- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

The halcyon countryside is no more, at least on television.
Images of pastoral splendor and homespun Americana have been replaced by crime scenes in three out of four network TV news stories on rural life, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA).
A new analysis finds 78 percent of the stories focused on crime rather than agriculture or even lifestyle.
Currier and Ives impressions of country living have all but disappeared. Of the 337 news stories studied, only one in 12 characterized rural America as "quaint," and only one in six tied rural life with farming or agriculture.
"In television, rural America is what lies between Los Angeles and New York," said CMPA Director Robert Lichter. "It is both geographically and ideologically distant, and provides no convenient story line."
TV sensationalism prevails. Broadcasters take note when there are OxyContin addicts in the Kentucky hills or serial bombers loose down in the valley.
"Rural America becomes newsworthy when it contradicts typical impressions about the country life, when the unusual counters traditional thinking," Mr. Lichter said. "Who equates crime with the country?"
Indeed, 84 percent of Americans have nothing but positive impressions of country folk, according to "Perceptions of Rural Life," an analysis of life beyond the city limits from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Michigan-based philanthropic group also sponsored the CMPA study.
While TV news is rife with country crimes, the study found that print reports focus differently.
The passage of the Farm Bill was featured in 40 percent of rural stories in the New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today. Battles over urban encroachment on country land were featured in 29 percent of the stories.
Some observers believe that misleading media accounts portray rural Americans as rabid environmentalists, though "nothing could be farther from the truth," according to the Chicago-based Heartland Institute.
The nonpartisan public-policy research group notes such accounts were "probably written in New York by a writer whose closest real encounter with nature was a stroll through Central Park."
Meanwhile, magazines such as Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report almost ignored rural stories altogether. The study found the newsweeklies carried just nine rural stories between them in a six-month period last year.
Rural America is getting short shrift.
"What we need is more and better coverage of the 56 million people who live in rural America, both their challenges and successes," said Rick Foster of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The Center for Rural Strategies agrees, and claims that media coverage of country life is full of "negative rural stereotypes."
The Kentucky group, which says it aims to increase "public understanding about the importance and value of rural communities," recently organized a protest against CBS after the network decided to produce a new reality show based on the old "Beverly Hillbillies." The show brought a poor country family to live in a city mansion for comedic effect.
Some broadcasters embrace their rural side, however.
Australia's ABC network has an entire "Rural Department," www.abc.net.au/rural, and touts the prowess of "rural journalists" reporting from the field. The network offers 15 news programs and ongoing specials devoted to rural issues alone.

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