Speak Your Piece: Plenty of Hope after All

[imgbelt img=MSU.jpg]The Washington Post came to West Plains, Missouri, intent on doing a story about an angry, hopeless town. If only the reporter had come with an open mind, he would have seen a town of hope.


“Little Hope in a Little Town: Some Missourians Think Obama Candidacy Pushes Them Aside” by Eli Saslow.  The article was occasioned by the controversy surrounding an inflammatory anti-Obama sign located near the city limits of West Plains, Missouri, where I have lived and worked as a folklorist since early 2007.  

The Washington Post article used West Plains to make a larger point, that Obama’s candidacy excluded rural America. “He is black, liberal, erudite and metropolitan — the antithesis of West Plains,” Saslow wrote. “His candidacy is the latest evidence, many residents said, that places such as this have been pushed from America’s core to its fringes, and forced to fight for scraps.”

It’s been a year since Saslow’s article appeared. The sign that spawned the article was first moved to a location about two miles south of the city limits – the same spot where a similar sign castigating John Kerry had appeared previously — and has since disappeared. But Post readers might be amazed to learn how different the West Plains of today is from the one that Mr. Saslow described just a few days before the ’08 election.

West Plains is home to a growing two-year college, a civic center with 30,000 square feet of exhibition space and a 400-seat theater where nationally known speakers and performers regularly appear, and an arts council that has been selected to participate in the NEA’s “Big Read” initiative two years consecutively and has received major grants for its efforts to conserve folk culture of the Missouri Ozarks.[imgcontainer left] [img:billboard.jpg] The billboard that brought the Washington Post to West Plains. It has since disappeared.

West Plains annually hosts a traditional music and folklife festival attended by as many as 12,000 people and a scholarly symposium examining life in the Ozarks. It has a regional orchestra, a high school choir that has garnered international praise, an active community theater, a dance studio, several additional performance venues and gallery spaces, a regional history museum, a farmers’ market, an organization promoting downtown historic preservation and economic development….

I could go on, but a salient fact has yet to be mentioned: all of the above was as true a year ago as it is now. But Mr. Saslow’s article gives no indication of it.

I point this out not because I wish to boast about my community or pout about its portrayal, nor because I mean to lambaste Mr. Saslow, who, I’m sure, did the best he could in the time allotted.  Rather, I mention it because it illustrates a disheartening trend in reporting on the culture of rural America by national media outlets: a lack of context.

Context matters in journalism.  It matters more if the journalism is about a place or a people that most readers know little about. After all, if an article that focuses narrowly on some specific aspect of life in Washington, New York, or Los Angeles fails to provide enough context, the reader likely can draw upon his or her familiarity with the milieu in question or any of the countless relevant sources available online in order to fill in the gaps and arrive at a reasonably well-informed interpretation of the topic.