From Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications VOL. 5 NO. 2
From "Pockets of Poverty" to Potential Prosperity in Appalachia: Examining Mass Media Narratives of Poverty Stereotypes in Appalachia
Discussion and Conclusions
To address the research question of how local media visualize and frame issues of poverty in Appalachia compared to national media, in the January 1964 coverage, the national media were more likely to focus on economic issues, which also meant the national media used primarily negative language when describing conditions in Appalachia, while the local media used primarily positive language. In this regard, the hypothesis that local media and community members are more likely to use positive language and visuals than national media was partially correct.
However, there was a shift in the January 2014 media coverage where the local media used negative language and the national media used mostly positive language, focusing on the progress in the Appalachian region. This change correlated with the findings that the national media provided equal coverage of political, economic, and social issues in the January 2014 media coding, which did not support the hypothesis that national media would focus primarily on economic issues rather than social and cultural topics.
In the January 2014 media analysis, the top three themes identified in The Mountain Eagle were children/youth, education, and family, and the top three themes identified in The New York Times were children/youth, education, and unemployment. It is interesting to note that the national media articles that focused on social or cultural topics were more likely to use positive language, while those focused solely on structural or economic topics were more likely to use negative language to depict poverty.
There was only one article related to the War on Poverty in The Mountain Eagle in January 2014 and one article in February 2014. The single comment issued by the newspaper in February mentioned this year marked the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and reposted an editorial that appeared in 1964 as nations and reporters turned their cameras toward Eastern Kentucky (2014, p. A1). The editorial encouraged community members to welcome assistance and publicity from outsiders to show the necessity for the War on Poverty and increase federal aid, citing the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was brought in response to the attention from magazines and newspapers, as an example of how other organizations can help Whitesburg (2014, p. A1).
The editorial said the reaction against outsiders reached a climax when two county officials threatened to put a group of British television reporters and photographers in jail if they took more pictures of what they considered to be poverty. However, it countered popular opinion by saying:
We have seen hardened reporters and photographers, those who have seen conditions all over the world, with tears in their eyes as they told us of some of the living conditions they had seen in Letcher County. Without exception, the ones to whom we have talked have been fired with desire to do something to help. And they do the thing they know how to best—they show in words and pictures the disgraceful and heartbreaking way many Letcher County residents have to live. This they do in an effort to convince other Americans who live in far better circumstances that their duty is to see that things are bettered here. (2014, p. A1)
Although the editorial was a rare voice in 1964 because it encouraged outside journalists to cover topics of poverty in the area and criticized the negative reactions from Letcher County to the War on Poverty, which varied “only in the intensity of their condemnation,” it seems its opinion is a narrative that is becoming increasingly popular in Appalachia today. The Mountain Eagle’s decision to repost this editorial attests to the potential changing nature of using community voices to discuss why previous federal and state efforts have failed, and how better moral and ethical efforts can be made in the future through a change in the language and framing of the region.
The observations suggest recommendations that national journalists use findings from local organizations that gather information on attitudes and practices around the target issues so that they can understand the issues identified directly by citizens from local areas. The difference in the representations of Appalachia by the local media and the national media suggests a potential need for greater communication between the people and the organizations representing the people.
The first limitation in the local and national media analysis is that only two specific newspapers were analyzed, which do not represent the differences in overall local and national perspectives. This research would have also benefited from incorporating data from a longer period of time so that the patterns observed in a higher number of articles coded in the media analysis could represent a larger perspective. Additionally, many of the articles in the media analysis were editorials, which can be considered a limitation because the view of the author does not fully represent the overall stance of The New York Times or The Mountain Eagle. However, because of the limited number of available, relevant articles, it was important to include the content from the editorials and opinion pages.
Likewise, there was only one article in The Mountain Eagle for the January 2014 coding, compared to nine articles in The New York Times. While this proportion is less balanced than the January 1964, which had 11 articles from The New York Times and 12 articles from The Mountain Eagle, the lack of coverage on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, perhaps, echoes the local media’s being fatigued from the extensive national media attention to the region.
For the media analysis, another coder was not employed, so the article is vulnerable to the subjectivity. For the coding, two separate coding sheets were used rather than one consistent coding sheet—while the basic coding categories were the same, separate coding sheets were adapted to accommodate the emergent themes that appeared in the separate media narratives.
The author would like to extend thanks to Dr. Kenn Gaither at Elon University for being the first person to point out she lit up every time she talked about Appalachia and for his kind patience, constant encouragement, and invaluable guidance. The author is also thankful to Dr. David Copeland at Elon University for his supervision and advice. Finally, the author appreciates the support from Elon University’s Honors Fellows program and her parents.
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A: Coding Sheet – War on Poverty (1964)
B: Coding Sheet – 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty (2014)
C: Coding Results – War on Poverty (1964)
Tone and Rhetoric
D: Coding Results – 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty (2014)
War on Poverty – Success or Failure?