Q&A: Why We Need Better Reporting on Rural America

Is there room to tell more complete stories about the diverse circumstances and perspectives in rural America? We better hope so, says Kansas native Sarah Smarsh, author of the bestselling memoir “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” Smarsh speaks with veteran coal reporter Ken Ward Jr. about the relationship between good journalism, community health, and our collective future.

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Journalists Sarah Smarsh and Ken Ward Jr. have made careers out of telling complicated but compelling stories.

Smarsh is up for a National Book Award for her memoir “Heartland,” which examines her rural Kansas upbringing. Ward just received a MacArthur fellowship (a.k.a. the MacArthur “genius” award) for his long career covering the coal industry from its Appalachian epicenter in West Virginia.

Ward interviewed Smarsh in May in Charleston, West Virginia, at a national rural-life summit sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national funder of health-related projects. (Disclosure: The Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, receives funding from the foundation.)

The reporters talked about American journalism’s portrayal of rural people and the need for Americans to build a more accurate and complicated understanding of rural communities and issues.

The following question-and-answer format article is based on that interview. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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Journalists Ken Ward Jr. (Shawn Poynter courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Ken Ward Jr.: You’ve been doing a lot of traveling around and talking to people in rural America. I sense that there’s a different conversation going on there [than we hear about]. What are people in rural America talking to each other about and talking with you about that maybe the chattering class needs to listen to?

Sarah Smarsh: The story that’s told about [rural places] is largely a false narrative, and there’s great dissonance between the prevailing stereotypes and tropes about rural America and what’s actually happening on the ground. 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.

Actually, in 2016, in just about every state, almost 40%, so almost two out of five people, voted for the candidate who lost in that state. So we’re sort of rendering invisible millions of people when we use terms like “Trump country” and reduce regions to political monoliths.

So ultimately, those maps I think are very misleading. When I’m talking to people on the ground, it is a much more promising picture than you would think from CNN or MSNBC. People are coming together as communities across even political boundaries and working in a space that I would call localism, like how do we solve these problems locally when we’re feeling not only misunderstood but perhaps even scorned and scapegoated on a national level?

Ward: I’m wondering is it really even 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? Is there room in this space for what could be lots of different rural Americas?

Journalist Sarah Smarsh (Shawn Poynter courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Smarsh: There had better be room if we want to understand ourselves accurately as a country. Unfortunately, the way the power structure works is whoever gets to set the narrative often has a blind spot to the spaces with less power. Sometimes, it’s with direct malice, but sometimes it’s just for a sort of ironic ignorance at the top that the story is told in a way that is reductive to a dangerous extent.

Of course, there’s not just one rural America. I happen to be a white, fifth-generation wheat farmer. I grew up on a flat expanse in the middle of a country. I happen to have been born into a sort of stereotype, in terms of imagery. My dad has been a construction worker for decades. He wears a hard hat, and he’s got a farmer’s tan, and he struggles to get dental care. We carry with us the symbols of rural America, and yet what those symbols would represent to someone about who we are, let’s say politically, would be actually the opposite of the way that my particular family votes and believes in things. My dad’s favorite politician, by the way, is [U.S. Representative] Maxine Waters [D-California 43rd].

Ward: What are the health concerns that you think rural Americans have, based on what you’ve heard in the places you’ve been or the place that you’re from?

Smarsh: I was just talking in Hutchinson, Kansas [population 42,000]. It’s only 30 miles from the farm that I grew up in [in central Kansas] They have a local health initiative called Heal Reno County. It was a beautiful evening, standing room only. One hundred people showed up to talk about this not very sexy topic of health.

Every single person in there, during the hour-long Q-and-A engagement, was saying, “Why isn’t our state expanding Medicaid?” This is so counter [to national media representations of rural]. A TV studio in New York would be stunned that that’s the line on the ground. Then I can just hear right now comments on some national news, at the bottom of the story, “Well, then why did they vote against it?” Or, “Why did they vote against their best interest?” That presumes, again, that this places a political monolith. What I try to tell people, when they want to cast an entire state or region in one particular way politically or culturally, “If you right now do not feel represented by our federal administration, then perhaps logically you can imagine that within the smaller political unit of a state, or even a county, or city, you could live there and not be represented by the people who are in office.”

Ward: How do you have a dialogue with someone who starts off with, “That’s what you get for voting that way”?

Smarsh: The first way that I come at any conversation about community progress is humility about not presuming that I know better than the person walking in his or her shoes. I come by that humility easily in the political sector because I was raised with somewhat different political views than I and my whole family hold now. I wasn’t a worse person then, and I’m not a better person now. I’m the same person with extremely different sets of information.

Journalists Sarah Smarsh and Ken Ward Jr. (Photo by Shawn Poynter courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Ward: Where can we find information to better understand what’s happening in rural America?

Smarsh: I think that part of how we rectify this concern of different sets of information is local news, but it’s also the national news paradigm that increasingly… It’s like this perfect storm, where so much local reporting has fallen and not yet been built, even though there are great efforts going on to that in the digital era. The big dogs that were left are where people increasingly turn for all of their stories and narratives, and that is the national networks. If you’re sitting in your recliner in small-town Idaho, and somebody in New York is telling you a story about your place as though it’s the truth, this is sort of a disconnect. 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.

Ward: How does class figure into your work?

Smarsh: Actually, the first thing that I wrote that, quote unquote, went viral … was an essay called “Poor Teeth” about lack of access to dental care. It centered on my dad’s struggle. Well, my dad had a cavity turn into an infected root, and then ultimately it turned into sepsis, and almost killed him. In 2014, a lifelong construction worker has a nearly fatal bout with a rotten tooth, basically. That’s in the richest country on Earth.

So many people contacted me. Thousands of people sent me message about that story that said that somehow that had never quite been articulated. I was thinking, “What in the world? How we are at this moment in our supposedly advanced society when people just haven’t even felt…” There is such a veil over the truth about economic inequality in this country, and the ways in which it intersects with race, gender, and a whole bunch of other aspects of identity, that in 2014, all I did was articulate it, and then people were like, “I’ve never heard someone say this.”

The trick that we do socially and culturally to ensure that veil stays up has to do with shame. My dad felt ashamed to talk about his teeth and very bravely let me do so with his blessing, but when you’ve got to keep up these appearances, like, “This is bootstrap America and I’m getting by on my own,” that doesn’t leave much space for the vulnerability of, “And meanwhile there’s poison in my blood because I can’t afford a dentist.”

Ward: One thing that I struggle with is, to what extent some of these must-pull-myself-up-by-bootstraps sort of narratives are internalized and coming from us, and to what extent they are being overly reinforced by some national media portrayal?

Smarsh: I think that it is both coming from popular culture and news media, but it also arises from within the very community. That’s why I go back to why narratives matter and words matter, because the hell of it is, you can start believing the lie about yourself. The way that this keeps us from progressing as a country is, again, we are dealing with things without looking right at some of the most glaring problems.

Ward: How is the way we tell stories important for matters of health?

Smarsh: I think when we talk about health, it’s easy to think of this as a wholly physical concern, but health and wellness, of course, as you all know, goes beyond that. There is something that I would call just a… I hesitate to use the word spiritual, because I don’t necessarily mean that in any context that remotely involves God or religion. But if you just think of your being, your sense of your relationship to the world, the universe. 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.

I don’t know how to back this up other than my own lived experience. 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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