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U.S. Geography of News Stories

• December 03, 2013 • 1:31 PM

(PHOTO: DMITRIMARUTA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Most news coverage in America is focused on L.A., D.C., and New York. Can a new independent radio program change that?

How places are portrayed in the news impacts talent migration. Michigan has many openings for engineers. But Michigan is Detroit, a bankrupt basket case. Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM) attempting to change perception:

The BLM report says Michigan “is still seen in some areas of the nation and globe as an old economy, rust belt state.” To counter that dated perception, BLM and a cohort of engineering societies are pushing a branding effort to highlight the variety of engineering jobs here in industries ranging from furniture to information technology, life sciences and defense.

I wish BLM good luck. I doubt it will be successful. Altering geographic stereotypes is hard to do. Enter journalist Celeste Headlee:

We all have a sense that most national coverage focuses on L.A., D.C., and New York, and the statistics bear that out. In a recent survey of stories on NPR between 2006 and 2011, New York had 331 stories per year, Oklahoma had 14. You could say that’s because of population size, but even with its large size and population, Texas got less than half the national average of stories. …

… We’re doing something that the big networks won’t. In order to do that, we need to launch this show independently, outside of the network system. If we want to maintain editorial control and stick to our core principles (stories only from middle America, partnerships with local stations), then we need to remain independent.

Middle Ground is the “first national public radio show to focus only on Middle America, the states in-between California and the eastern seaboard.” They are trying to raise money to fund the project (December 4th deadline). The map for Middle Ground caught my eye. No states are part Flyover Country, part coast cool. Headlee refines the geography:

Coverage will include news, politics and culture in the states between California and the eastern seaboard, including Pittsburgh.

“We’re kind of drawing outside the lines on the map, a tiny bit, to catch Pittsburgh because you cannot separate Pittsburgh from the rest of the middle of the country. It’s part of the rust belt, it’s part of the blue belt, its definitely a middle type of city. And it has the same essential problem that we recognized in other areas of the middle of the country. Which is that it either gets not enough national coverage or the national coverage that it gets is stereotypical and not very good.”

The stories are intended to help readers and listeners understand these areas of the country.

Pittsburgh is the poster child for news coverage geographic bias. Until very recently, Pittsburgh was off the map for talent migration. The lack of newcomers reinforces the negative stereotype and acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pittsburgh sucks because it is too parochial. Pittsburgh is too parochial because everyone who lives there was born there.

Michigan has the same problem. Which is why I think Middle Ground is a great idea. Hopefully, Headlee will dig into that “talent shortage” story brewing in the Mitten State.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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