What I’ve learned from two years trying to shift narratives about the South

Allen Johnson, coordinator for Christians for the Mountains in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, is part of a network of locals protesting and monitoring construction of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Photo via Lyndsey Gilpin.

A month after Donald Trump was elected president, my fellowship at a magazine ended and I moved from Colorado back home to Kentucky to report on the American South. Seen from afar through the national media’s lens, the place I love seemed sorely misunderstood and misrepresented. The entire region was dubbed “Trump country”—a title some outlets recently affirmed in their midterms coverage—and reporters set dispatches in strip clubs and diners while making a mockery of people’s frustrations and concerns. In many stories, glaring problems—systemic discrimination, pollution, and exploitative industries—were largely invisible. I was eager to listen, learn, and understand how to change that.

I started Southerly as a newsletter in late 2016, to shed light on overlooked news and longform stories about the complicated relationship Southerners have with their environment. As I worked, I also dug into the South—through books by Southern authors like Jesmyn Ward and Wendell Berry, through well-known magazines such as Oxford American. I traveled every chance I could to report on the ground or attend conferences, from the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana to Whitesburg, Kentucky, to Durham, North Carolina. Plenty of news outlets betray their biases when they don’t interrogate them; for me, Southerly was not only a way to dissect the region I’m from, but also a platform where I could confront my own biases as I challenged others’.

Related: Dissatisfied with the national media’s frame, Appalachia finds its own voice

That work won me trust and credibility, along with an audience of subscribers whose ranks include people who know well the nuances of this region but are often ignored by national media: longtime activists, students just getting involved in political and social movements, and more conservative readers including former and current industry workers and government employees. Readers, especially those from the South, have told me how hungry they are for stronger reporting about the region. They want stories beyond the Trump rally full of unemployed coal miners and the irony of communities who vote Republican despite losing land to sea-level rise.

It’s been two years since journalists who live on the coasts and work at national publications vowed to do better, to dig deeper, to reject stereotypes and take the middle of America more seriously. But not much has changed.

Now, Southerly is an independent media organization, currently funded mostly by readers via Patreon, that publishes original reporting about ecology, justice, and culture in the region. The first series of stories was published in collaboration with like-minded Southern start-up Scalawag and the century-plus-old Montgomery Advertiser—outlets whose regional and national reach could help shift the South’s narrative. As a freelancer, I can sustain myself reporting on environmental justice, energy transitions, and climate change, without reducing landscapes and communities I love to stereotypes.

It’s been two years since journalists who live on the coasts and work at national publications vowed to do better, to dig deeper, to reject stereotypes and take the middle of America more seriously. But not much has changed; they still parachute in, make assumptions, and move on. The real work—the work that’s reaching new audiences while informing national reporters and important legal cases—is still happening here on the ground.

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This past spring, I reported on the infamous “poop train” event, when train cars full of New York City’s raw sewage stalled in towns outside of Birmingham for more than two months, making people sick and causing disturbances. It made national news: clickbait headlines said the train had people raising a “big stink,” editors used emoji poop icons as the lead photos, and even The New York Times took advantage of toilet-related puns. Most publications stopped covering the story after declaring Febreze “freshened up” the area.

When I called the mayor of Parrish, Alabama, she sighed the moment I said I was a journalist. “You’re calling about the poop train, huh,” she asked. I quickly told her yes, but I wanted to provide more context for what happened and what can be done to fix it. I wrote a story on the issue for Scalawag about how the South has long been a dumping ground for other states and industries due to its lax environmental regulations, economic disparities, and systemic racism.

This summer, HuffPost assigned me a story on a federal prison being pitched as an economic solution to coal’s decline in Letcher County, Kentucky. The topic hadn’t received much national attention except for an in-depth piece by NBC News; the subhead read that the prison “may be this rural county’s only chance at survival.” Even though the reporter spent time with many people invested in the future of Appalachia, this framework—that the overwhelming belief is that there is no other option—frustrated many I spoke with in Letcher County.

By the time I arrived in Whitesburg, the county seat, in June, the distrust of media was palpable; for decades, journalists have written condescending, simplistic stories about poverty in coal country. I interviewed people who supported the prison, but focused the story on the potential alternative economic options and environmental consequences, and the historical context. Despite the rhetoric from politicians, officials and residents in the area were clear about how prisons didn’t benefit them as much as promised.

As journalists, we owe it to the places and people we write about to go into a story with an open mind, without writing it in our heads before reporting. I always ask sources what I’m missing or what’s been reported inaccurately before, and their reactions and answers often surprise me. They’re so rarely asked those questions.

The person with the most to lose, one reporter says, ‘is rarely ever the person who gets to control the widely accepted narrative.’

Writers and editors all over this region are working incredibly hard to make up for simplistic national narratives about poverty, rural economies, and lifestyles. As a photojournalist in Mississippi for the past nine years, Rory Doyle says he seeks out stories that challenge the backward Southern archetype, such as his photo essay about black cowboys in the rural Mississippi Delta.

Spending dedicated time on the ground is key to providing these perspectives. “The thing about stereotypes is that they only exist from 40,000 feet up. Get closer and they dissolve,” says Glynis Board, assistant news director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “We live with the people and environmental concerns we write about. Those relationships are rarely simple.”

Sierra Mannie, a freelance writer and Reveal fellow based in Jackson, Mississippi, says that to find characters and get to the heart of the story, she tries to spend time with people who have the most to lose. “That is rarely ever the person who gets to control the widely accepted narrative,” she says.

Most of the people who hold political and economic power in the South are reluctant to change or move forward with progressive policies, which makes it challenging to talk about abstract concepts like climate change, regulation, and economic transitions. But no matter where they are on the political spectrum or what they believe about a warming planet, people can usually come to terms about ways to access basic resources and keep their families healthy. Instead of asking Appalachians why they don’t just move because of poor water quality, I ask them how they use the attachment to land in the region as a way to get people to care about taking action on these problems. Last year, when a popular story was the renewable energy boom, I wrote for InsideClimate News about conservative mayors leading the way on solar because of the economics.

“I think it’s fair to say that our political figureheads and public institutions are rarely carrying the real and true stories of the places and people they represent,” says Maxwell George, the deputy editor of Oxford American, which publishes place-based stories from writers all over the region. “That work is in the hands of the people themselves.”

The South’s history is violent and severely unjust; its sense of identity is complicated and contradictory. Confronting these things while reporting on this region is immensely challenging. However, the more time I spend time exploring the rolling Eastern Kentucky hills, the rural communities of the Black Belt, and the disappearing oil towns along the Gulf Coast, the more constructive my conversations become.

As we reflect on the midterm elections and try to assess what’s happening politically in Southern states, I challenge journalists to reject boiling things down to red v. blue, or coal v. climate. I hope more journalists will take a beat to confront assumptions about this region. We should tell the stories that have been waiting to be told for decades, like those about systemic voter suppression, the fossil fuel industry’s constant efforts to block job growth, the impact climate change will have on the most vulnerable among us. Southerners are more than a vote or a sound bite; they’re unique, deep, and complex. The stories about their worlds should be, too.

ICYMI: Punting a region’s longtime political football—coal

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Lyndsey Gilpin is the founder and editor of Southerly, an independent media organization about ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. She is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, InsideClimate News, High Country News, Outside, The Daily Beast, HuffPost, and more.