When Diane Sawyer promoted her February “20/20” documentary, “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains,” she told WTVQ-TV of Lexington, the main ABC network affiliate serving Eastern Kentucky, that she wanted to take the show beyond the stereotypes that often infect the information delivered to national audiences about Central Appalachia.
That was welcome news, and many of us native Appalachians looked forward to her report, because Diane and her crew spent two years researching and reporting the economic and social ills that plague a wide swath of the region. They covered some old problems in a new way, through lives of children victimized by the failings of adults, and brought to light some new ones, like the “Mountain Dew mouth” caused by excessive consumption of the highly sugared and caffeinated soft drink.
The report sparked much discussion in Kentucky and Appalachia, and could be a catalyst for solutions to problems old and new. Much of the discussion, however, was about complaints that it enhanced stereotypes of poverty, ignorance and perhaps the worst “hillbilly” stereotype: that the region is plagued by incest – a notion that, unlike most stereotypes, isn’t even supported by the facts.
Incest entered the documentary through the story of star football player Shawn Grim, who lived in a truck to escape his family’s dysfunction. After he became the first in his family to finish high school, and got a scholarship to attend a nearby college, there was an allegation that his half-sister was seen having sex with her half-brother. The allegation, by the mother of the half-brother’s children, was later recanted. But the half-sister, whose identity ABC obscured, spoke of it as a fact and charges are still pending.
Grim’s stepfather was shown loading his shotgun and threatening to kill the half-brother. Sawyer paraphrased the stepfather as saying incest occurs everywhere, and then showed him saying to camera: “Did you ever hear the old saying, the closer the kin, the deeper in? It doesn’t matter who it is, they lay down: black, white, crippled, it don’t matter.” To make sure his accent didn’t get in the way of understanding, his words were subtitled, as were those of some other speakers in the program.
Then Grim was shown driving to college and discussing the episode with Sawyer, who said he was “trying to upend all those stereotypes.” He said to camera, subtitled, “Us hillbillies don’t want to do nothing but drink and do drugs the rest of their life? Is that what you’re saying? Stereotype?”
Yes, it was. It’s hard to do any such story without raising stereotypes, but journalists should avoid enhancing them. As the SPJ Code of Ethics says, “Journalists should … Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.”
Telling stories through the lives of individuals can give journalism greater impact, but it also carries the risk of magnifying certain aspects of the subjects’ lives that are less relevant than others. In this case, ABC didn’t clearly demonstrate that the incest episode had any major impact on the course of Shawn Grim’s life. But it consumed a minute and 45 seconds of the documentary, which ran 39 minutes (an hour minus commercials and promotions).
Sawyer and her crew debated whether to include the material in the final segment on Grim. Producer Claire Weinraub said in an e-mail, “We had been following Shawn for a year when his family contacted us about the alleged incest incident. It took us completely by surprise. Shawn’s family wanted to talk on camera and 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.”
All true, but the story would not have suffered without it. Instead, Appalachians suffered more stereotyping. Still, journalism ethics is usually a matter of balancing interests. Perhaps a greater good, more discussion about the region’s problems, will result. That would honor another part of the code, which says we should, “Give voice to the voiceless.”