Sunday, April 10, 2005

Much of the press is apathetic toward America’s heartland and clueless about the rural way of life, according to a two-year study of press coverage released today.

“To most TV reporters in the coastal network bureaus, middle America is a big red question mark,” said Robert Lichter of the District-based Center for Media and Public Affairs, which examined 529 print and broadcast stories in 2002 and 2004.

Crops, fields and farming legislation barely registered on media radar. Only 3 percent of rural-themed stories even mentioned “farming,” and only 1 percent had any connection to agriculture.

Instead, coverage was fixated on urban sprawl and zoning issues, presenting “rural America as a vestige of our past facing an uncertain future,” said Mr. Lichter, who is a regular commentator for the Fox News Channel. “It was not associated with agriculture of the countryside so much as empty space and the real or imagined qualities of small-town living.”

Journalists were descriptive but not necessarily insightful: Although they generously bandied about such positive terms as “pastoral” and “picturesque,” the press often ignored rural realities or issues important to family farms.

“The media frequently hollowed out whatever substantive meaning might be attached to rural conditions or lifestyles,” the study says. “Rural life was often presented positively but defined negatively — not in terms of what it is, but what it has ceased to be or what it may become.”

Network news has been the most apathetic. Rural coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC — and related morning and evening news programs — fell by 23 percent in the past two years. Between them, the three networks only featured 48 rural-themed stories last year, down from 62 in 2002.

Newspapers and magazines, however, were more farm-friendly. Rural coverage in the New York Times, USA Today, Time magazine and four other publications actually rose by 75 percent, from 275 stories in 2002 to 481 last year.

“Newspapers, in particular, paid attention to exurban counties encroaching on open countryside,” Mr. Lichter said.

Shoddy or shallow coverage of rural life is serious business to some. A Harvard University study released last month cited serious bioterrorism threats to an inadequately prepared rural America — a problem the press overlooked for the most part.

“Rural America and its problems are invisible to the rest of the country,” says the Kentucky-based 80-55 Coalition, a group of 90 rural advocacy groups who base their name on the claim that “80 percent of the nation’s land mass and 55 million Americans” are rural.

The group is intent on bringing media focus “on existing and emerging rural issues … to ensure that the myths associated with rural America are dispelled.”

Creative rural coverage is increasing among independent publications, however. Earlier this year, Alabama-based Progressive Farmer magazine named the top 100 places in rural America to live, based on similar lifestyle criteria found in upscale urban publications.

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