invest in this area of the country if they think it’s a lost cause, and the portrayal of many media outlets paints us as just that.

We will not exploit addiction. Never will we take you for a photo op of someone using drugs.   We will not showcase someone in need and exploit them when they are sick or at their lowest.

We will not discuss drug abuse without discussing the solution. There are many dedicated individuals and organizations who are working toward a solution. There are drug addiction recovery clinics that are making a difference in thousands of people’s lives. There are systems put in place not only to help people get over drugs, but to help them stay clean, transition into new environments to escape the cycle, and gain access to job training and life skills coaching. There are even ways for people to mentor and help those who suffer like they once did.

We will show the hope that is in Appalachia. We demand that someone talk about the opportunities for a change instead of perpetuating the stereotypes and hopelessness just to further their selfish agenda.

As nonprofits, we don’t celebrate and discuss the good we see as often as we should. This is true not just in Appalachia but in rural America in general. We have the responsibility to let people know that we are not a lost cause. We are not on the brink of despair. There is real, positive change that happens every day. We can celebrate that while discussing the needs that still exist.

If we want people to respect us and to see something worth investing in, we have to rewrite the narrative both in rural America and in major cities like New York. Once we change that perspective, we will attract media outlets who are interested in reporting on the progress and the transition that has happened in one of the hardest places to live and work. We will no longer be used as a headline to sell newspapers to sideshow gawkers. We’ll be reaching investors and collaborators who are interested in advancing hope and change.

Aaron Phelps is the Senior Media Producer at Fahe, a nonprofit membership network dedicated to eliminating persistent poverty in Appalachia.

 

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