A human rights & social justice independent major has spent two years comparing local and national media perceptions of poverty in Appalachia.
By Sarah Mulnick ’17
In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an unconditional “war on poverty,” pledging in his State of the Union speech that year to not rest until the war was won. His goal made headlines in newspapers across the nation.
Fifty years later, the headlines are still there, though national and local outlets do not always agree on the presentation of poverty in America.
It was that dichotomy that first intrigued Gloria So ’14. Her project, “From ‘Pockets of Poverty’ to Potential Prosperity in Appalachia: Connecting Mass Media Narratives of Poverty Stereotypes to Authentic Appalachia Through Photovoice,” is being presented April 29 at the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum, and it is the latest to be featured on E-net in a series of stories on research shared during CELEBRATE! Week 2014.
Two guest speakers also visit campus May 1 to discuss Appalachian media stereotypes in conjunction So’s photo exhibition that features intimate photostories of 10 community members in Appalachia.
“One story I heard that inspired me was of a guy who said that he never knew he was poor until an outsider came in and told him that he was,” So said of her work. “It was only then that he became ashamed of his roots and identity and who he really was.”
So, under guidance from Associate Professor Kenn Gaither in the School of Communications, has spent two years researching the narratives of poverty and the impacts that they have on stereotypes of Appalachia. She said narratives often differ between national to the local levels, and even among community members themselves.
The Maryland native and Elon University Honors Fellow examined how an Eastern Kentucky paper, The Mountain Eagle, compared to a national outlet in the framing of the discussion about poverty and its stereotypes.
“The national narrative has focused more on economic topics rather than social and cultural topics,” she said. “Locals are more likely to focus on social and cultural aspects of the region, so there are more positive connotations.”
Local community members also stress the environmental concerns that rarely come up in the other media, So said.
She said that understanding narratives are important because national descriptions can shape conversations about poverty. It’s essential that the communication between locals and national media reflect the truth of the former’s point of view, too.
Part of So’s research included workshops with participants from Appalachia, where she introduced her project and facilitated discussions. So included photos as a method in her project to better demonstrate the locals’ perspective on the poverty stereotypes surrounding their culture and community.
“The idea is that you’re giving local community members a camera and you’re asking them to take pictures and define their community themselves,” So said.
So has presented this research at three conferences, including SURF. As a human rights and social justice independent major, So has tailored her curriculum at Elon to fit her interests. It involves classes from schools such as communications, political science and human service studies.
So is also involved in Periclean Scholars, which she credits for her interest in Appalachia stereotypes of poverty; the Isabella Cannon Leadership Program; executive boards for Elon Volunteers! and Omicron Delta Kappa; and the Office of Admissions as a tour guide. After graduation she plans to start a job with a communications company for which she has twice interned.
“All of this probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been at Elon,” So said, adding that she was grateful for the opportunities that the university had made possible. “You won’t get this opportunity where you have this much support and resources and funds to do your own research [after Elon].”
CELEBRATE! Is Elon University’s annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts. For more information, visit elon.edu/celebrate.