Ever since the 2016 election, the “Trump safari” has been a recurring feature of newspaper journalism: let’s go talk to some Trump voters and try to understand them. Let’s explain how they’re uneasy with changes in their country and the way they’re losing ground in the economy. Let’s help big city liberals try to figure them out.
Which is not a bad thing in itself. But as countless liberal bloggers have pointed out, it results in coverage of white working-class voters and never say, what black working-class voters in rust belt cities want. Nobody ever suggests that the Trump voter needs to have their stereotypes about big-city liberals challenged. And the stories just keep coming, over and over.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Jill Abramson suggests it’s all a failed effort: “there is little evidence that reporters have fulfilled their pledge to report on and reflect the interests and values of the people who voted for him. There have been some good dispatches from the heartland, but too often what is published amounts to the proverbial ‘toe touch in Appalachia.'” Why? Because they’re big city reporters coming in for a brief visit. The only way to get real answers is from someone who actually lives there, “to bring their audience up close to the different and difficult realities of life in rural America.”
Urgh. As a former journalist, I cannot begin to describe how clueless and trite I think this is. Okay, I can begin to describe it, because that’s why I’m writing this post.
First off, I agree that the loss of local coverage or locally based correspondents anywhere is a bad thing. If you don’t have someone attending city council or county commission meetings every week, and send reporters only when something major is happening, a lot of stories fly under the radar. Lots of things happen that people will never hear about. That’s bad because a lot of stuff that affects people happens in low-key meetings: development decisions, spending decisions, new policies.
And if you’re just doing a “toe touch’ yes, that can make it harder to give context. If an issue crops up again and again — in Destin, where I worked, that would have included traffic and beach erosion — a regular reporter gets perspective (institutional knowledge as they say). It’s a lot harder if you only attend meetings once in a quarter. But that’s true of everything that doesn’t get regular coverage. Lots of regulatory agencies don’t undergo the coverage they used to. Fewer local newspapers have reporters in their state capitals. There’s no reason to single out rural America as uniquely worth of an added spotlight
And “toe touch” doesn’t automatically equal bad reporting. It’s the nature of reporting that you often have to learn about an issue/community/person really quickly to write the story; full immersion isn’t possible, or necessary. If Abramson wants to cite some examples of how Trump safaris are getting it wrong, fine … but she doesn’t. So what’s the point? Is she upset the articles aren’t sympathetic or understanding enough? Because as someone who used to live in Trump country and knows lots of Trump voters, I don’t feel any more sympathetic about them than the legendary big-city liberal reporters. And why exactly are Trump voters worthy of more coverage than, say, black workers in the rust belt? Small-town voters in Ferguson? Orthodox Jews in NYC? Homeless people in LA?
The only reason I can think of is that as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, these people have a lot of grievances and white grievances have to be taken seriously.