Have you ever seen a news story reported in a national or regional media outlet about your hometown, or a place you know well, that portrays the area in such a light that you just can’t recognize it?
The piece might use anecdotes or other information about the area to make a larger point, perhaps to satisfy an agenda, or settle a score. It’s quite possible the reporter or the editor of the article left out a lot of relevant information because the journalists didn’t know much about the place before they got there and were spun by the sources who pitched the piece initially.
The premise of the article may be plausible, but because the writer is unfamiliar with the region or its history, a story that appears to be reported thoroughly can be one-sided or incomplete, and it’s evident if you live in the place that’s being singled out.
This practice is known as “parachute journalism.” A reporter visits a foreign area for a few days, collects information that tells the story using the slant the reporter intends, and then leaves without spending enough time or effort to gather other material that may temper or even contradict his premise.
A recent case in point was a lengthy feature in The Wall Street Journal that tried to explain the factors leading to the rise of Donald Trump with a local twist, using the collapse of the furniture industry in Hickory, N.C., as the backdrop.
The story opened with troubling data about the demise of Hickory’s industrial backbone, and how competition, especially from China, has affected the political landscape. “Disillusionment with globalization has fed one of the most unconventional political seasons in modern history, with Bernie Sanders and especially Donald Trump tapping into potent anti-free-trade sentiment.”
But that’s hardly the entire story. Yes, several of the manufacturing industries that built North Carolina’s economy for more than a century — furniture-making and textiles, primarily — have vanished, largely. But more modern manufacturers have taken their place.
More than 75,000 North Carolinians work in plastics and chemical manufacturing. The Lenovo computer plant in Research Triangle Park, the Cree LED facility in Durham, and the HondaJet research and manufacturing campus near Greensboro are examples of forward-looking industries that do quite well in a global marketplace.
In a number of cases, the new, high-tech manufacturers have set up shop where the old mills thrived, as explained in a response to The Wall Street Journal story from Hickory native and Appalachian State University student Eric Cunningham. He agrees that Hickory no longer may be the hub of the world’s furniture industry, but the city has adapted by embracing new types of industries — notably, telecommunications.
I was not aware of this, but Cunningham reports by 2000, 40 percent of the world’s fiberoptic cable — the pipeline that brings broadband services to homes and businesses — was manufactured in Hickory. Local furniture makers now produce high-end, specialized products. A historic former textile mill has been repurposed as a major logistics hub. And while the unemployment rate in Catawba County reached 16 percent at the height of the Great Recession, it’s now 4.6 percent, lower than the national average.
What really undercuts the WSJ story, however, is this nugget Cunningham cites: A 2015 study from Ball State University has found that while U.S. industrial output has grown dramatically in the 21st century, 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing job losses from 2000-10 can be attributed to improvements in productivity rather than competition from foreign trade.
Including just a bit of this extremely relevant information would have led to a much less dramatic tale about Hickory. Or perhaps none at all.
So beware parachute journalism — especially when the story’s profiling a place you know better than the out-of-town reporter who’s writing about it.
Rick Henderson (@deregulator) is editor-in-chief of Carolina Journal.