In December, Joe Burrow was awarded the Hesiman Trophy, and in his teary-eyed acceptance speech, he drew the nation’s attention to the poverty and hunger afflicting his home of Southeastern Ohio. His words sparked a Facebook fundraiser that brought in $510,150 for local food banks. This consideration was appreciated by the community. The reporting that came after was not.
On the tail of the Heisman ceremony, Saturday Down South writer Al Blanton‘s story on Burrow’s hometown, characterized it as a dreary and simple wasteland that he called the “Forgotten Ohio.” But, as someone born, raised, and currently residing in Southeastern Ohio, the place he described was unrecognizable to me.
After the article’s release, the staff at Valley Reality read it over, and shook our heads in laughter at the clichés and oversimplifications. Our professor, Hans Meyer, compared it to a satirical essay about stereotypical reporting in the South, which was a near word-for-word match to Blanton’s descriptions of Athens. But, as much as we laughed, the story really had an effect on the community.
Blanton spent a few rainy days in a village he had never visited before, talking to strangers about one thing: the “legend” of Burrow. He published a grim portrait of a town lost in time that worships this young athlete. This was a mischaracterized portrait that the world could see, and all the community could do was watch.
Locals and Ohio University students alike knew that none of these characterizations were true. While he saw a weekend of rain and unfamiliar locals, we see the heart and soul of Southeastern Ohio every day.
Southeastern Ohio is a lively region rich in natural beauty: tourists flock to see any number of state parks in the area. The community values creativity, whether it is through an organization where makers of all abilities create art, or a non-profit historical theatre, or a yearly music festival that attracts nationally-recognized performers. It is a region beaming with a vibrant sense of quirkiness, where thousands gather annually for a two-day celebration of a regional fruit that most Americans have never heard of.
Above all else, this is a place where the community is unafraid to celebrate a young man whose dreams are coming true.
In the upcoming months, the staff of Valley Reality will publish multimedia profiles of three Ohio towns: Circleville, Zanesville, and Marietta. Instead of “parachute reporting,” we are consulting with local journalists from each town to tell stories that are true to the soul of their community.
It is our job as journalists to accurately represent the people that we cover. We owe it to them to put in the extra work to ensure that we get the story right.