Followup to “Children of the Mountains”

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Betty Dotson-Lewis, who lives in a coal-mining town in Appalachia, has a fairly blistering critique of Diane Sawyer’s “Children of the Mountains” expose on 20/20 last week. More than a eleven hundred people have commented on the ABC site, and most of those who live in Appalachia are far from gruntled at the coverage.

It’s worth hearing how people are reacting.  Complaints include a relentless focus on the down side of Appalachian life, stereotyping, and the fact that many people who want to help have focused on the three girls and the football-playing boy, which is easier than addressing the underlying conditions that cause such misery.

Here are the last few paragraphs of Dotson-Lewis’s essay.  The whole piece is here.

Many, many people from Eastern Kentucky are outraged over this portrayal of their region. They did not think enough positive was shown, deepening the stereotype of the hillbilly. Many viewers, mostly out of the region, want to send money to the little girls or to take the children from their homes.

Viewers are offering Shawn Grim a home, job, money and help in getting his college education.

So, is this type journalism justified if it brings to light a group of people in a region who are living in poverty?

These days we depend on journalists not only to report but interpret the news. The people of Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia were left high and dry on this one, however. This story brings to light a serious problem in Appalachia but the approach and editing offer just a temporary fix for a few, deepening an old stereotype of the Appalachian.

And here is just one of the comments on the ABC site:

Although the people in our region of souther[n] WV & eastern KY realize that an effort was made by Diane to show the plight of these families. NOT ALL people in this are are in this type of situation, I would ask that ABC would do a positive story on the people of our area, we get enough sterotyping. The other states in our great nation have some of the same problems. Thank You.

This reminds me of the time the Boston Globe did a feature about poverty and crime in the part of Western Massachusetts where I live. I knew the reporter meant to be sympathetic, but it didn’t come off that way.  I was livid, and I wasn’t the only one around here who was.

UPDATE: Diane Sawyer is from Glasgow, Kentucky, a town well west of the area considered to be Appalachia. I’m sure her heart was in the right place (although I wonder about the sensitivity involved in interviewing a coal miner with his boss hovering in the background.) I understand about limits of time (broadcasting) and space (newspapering), and wonder how Sawyer herself felt about the way her work was edited.

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5 Responses to “Followup to “Children of the Mountains””

  1. Diane Swayer is NOT FROM APPALACHIA!!! She was born in Glasgow, KY (western part of the state) and raised in Louisville, KY.

  2. I think you all are taking this story the wrong way.  I was deeply moved by what I saw on the show.  It broke my heart that there are so many children in our country that are living in such poverty.  Of course, this situation is not just in the mountains of Kentucky, but all of the U.S.  But, I admire Diane for putting faces to their stories.  Sometimes we forget just how fortunate we are and we need reminders that we need to be grateful and to also reach out to others and help them when we can.  You should be happy that your region was highlighted.  Maybe there are enough people out there that were touched that will help those unfortunate in your area.  How can you argue with it when people are reaching out to them?  We all need to count our blessings.

    Erin – Athens, TN

  3. Being in the medical field and following high school sports for most of my life, I understand what both sides of the families shown on Diane Sawyers special can be like. While visiting prescribing doctors in the area or region highlighted in this story, many times I would be met or approached in the parking lots of these medical offices to ask what products I had in my vehicle. Sticking out like like a sore thumb being in a suit and tie people knew that I was not from that region, often asking for pens, notepads, just to see if I was carrying a product of choice. Sad but true.

    As far as Shawn Grim, the exceptional running back for Johnson Central High School, exceptional athlete with heart, desire, dedication and I am sure support from the athletic department and the football team, school staff. Being able to watch him first hand, on several Friday nights, before this story I and many others had no idea how tough the young man had it. Makes you think twice before you lay your head down at night…An article in a recent publication of a local news outlet has proclaimed that several schools in the state have offered Shawn a chance to exceed on his dream, but what Shawn might need is leadership and guidance that can secure him a degree and not touchdowns. Great athlete and handled himself as a great representation of what anyone with drive and determination can do for themselves and if it takes a ball and a helmet to help then it just takes a ball and a helmet, those two things might enable this kid a chance at a different life….

  4. I spent the first twelve years of my life in this area.  I know first hand about the poverty, the coal mines and the utterly degrading conditions that existed then and remain unchanged today.  However, to have shown only the negative elements of this part of Appalachia; i.e. the drugs, the incest, the drunkeness, the filth and the poverty)as they were so painfully displayed, and not to have shown the sweet towns which are sitting literally admist all this, (Barbourville, for example), with its lovely college, quaint and charming homes and educated and professional citizens,  was to purposely, in my opinion, create a picture of Appalachia that reenforced the worst possible stereotype.  It would be equivalent to doing a piece on Philadelphia, for example, where I have lived for decades, and showing a family, mainlining drugs, engaging in street prostitution, and living in incest.  Does that exist, yes! But it is the exception. If that family were also black, the outcry would be enormous, claiming, (and justifiably) that it was racist and unfair.  Appalachia has it’s issues.  So does every other area, in every other state.  I am enormously disappointed in Diane Sawyer for depicting  her home state in such a “ratings geared” way.  It is true that she is not from Appalachia.  She is a fellow Kentuckian and has relatives, who, no doubt, felt betrayed by the irresponsible and disrespectful portrayal of the very worst elements.  It was a sell-out piece.  Lots of people watched.  Lots of people now think they know “Appalachia”…the Appalachia she portrayed.  I would like to do a piece on the life of Diane Sawyer, the behind the scenes, darker, more unseemly side that certainly does exist.  (Everyone has one.)  I bet it would get great ratings.  Fair? No.  But just “as fair” as what she did. 

  5. This 20/20 story was just awarded a Peabody Award. While it did present a slanted take on the region, I just did a post on The Revivalist: Word from the Appalachian South, defending it. Diane Sawyer was graced with an hour block of primetime television. (Such a gift!) If she had tried to fold all of Appalachia into it, the show would have looked like a disjointed infomercial… “Hear a banjo! Eat some cornbread! See the view! Aww, sad, some poor people. Don’t forget your camera!” Instead she leveraged TV’s greatest asset –the ability to create an emotional connection. She let millions of Americans feel the desperation of living without food, the instability of having a drug addicted mother, and the struggle to achieve security when economic distress is all that you’ve known.

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