A metro reporter’s guide to covering small towns

(Editor’s note: This is a topic that had already been kicking around in my head for some time when I wrote it back in December 2012, and the out-of-town media coverage about the Blue Humans controversy made me decide to resurrect it.)
Erik Gable is the editor and publisher of AdrianToday.com.

Erik Gable is the editor and publisher of AdrianToday.com.

After a decade or so of covering the news in small towns and rural areas, I’ve had more than a few chances to see what happens when reporters who live in much bigger cities parachute in to cover a major story.

Plenty do the job well, while others fall prey to the temptation to pull out every small-town cliche and stereotype they can think of. Here are three tips for the big-city reporter who lands in a small town.

1. No, everybody doesn’t know everybody.

This cliche is a staple of small-town crime stories. Monroe, Mich., a town of more than 20,000 people, became “close-knit” after the death of 5-year-old Nevaeh Buchanan. (These “close-knit” towns are often also “gritty” or “leafy.”) And if the town has 10,000 inhabitants or fewer, seemingly every visiting reporter from a metro daily can be counted on to gush about how “everybody knows everybody.”

Well, they don’t.

Think of places in your life that have had populations of, say, 2,000 or 5,000 or more. The college you went to. Your neighborhood. An office complex where you might have worked. Did you know every single person there? Or even half, a quarter or a tenth of them?

It’s true that when a small town is confronted by tragedy, people have a way of pulling together to support each other. It can be at once terrible and wonderful to watch, and reporters want to convey that to their readers.

Here’s the challenge: Get the point across without cheapening it by resorting to tired (and inaccurate) old cliches.

2. It’s time to go somewhere other than the barbershop.

Yes, we know. The barbershop is where all information is exchanged in small towns — most of us just aren’t hip to that new-fangled Facebook thing — but, really, it’s time to give that cliche a rest.

Of course, the barbershop isn’t the only place subjected to this treatment. You can also go to a nearby eating establishment, gawk at the locals, and describe the menu in loving detail. (Salisbury steak! How quaint!)

But please don’t.

3. That photo you found online of the crime suspect and/or victim dressed in camouflage and holding a gun?

It doesn’t mean he was a killer in waiting or a troubled soul.

It just means the photo was taken during deer season.

You also can’t draw too many conclusions from the fact that somebody owns a gun (or has a concealed-carry permit, or whatever). Every so often you’ll see this fact breathlessly reported about a crime suspect, even one without prior criminal history, as if it’s a shocking revelation — something that disturbing in and of itself, regardless of any external circumstances. Maybe it’s an urban/rural cultural divide, or maybe it happens when a reporter with a personal abhorrence of guns lets his or her personal prejudices seep through. But in large swaths of this country, firearm ownership is nothing unusual, and acting like it is makes the narrative that much harder to take seriously.