Covering Economic Diversity: What we missed

Story and photos by Maddie Biertempfel, Penn State University

Gaps in coverage left swaths of voters unheard from during the 2016 presidential campaign, four journalists agreed during a News Leadership Conference panel Tuesday.

Although each panelist has a different background personally and professionally, all agreed there was significant room for improvement in the news media’s coverage.

Rochelle Riley, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, kicked off the conversation by noting that the language journalists use to refer to people living in middle America — including terms like flyover states and low-information voters — is derisive.

She said that paying greater attention to local news in those states would have probably painted a more accurate picture about the country’s mood leading up to the election.

“The less we look to big news organizations, the more important papers in the country will be those in middle America, which I will never refer to as flyover country again,” Riley said. “Pay attention to what they’re doing because they’ll determine what happens in 2018 and 2020.”

Claire Galofaro, an Associated Press correspondent who documents rural America, agreed. She said that when Trump signs began popping up in Democratic-voting counties, they were dismissed too soon by those who only viewed the national polls.

“Return to your own judgment of the places you live and the people you know and not rely so much on what people in faraway places are guessing about the election,” Galofaro said.

Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who lives in Ohio, said that having reporters “parachute” into rural places for a brief period of time to capture the political mood of a state isn’t the best strategy.

“It’s not enough to send someone in for a week or two, but I would advise hiring reporters who live in these states,” she said.

Understanding and being able to empathize with different people is something Michael Williamson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photographer, emphasized as well.

Williamson said finding commonalities among different people leads to meaningful storytelling, but it can be more challenging with a camera in hand.

“One thing that’s a little different for me than these other three is that I carry a weapon,” he said, holding up his camera. “You’re in new territory of trust, of breaking down a wall that’s there.”

He recounted a conversation with a Klansman at a white supremacist rally weeks before the infamous one in Charlottesville, Va. Williamson asked him 10 questions, including “‘Do you want safe schools for your kids?’ ‘Do you want cops to be honest?’ and ‘Do you want a three-bedroom house and picket fence?’”

“The only thing we disagreed on was gays and guns,” Williamson said.

A question-and-answer segment followed the discussion, during which panelists commented on questions of newsroom diversity and predictions for the 2020 presidential election.

Maddie Biertempfel is a sophomore at Penn State University.

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