Documentary, follow-up on children of Appalachia didn't go far enough, but could help; journalists have a role

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The ABC documentary “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” and its short follow-up stirred a lot of talk in Central Appalachia this month. But what action will ensue? That is the question the people of the region, and their journalists, need to answer.

Many Appalachian viewers of the first report had a familiar gripe, that it showed only the bad side of the region. Though it made a brief reference to the 1960s, the “20/20” show was not intended to be a progress report on Appalachia as a whole. It aimed to remind or reveal that “half a million people live in the kind of poverty we cannot imagine,” as Diane Sawyer said in her introduction to the national audience of nearly 11 million. She told that story through the lives of children who have been victimized by the failings of adults and are struggling to overcome.

We will always remember the stories of the football star living in a truck to escape his family’s depravity, the pre-teen girl struggling for years with her mother’s drug problems, and the girl who said “butter and ranch” are sometimes all her family refrigerator has. “Butter and ranch. That’s as poetic as most hymns,” said Dee Davis, who grew up in Hazard and runs the Center for Rural Strategies, based at Whitesburg.

And contrary to claims that the documentary was a rehash of old issues, it revealed something new: that a favorite soft drink in the region has so much sugar, caffeine and acid that it is responsible for widespread tooth decay and has even earned from dentists a name for a disorder: “Mountain Dew Mouth.”

But when journalism illuminates problems that raise questions of public policy, it’s obliged to offer suggestions for solutions. That was the main flaw many journalists saw in the documentary, which was long on emotion and short on context. Many viewers were also troubled by its report of an incest allegation in the family of football player Shawn Grim, which consumed a minute and 45 seconds of the 39-minute report and amplified perhaps the worst stereotype of Central Appalachia – a stereotype that isn’t supported by research. If that 1:45, and maybe a bit more, had been used to report on causes and possible solutions, “A Hidden America” would have been a more complete package.

There was internal debate at ABC on how to handle the topic of incest. Producer Claire Weinraub told the Institute that Grim's family volunteered the information, and "It took us completely by surprise. . . . We worked with them closely to determine what they felt comfortable sharing.  We felt that it was an important part of his narrative and was another example of the toxic dysfunction Shawn faced in his daily life."

To address possible solutions, ABC repeated the tack it took in a similar documentary Sawyer did on children in Camden, N.J., following up with reports on reaction and solutions. But its “20/20” follow-up of seven and a half minutes consisted mainly of retelling the story for viewers who hadn’t seen it before and reporting on the charity extended to the children as a result of the report, and on promises by Pepsi, the maker of Mountain Dew, to provide a second mobile unit for the chief adult hero of the story, dentist Edwin Smith of Barbourville, and help him with education and recruitment of dentists to the region.

Possible solutions were relegated to the last two minutes of the follow-up, and compressed into a blur of ideas (infrastructure and job training, green jobs, computers for every student, expanded health care) with only two methods of turning them into reality: stimulus money and philanthropy, one of the means suggested by this writer and the one that made it onto air. (ABC photo)

Still, by focusing fresh attention on the problems, the reports could help accomplish what Sawyer, a Kentucky native, suggested in her eloquent closing line: "These Kentuckians say the beauty of the mountains is calling to all of us, to restart that conversation that began more than 40 years ago." That’s when the Appalachian Regional Commission was created as part of the War on Poverty and Robert F. Kennedy campaigned in the Eastern Kentucky counties where ABC did its reporting.

The nation as a whole, and the states involved, should continue to bear some responsibility for helping Appalachia, but the region's problems are also local problems. They are often not seen that way by some of the better-off in Appalachian communities, who would prefer to dismiss the poverty, ignorance and depredation as unsolvable and the adults involved as incorrigible. But this was a story mainly about innocent victims, and the fighting sprit they show in trying to overcome them. They are inspirations, and a call to action.

Also inspiring were the follow-up’s final words, from University of Kentucky professor Ron Eller, the leading historian of modern Appalachia: “There are ways to think about the future in the mountains in different kinds of ways than we’ve thought about them in the past. We just need to be willing to dream.”

Appalachian journalists should seek out those dreams and ideas. There is no shortage of them, from the visionary, like specialty agriculture such as finishing hogs on forest mast, to the more immediate, like better dental care. It’s in short supply in Central Appalachia partly because Medicaid pays dentists so little, dentists say. More reporting is needed on that.

We like the attitude of Neil Middleton, news director of WYMT-TV in Hazard, who wrote in his blog, “Are we really mad at Diane Sawyer for reporting on a serious problem, or are we upset that someone is reminding us of images we would rather ignore? Remember, our mandate as journalists is to ‘give voice to the voiceless,’ or . . . ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ The images we saw the other night should make us all uncomfortable.” Instead of complaining about the representation of the region, Middleton says, “Maybe we should ask ourselves, 'What have I done to help correct this problem?”

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is supported by the University of Kentucky and donors to an endowment that is matched by state funds. To make a tax-deductible donation to the Institute, via a secure Web site, click here. To make a pledge, via the same site, click here. For the Institute's annual report for 2008, click here.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu