The road to making small-town news more inclusive

Newspaper with missing coverage | photo: Adobe Stock

Huddled around a small, makeshift table in the local library, a group of African American women lamented problems affecting their community. Various challenges were making it difficult for black students to get a solid education in their school district. Kids lacked organized activities, which the women believed was fueling an opiate use epidemic. And people  didn’t have enough information about how to get Medicare benefits.

These issues, however, were rarely  discussed by local media. The women struggled to remember when they had been interviewed by journalists. One, a business owner, had never been the subject of a profile, despite its long tenure in the community. These women felt local media had little concern about what was happening within the African American community. They felt invisible. “Nobody knows what we’re thinking, because no one is asking us. No one cares how we feel,” one said.

Another group, of Latinx community members, met in another room in the same library. They detailed how local media served little purpose to the community’s many Spanish speakers: Despite the rise in the Latinx population, no local news was printed in Spanish. “When there are social events, this Hispanic community doesn’t find out,” said one participant. “They don’t want to take us into consideration.”

Nationally, pundits and journalists work to understand why different demographic populations make specific political decisions. This is especially true of Democrats, as analysis of what demographic groups support what presidential primary candidates has come to dominate political coverage. Scholars and journalists across the nation have increasingly become concerned with understanding how media can better serve communities of color; this includes recent work from the authors of this piece. In our November 2019 piece, we argued that local news narratives too often marginalize the voices of people who are “socially distant, but geographically near” the journalists who cover them. In that case, we made the assessment of Proviso Township Illinois, a predominately black suburb of a racially diverse city, Chicago. We have also looked at issues affecting communities of color in Philadelphia, specifically the city’s predominately-black Germantown neighborhood.

Yet as these pundits and researchers try to understand the voting and information needs of communities of color, they routinely ignore a large segment of the black and brown population. The women described above are all residents of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a town in Central Pennsylvania—a largely rural, heavily conservative part of a swing state. For this reason, the authors of this study, along with a reporter from WHYY, an affiliate of National Public Radio based in Philadelphia, decided to travel to Chambersburg ahead of the 2020 election to better understand the needs and concerns of residents of color within this rural location. We partnered with WHYY to produce a series of stories and studies focused on the community, which is in the heart of a region that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

With support from Facebook’s Journalism Project , WHYY produced two stories focused specifically on racial and cultural issues in Chambersburg, including one about the community’s Latinx population.

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For our part, we held a series of focus groups with different constituent groups in Chambersburg. Our goal was to understand residents’ information needs, and how storytelling networks operate. We facilitated four focus groups segmented by demographics—African American, Latinx, white, leaders of community organizations. We wanted to see how local media served their information needs, and how they shared information on important topics from within their community. Finally, we also sought to find out what potential interventions could be made to better serve their communication needs—a question of increasing importance today during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The pastoral myth of small-town America 

As discussed in his classic study of American journalism, scholar Herbert Gans identified small-town pastoralism as an enduring value within American newsrooms. Small towns, Gans argued, provide a stereotypical respite for people longing for a romanticized world where traditional values reign, and where community bonds are strong. Thus, when any news takes place that seems antithetical to this view, such as crime, development or other forms of change, newsroom storytellers construct narratives that frame such incidents as abnormal, or destructive to the wholesome ecosystem of such communities. Moreover, in defining the small town, Gans made it clear that there was a demographic element to nostalgia in such communities. Small towns represent white racial and ethnic enclaves, and maintenance of such homogeneity is key to the ability of such communities to retain “the good life,” as described by Gans.

Chambersburg was subjected to such reductionism by conservative commentator David Brooks in The Atlantic in 2001. To assess the differences between red America and blue America, Brooks selected Chambersburg, the seat of Franklin County, as his paragon of white rural conservatism. In the piece, which,  filled with tropes about life in rural America—urban residents “are certainly not as happy as we are”—Brooks worked hard to frame life in Chambersburg as a pastoral paradise where people get along, work together, and share common values. Such values, Brooks argued, were reflected within the pages of Franklin County’s newspapers.

People place tremendous value on being agreeable, civil, and kind. They are happy to sit quietly with one another. They are hesitant to stir one another’s passions. They appreciate what they have. They value continuity and revere the past. They work hard to reinforce community bonds. Their newspapers are filled with items about fundraising drives, car washes, bake sales, penny-collection efforts, and auxiliary thrift shops.

Absent from his analysis, however, are any discussions of the community’s racial and ethnic diversity. While Chambersburg, and Franklin County as a whole, are largely white, communities of color have long existed within this area.The town has a sizable African American population with a long history. Chambersburg was the childhood home of 19th century civil rights activist Martin Delany, and briefly the childhood home of late journalist Gwen Ifill. It should also be noted that one of the authors, Letrell Crittenden, is from Chambersburg, having graduated from the Chambersburg Area Senior High School in 1996.

In 2001, when Brooks’s article was published, Chambersburg had a sizable population of color: In 2000, the Hispanic population within the borough of Chambersburg stood at 6.3 percent, while the town’s black population was 7.6 percent.

Today, Chambersburg boasts an even larger population of color. By 2010, the borough’s Latinx population had more than doubled to just over 15 percent.  Chambersburg’s African American population also increased to 9.3 percent. Today, the most recent U.S. Census estimates place the borough’s black population at just under 11 percent, while the town’s Latinx community represents over 17 percent of the tally.  Inclusive of all categories of racial minorities, Chambersburg’s nonwhite population represents more than 30 percent of the borough’s residents.

As noted in an article published by the Washington Post, several school districts in Central Pennsylvania saw rapid increases in the number of students of color they serve. No institution within Chambersburg better reflects the level of racial change than the school district, which  has gone from 91 percent white in 1995 to 65 percent white in 2017.

Very quietly, places like Chambersburg have become just as diverse as major cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And, as noted in an article published by CJR in October of 2019, Pittsburgh has had its own problems covering and engaging communities of color as a media ecosystem. If things are problematic in Pennsylvania’s second largest city, how are the information needs of residents of color being served and in areas that have historically been seen by the press through a more pastoral lens? What problems are such communities having with local media, and how are they attempting to communicate concerns with each other and the larger community?

Race matters—The concerns of African American and Latinx community members 

What are some of the major concerns for people in Chambersburg? We asked this question during each focus group. Across all four groups, universal concerns emerged. Transportation was a major issue in all four groups: Chambersburg does not have a mass transit system, nor does it have any regional transportation offerings.Many, especially working-class people without vehicles, must spend money on rideshares, or walk long distances, on a routine basis. This challenge was discussed during the community leaders group as one participant detailed one man’s struggles to search for a rental property. “I want to cry sometimes, because he walks literally 14 blocks almost just to see if he can get this rental, and from there, he has to go to the agent’s office to fill out paperwork,” the participant said. “He’s walking and doing all of this. It’s a really big thing.”

The lack of transportation augments a second issue: portions of the borough are food deserts. Chambersburg’s primary grocery options are largely located in the eastern end of the borough. Other parts of town, notably the west end, lack any accessible grocery options besides drug and discount stores.

When it came to the town’s changing demographics, the discussion was much more siloed. Issues related to race or demographic change were not mentioned as a concern within the white focus group. But when posed to the Black, Latinx, and racially-diverse community leader groups, concerns over race and demographic change were discussed in heavy rotation. And in each case, the Chambersburg Area School District took center stage.

From the perspective of African Americans participating in the focus group, this rapid change in demographics, in conjunction with the 2016 election, heightened racial tensions within the school district and led to an increase in bullying of African American students. Several focus group members told stories of racial harassment and unequal punishment for fighting. “We had racism in schools, but not as bad as it is now, because now the white kids think they can say anything to the black kids, and the black kids think they can beat their butts,” one participant offered in a blunt analysis of the tension.  “Then the black kids are expelled, and the white kids are not.”

One racial incident involving the Chambersburg Area Senior High School did garner some regional attention. In September of 2017, an online threat against African American students led to the district cancelling a football game. Several days later, the school district held a community meeting to discuss racism affecting the high school. As noted in an article about the incident, school officials said at the time that racism was not a “pervasive” problem within the district.

The lack of racial diversity among the school district’s staff and leadership was another focal point for members of the community leaders focus group. Despite the massive increase in racial diversity, the district has virtually no racial diversity among teachers. Moreover, the school district has failed to train or hire staffers  to teach ESL. As noted in one of the WHYY articles connected to this study, the school district added just one ESL-trained staff member in the past year, despite the increasing need.

The language barrier in the school district is just one of the issues affecting the Latinx community. Virtually everything in town and in the county supposedly geared to mass audiences is only available in English.  This is despite the fact that Franklin County has more than 2,200 Spanish-first speakers with limited English proficiency. The lack of translation affects housing, as many residents are unable to read and understand lease agreements. It also limits residents’ access to services from the state and county, such as drivers licenses. “If you want to learn about us, you need to speak English,” said one community leader who works close with the Latinx community. “That is the philosophy.”

The ghost paper in the emerging news desert

Latinx and African American residents issues were of no concern to local media, participants of the focus groups said. As previously mentioned, African American residents struggled to remember when members of the black community were featured in the local newspaper, the Public Opinion, except for criminal activity. For members of the Latinx community, the issue was twofold: They were not featured except for criminal activity, and the paper was of little use to residents of the community anyway, since no local media in the county has any offering in Spanish.

It would not be fair to say that problematic news coverage was only a concern to residents of color. More than any other issue, residents in all four groups were disturbed by the lack of coverage of local issues, notably within the Public Opinion. 

Owned by Gannett, the Public Opinion has drastically cut its staff over the past decade. Vicki Taylor, a former staff member who now runs her own hyperlocal news site the Franklin County Free Press, noted that during her tenure, the paper had more than 20 staff members. Now, the newspaper has only three, and each reports to an editor out of York, Pennsylvania, the location of a larger Gannett subsidiary. With the reduction in staff, the Public Opinion is largely offering news that is not local, and failing to cover basic items traditional to news coverage, effectively becoming a “ghost newspaper.” The size of the newspaper has also shrunk dramatically. As a result, respondents suggested they have little use for the newspaper in its current form, at least as it pertains to collecting local news.

“You go to the borough council meetings, and there is no one from the press to report,” said a participant from the community leaders groups. “Members of the borough council lament the fact there’s no one there to record this information for the community.” “They used to print in here, and had a whole staff and had a whole array of photographers and reporters,” said a member of the non-POC group. “It shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. Now they have just a couple local things.”

Trust was also a major issue across the focus groups. For varying reasons, people expressed a lack of trust for the content coming over of the newspaper. Several of the residents of the all-white focus group expressed concern that the Public Opinion carried a liberal bias. “This is the main reason I don’t mess with it anymore. The letters to the editor, you can tell that those are leftist views. This is a conservative county. You’d expect it to be majority conservative views and opinions of what’s going on.”

For some people in the African American and Latinx communities, issues of representation were major issues of concern. Members of the African American focus group lamented about how local news covered “the third ward.” The borough’s council district, which covers the southwestern quadrant of town, is often used as a euphemism for the borough’s black and brown communities, given that much of each population lives within this district. Unless the news is negative, participants said the residents of the third ward are not covered.

“I don’t think they’re reflected at all. I don’t feel like even in this community there’s space for black people, because I think we’re truly ignored. I mean we exist, and they know we’re here, but that’s it. I mean, I don’t think we get much opportunity to show ourselves,” one participant said.

On the rare occasions community leaders of color were interviewed by local media, they said they were not pleased with their treatment by reporters. One African American community leader, for example, felt he was serially misrepresented by local media. “I’ve had great conversations with journalists. What they print is very different then the conversation,” he said. “It got to a point for me … I would say, are you planning on printing what I say?”

Once, a participant from the Latinx focus group was interviewed. While he was pleased with the story—a profile on the lived experiences of Hispanic community members —he was taken aback by the reporter’s reaction when he showed up for the interview. “I worked in the fields. He thought I was going to show up (in work clothes). When he saw me, he told me I didn’t look like a fieldworker. I also remember that, in reality, for me, it was a bit of a bad experience.”

Repeated attempts to connect with the Public Opinion for an interview were not returned.

Beyond the Public Opinion, news options are limited, and many of the participants were not aware of all of the options. While a few members of the non-POC focus group were aware of  Vicki Taylor’s  Franklin County Free Press,esidents of color had no idea of the one-year-old operation’s existence. White participants, depending on political persuasion, also mentioned two other news sources. One was a local conservative talk station that does on occasion offer news coverage. The other was the Progress Pod, a left-leaning podcast that features local residents discussing various issues. While community leaders of color were familiar with the podcast, they did not consume information from the talk radio station. African American and Latinx focus group respondents were completely unaware of either option.

Old-school silos—communication assets 

Given the lack of connection local residents have with local media, how do they share and receive information on important topics? Local residents often rely upon other means of communication to spread news. Digital interpersonal communication, via social media, emailed newsletters, and text messages, represent a significant way local residents share news and information. In-person communication plays another significant role in how people communicate. Residents talked of learning information at church, in grocery lines and at community meetings. While social media is big, residents and community leaders also noted that bulletin boards in the local library, in churches, and inside of gas station convenience stores were places where people could share and receive information. This is especially true within the Latinx community, given the lack of Spanish-language options.

So does this suggest that, on some level, Chambersburg has the kind of small-town communication network described by Brooks? Not according to the focus group discussions. While information is certainly shared informally, residents and community leaders, directly and indirectly, said that much of the information shared stays within silos. Certain areas, like the library, offer universal points of communication for English-speaking residents, but a lot of information shared within Chambersburg fails to go beyond groups of friends or others who have common backgrounds or interests. These divisions were significantly highlighted when residents discussed services or interventions that others were not aware of , notably as it pertained to language services and transportation. In both the community leader and white focus groups, participants argued over the impact of a specific transportation option, Rabbit Transit, for working-class and elderly residents. Some were not aware it existed, while others complained information about the service was not readily available. When it came to Spanish translation services, people who were a part of certain civic organizations rattled off a number of initiatives taking place in town, notably affiliated with a church community. There was a problem, however. Members representing the Latinx community said they had never heard of any of these services. “Okay, well, I need to find out,” said one leader within the Latinx community after learning of the services. “The folks I’ve talked to would like to attend these things, and don’t know.”

“The communication is not good,” another community leader said.

Given the English-dominant nature of communication in Chambersburg and Franklin County, those who want to reach Latinx residents have turned to Facebook and flyers in specific locations. Outreach efforts are further complicated by the regional diversity of the Latinx community. A large portion of the community originated in Guatemala and other regions in Central and South America. As a result, much of the communication within the Latinx community gets siloed along lines of nationality. “(News in the Latinx) community doesn’t travel fast,” one participant said. “Only among groups of friends.”

Churches may also not be as intentional as they once were in sharing and exchanging information, notably across racial lines. As noted in the African American focus group, Chambersburg’s churches once did more across denominational lines. “We used to have a community choir,” one participant in the African American focus group said. “The white churches, the black churches, used to get together and sing. They don’t do that anymore. . . People in the community used to get together for Martin Luther King Day. They don’t do that anymore.”

Solutions

Despite the multitude of issues, residents across the focus groups felt that it was possible to improve how news and information needs are served in Chambersburg. First, In terms of coverage, all four focus groups said any intervention should focus on local news, and focus on news beyond crime stories and other negative pieces. Additionally, the participants recognized that the number of people covering Chambersburg needed to be increased. Across the board, local residents exhibited a great deal of media literacy regarding the economic issues affecting the news industry. They seemed fully aware of the economic reasons why there were fewer reporters in their community. As a result, the groups sought ways to augment the number of reporters within Chambersburg in a more cost-effective manner. Given the proximity of several colleges, one idea floated was that a local university could provide students to cover different issues within the community. Journalism training was also an idea pitched. If local residents could be trained to create stories about the community, they could likely fill gaps left by the reductions in news staff.

In addition, members of the African American and Latinx communities suggested that certain reporters needed to be trained to specifically deal with issues within their communities, and provide reporting that showed a much more expansive picture of their respective communities than has traditionally been offered. One African American focus group member argued that, given the legacy of poor reporting and invisibility of communities of color, reporters who cover these marginalized populations should see themselves as more than reporters. They should function as advocates for marginalized voices within the community.

