When does journalism cross the line? And did Diane Sawyer cross the line in her report on Appalachia Friday night?
I would hate to think I am addicted to the news, but the truth is I get weak and shaky if I don’t get a good dose of it. I require national and state on a daily basis and weekly from my local hometown paper in rural West Virginia. On special occasions I may opt for a bit more.
I sometimes wonder: What is good journalism? I know it is supposed to answer questions like what, who, where, when and how but there are other facets to reporting news topics in my opinion. So, let me begin. My name is Betty Dotson-Lewis. I am from a rural, coalmining town in West Virginia.
On Friday night, after the ABC News documentary narrated by Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer, I wondered if rural Eastern Kentucky was good journalism. The title: “The Hidden America – Children of the Mountains.” The theme: “Poverty in Appalachia.”
I wondered: How far should journalists go with news? – Is it worth it to tear up a section of the country as long as it is the truth? What if it brings to light the most deplorable actions by human beings? Is it good journalism if it is for social justice?
On Friday night for one hour the screen was filled with down-and-out families where drugs, missing teeth, filthy living conditions, shabby housing, litter and lack of food made me ashamed. Was I ashamed because I, too, come from Appalachia or because poverty is a truth in our region? I couldn’t answer. I was glued to the set even though I had a good idea where this was going. I knew where it was going, but I didn’t know how we were going to get there.
Sawyer took us to Paintsville, Kentucky, and Johnson Central High School. She wanted to tell us about Shawn Grim, who became a high school football star through hard work and determination even though he was shorter and weighed less than his opponents. Shawn lived out of his pickup truck. He went to a friend’s house to shower. Shawn told us he wanted to break the cycle of poverty he had grown up in. He wanted to make something of himself by getting an education. He took Diane to his home in a remote section of the county. The living conditions were deplorable; everything you don’t want to imagine was happening there.
Shawn could not stay in his home and beat the obstacles he faced. He did have support from his coaches and friends at school. He received a scholarship to Pikeville (KY) College but dropped out after two months. The report said that he could not keep up. He felt like an outsider. He had no spending money. He went back home.
But when does journalism cross the line? The report seemed to say that incest is part of the lives of Appalachia’s poor. I don’t know if statistics support that claim or not. I am sketchy about all the show’s details, but I can’t forget the little girls taking on the role as the parent of their drug addicted mothers.
Mountain Dew soft drink took a hit as a reason for tooth decay in mountain people. I have no reason to doubt this, but dental care is expensive and sometimes hard to find in remote rural areas.
Diane took a trip into a coal mine. She interviewed coal miners with their bosses standing close by. It was a dead giveaway that the miners were uneasy answering her questions. Why would an experienced journalist handle this situation as she did? It would have been more interesting, and reliable, to get answers when the bosses were not present. I was left out in the cold on this one.
The documentary featured Eula Hall of Kentucky’s Mud Creek Clinic. She is a remarkable woman of strength and courage. The story featured a dentist who provides dental care with a traveling dental clinic.
Jim Booth, a coal mine owner who lives in a mansion in the middle of the poverty, was asked about the big house. He answered that he wanted people to know he planned on staying in the area and that he is living proof you can succeed in the midst of poverty. When Sawyer’s documentary was over, I thought maybe an hour wasn’t long enough to explore such a complex issue. Maybe that’s why the show lacked much real information.
But I wondered why Sawyer didn’t explore the causes of the poverty and the cycle that kept these places poor. I wondered why she did not bring in a panel of experts to explain how this cycle can be broken and if people want to help, how they can find it. I wondered why she did not cover more of the coal scene in the area, such as ravaging the mountains by mountaintop removal, loss of jobs and the failure of coal operators to give back to the community.
I logged on to the website after the show and read about three-quarters of the more than 1,000 comments posted. News people are famous for saying things like, “Debate is good.” Well, there is debate over this documentary.
Many, many people from Eastern Kentucky are outraged over this portrayal of their region. They did not think enough positive was shown, deepening the stereotype of the hillbilly. Many viewers, mostly out of the region, want to send money to the little girls or to take the children from their homes.
Viewers are offering Shawn Grim a home, job, money and help in getting his college education.
So, is this type journalism justified if it brings to light a group of people in a region who are living in poverty?
These days we depend on journalists not only to report but interpret the news. The people of Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia were left high and dry on this one, however. This story brings to light a serious problem in Appalachia but the approach and editing offer just a temporary fix for a few, deepening an old stereotype of the Appalachian.