Rural reporting needs trust, common ground

By Amalia Medina

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories coming out of a recent meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Philadelphia.

The panel confronted a key issue in #rural reporting - helicopter journalism: a reporter makes quick trips to new towns to extract stories and fails to establish a connectionWhen reporting in rural communities, journalists must “listen and shut up.”

That was the advice of former Native News Online managing editor and author Valerie Vande Panne, a panelist at a session of the recent Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Philadelphia.

The panel confronted a key issue in rural reporting: helicopter journalism. The practice, which involves a reporter making quick trips to new towns to extract stories, fails to establish a connection, the panelist said. It also fails to reflect communities accurately and it contributes to sowing distrust in the media.

Other panelists were investigative freelance journalist Jen Byers, climate journalist Shreya Agrawal, editor of the Daily Yonder national rural news platform Tim Marema, and environmental reporter Claire Carlson, also of Daily Yonder. They agreed that covering communities requires trust built through meaningful relationships.

Whether that means going to a high school basketball game, chatting up a local diner or walking down Main Street, Vande Panne said, reporters must get to know the people they are covering.

Agrawal said forging relationships builds readership because the stories are the product of listening to the community’s concerns.

“You’re publishing the stories for the community,” said Agrawal, who used the technique when reporting for the Malheur Enterprise in rural Oregon. “It’s not just about getting another byline.”

Even before a reporter enters a community, their work starts with shedding biases, Agrawal said. They also must know the community, as rural communities are not a monolith, and diverse perspectives often go overlooked.

Byers said applying a critical lens to the profession itself enables journalists to avoid perpetuating stereotypes. Recognizing the media’s shortcomings establishes common ground, which Marema said facilitates connection.

Asking people their values will get a reporter farther than asking their political party, Marema said. Talking about specific issues they are facing is more effective than using polarizing language. It’s about meeting people where they are, which reporters can reflect in their stories, he said.

“When we describe things,” like climate issues facing rural communities,” Marema said, “then we get people who live in other types of places that may have similarities and differences a chance to see where they might fit and how they can relate to that community.”

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