“Speak up. If you go to the Chamber of Commerce . . . and they’re talking about the Third Ward, because that’s supposed to be a disgrace to the community, and you know something about the third ward because you’re covering (it) as well at this particular meeting, you need to speak up and not let that negativity fester.”

For the Latinx community, more representation wasn’t enough. The community needed to offer more offering in Spanish to allow the Latinx community to more fully participate as citizens. This should include, participants said, some sort of news coverage focused on the Latinx community, and provide stories in both English and Spanish. Members of the focus group concluded it was necessary to have stories about the Latinx community in English and Spanish, if for no other reason than to provide positive stories about the Latinx community to the larger population. “This has to be more directed toward the (non-Latinx community) , so that they get to know us and see that we’re not all that they say. That we’re people that have come because we need work and come in search of a better future,” one Latinx participant said.

Summary of findings and next steps

Based on our focus groups, we have reached the following conclusions:

  • Focus groups participants on the whole were dissatisfied with local news coverage of their community. However discussions revealed three distinctly siloed local communication networks, largely segmented by racial and language barriers.
  • In discussions, participants expressed a desire for more coverage of local issues, notably as they pertain to transportation, local government, community profiles of residents and other “good news.” Issues related to diversity and the school district are of importance to both the Latinx and African American communities.
  • Latinx and African American populations felt invisible within news coverage, apart from crime stories. Few had regular contact with local reporters, including community leaders and business owners.
  • Spanish speakers had virtually no sources, news or otherwise, that relayed basic important information. Translation services are desperately needed to help this community better connect with the larger public sphere. Latinx residents sought more bilingual news stories. This would keep Spanish-speaking residents informed and help improve relationships between the Latinx community and English-speaking Chambersburg.
  • Ideas for improving news coverage included training citizens to produce stories, and partnering with local colleges and universities that can provide students to cover the news.

Responding to the information needs our study revealed, we will be hosting a series of follow-up conversations with community members, in collaboration with WHYY

to discuss ways to improve coverage of communities of color in the area. Due to the current pandemic, these conversations will be shifted online, as we look for ways to bridge digital and language divides to ensure robust participation particularly among African American and Latinx residents.

Some of the larger findings revealed during our focus group discussions have taken on a new level of importance given the dangers posed by Covid-19. First and foremost, it is a matter of public health that more news and information be made available in Spanish and other languages. Should local residents lack the means to know what resources are available to them during this time due to a language barrier, or if they are forced to leave their homes as a result of a lack of translation options, they are putting themselves and others at risk of infection. The Public Opinion has announced that it is suspending its paywall to allow residents access to important information. This serves little purpose, however, for those who do not read English.

Moreover, it is also imperative to understand how all portions of the community are grappling with this pandemic. If the goal is to keep the community abreast of vital information, both the local news community, and local officials must recognize that the traditional manner in which they attempt to connect with local residents is not accessible or fully embraced by wide portions of the community. Understanding how local residents consume and share information, and what they are willing to trust, is indeed a public health issue. It is on both the news community and local community leaders to acknowledge the lack of reach they have, and find ways to effectively share information with all segments of the community.

We also hope this piece serves as a reminder for the news industry as a whole. Pittsburgh-based artist Alisha Wormsley garnered national attention in 2018 when she produced an art display that declared “there are black people in the future.” This article will hopefully remind journalists that there are black and brown people in rural and small town America, and their voices deserve attention, particularly during a pandemic, and in a year where their votes may also play a significant role in who will or will not serve as President of the United States.

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Letrell Deshan Crittenden and Andrea Wenzel are fellows for the Tow Center and co-facilitate the Germantown Info Hub project. Crittenden is program director and assistant professor of communication at Thomas Jefferson University where his research focuses on issues related to diversity and inclusion in media, and community and engaged journalism. Wenzel is an assistant professor at Temple University where her research focuses on initiatives to create more connected and inclusive communities through engaged journalism and solutions journalism.