On October 3rd, BBC News published an article with this headline: “Among the forested hills of West Virginia, residents of a small town have taken to cooking roadkill to revive their flagging economy.”
The lead photograph was of an older gentleman missing several teeth.
The article was meant to document the Roadkill Cookoff, an annual festival held in Marlinton, the county seat of Pocahontas, where chefs both local and not compete for a culinary crown while county residents and tourists alike converge for the day. The Cookoff is a play on outsider stereotypes of West Virginia and is undertaken with full awareness of this, but the BBC missed the irony.
When I wrote to the photographer Charlie Northcott and directly to the BBC editorial staff to complain about these misrepresentations, they responded with justifications: “I hope the exposure will help…more eyes should translate to more visitors” and quibbles: “Overall we do not believe the report paints an inaccurate picture.”
Dear BBC: I disagree.
This article was indeed a rare opportunity for West Virginia culture to be featured in an international publication, but it was a wasted one. This is the bind West Virginians often find themselves in as the subjects of journalism written by outsiders, “parachuting” in for a day and then rolling out – forced to choose between existing at all and existing truthfully.
It may be that this article and its photographs are not technically factually false, but the picture painted here sure as hell isn’t true.
At this year’s Cookoff, when the sun went down, there was a square dance in the Opera House, a historic light-filled concert venue that hosts both Jim James of My Morning Jacket and the Pocahontas County High School Prom. A photo of this square dance taken by the DC-based Northcott was included in the BBC piece.
But next to this lovely photograph, the editors chose to place a statistic about West Virginia’s unemployment rate.
Another Northcott photo shows a run-down white clapboard house covered in ivy, with statements about the poverty rate in West Virginia and I can’t help but wonder how long Northcott had to circle around town before he settled upon a house that looked suitably poor, for the norm on the gridded and numbered avenues of Marlinton that immediately surround the festival is well-kept two story colonials painted pastel blue and yellow.
Yet another photograph shows a member of the Citizen’s Defense League holding a machine gun along with a quote from the fellow saying “CNN is known as the Communist News Network in these parts.” With a quick Facebook post, I learned that the man is not even from Pocahontas County. (“Not being local does not preclude the CDL member from having knowledge about the area,” argued the BBC staff.)
“I was just baffled,” commented my friend, local Pam Pritt, the longtime editor of weekly The Pocahontas Times. “I wondered if the reporter was at the same festival I attended.”
Pocahontas County is the birthplace of literature Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck, and hosts Allegheny Echoes, a local annual Bluegrass and Old-Time music institute to which people from all over the world travel to study under local teachers, one of whom now performs with Old Crow Medicine Show.
In the mid 1970s, it was home to more than 200 Back to the Landers, and it was twice the host of the annual gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light. The county holds within its borders the Gesundheit! Institute, a hospital combining traditional and alternative medicines founded by Patch Adams, and the artist colony Zendik Farm.
The county also has a thriving farmer’s market, where people can purchase fresh vegetables with food stamps. In the 1980s and 1990s it was also the headquarters of the National Alliance, the white supremacist group headed by William Pierce.
Pocahontas County is spectacular. Pocahontas County is isolated. Pocahontas County is conservative. Pocahontas County is radical. Pocahontas County is historically democratic, and a politically mixed place. West Virginia went Democratic in every presidential election from 1932-1996 except three and is also home to many anti-racist folks that support choice.
But none of that context is included in this BBC article. This writer chooses to highlight the county's poverty rate and present it as a Trump-loving monolith.
“I had the same reaction,” wrote my friend Andrea Larason, who grew up in the county. “I just kept thinking they were making so many assumptions.”
“Thank you,” wrote Amanda Unroe, who also grew up there. “My excitement for the coverage quickly turned to anger.”
I lived in Pocahontas County about two years, first serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA and then simply as a transplant, though I still go back about a month out of every year. As a former resident of Pocahontas County and as a journalist, this article disgusts and offends me. As an outsider journalist working on a book about Pocahontas County, I am constantly checking myself, asking myself: is this true? How do I know? I will fail, I will make mistakes.
Representation is fraught. But throwing up one’s hands, using images and stereotypes as clickbait and quibbling about the facts is a cop-out. This is exactly the kind of classist, lazy journalism that plagues national and international coverage about West Virginia.
I’m tired of it. It is simply not good enough.