Christopher Ingraham, a writer with The Washington Post, may be a perfect test case—a national reporter at a national media outlet, who recently pulled up stakes and moved to rural Red Lake County, Minnesota. When I spoke with him, he had just arrived home after an hour-long drive to a radio interview in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It’s the closest town with a studio.
Ingraham, formerly from Baltimore, could be forgiven for expecting a bit of culture shock. Instead, he’s had almost none. “When reporters or academics play up the differences between the middle of the country and the outside of it, I think they’re actually reinforcing those differences,” he said. “If we get too hardened into this ‘Oh, the middle of country is really different and we need to understand them better,’ there’s the danger of creating this new narrative that just completely misses out on the actual complexity and reality here.”
Moving to the country has definitely helped his reporting, Ingraham says. It’s given him insight on issues important to rural communities, such as hunting and guns rights. (He just shot his first six-point buck.) But it didn’t help him predict the election. Here’s an excerpt from a story he published on November 13:
Voters in Red Lake County voted for Trump in a landslide, 61 percent to 29 percent. More striking, Clinton’s showing here was the worst of any Democratic presidential candidate since at least 1960. Given the vociferous campaign that played out on TV — and seemingly across the country — I wondered how such a dramatic political shift could be happening in an almost hidden way among my neighbors. It was, in some way, no surprise that busy reporters based in D.C. and traveling nonstop around the country had not grasped the entirety of this shift. I lived here every day. I missed it, too.
To be fair, Red Lake County is also a bit of a bubble. “Some of them view Minneapolis as a crime-ridden hellhole, whereas in D.C., you think of Minneapolis as this nice place with organic grocers and farmers markets,” Ingraham said, laughing. “It absolutely does go both ways… and Donald Trump tried to capitalize that, saying that you’ll get shot walking down the street in Baltimore. That’s just nonsense.”
Media organizations have struggled for a long time with a habit of hiring identical people. More than 80 percent of newsroom employees are white, according to a recent survey. That makes the calls to increase representation of disaffected white Americans sound a bit tone-deaf. “There’s not enough diversity in terms of other minority groups,” said Dori Zinn, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ diversity committee. “I think there actually might be too much of the, quote, ‘white working class.’ I’m unsure if that argument is necessarily sound.”
Then again, efforts to increase diversity don’t have to move along just one axis. Prioritizing a diversity of experience could mean hiring more people of color. It could also meaning hiring reporters with disabilities, or people with associate degrees from community colleges. All of these perspectives would enrich coverage.
But in predicting the next Trumpian surprise, there may be an even simpler solution. Washington, D.C., and New York are famously cities of domestic expatriates; many of the people who live there originally grew up somewhere else. As I look around my immediate vicinity in the newsroom, I can see a guy from Florida, two people from Nevada, a New Yorker from the Rust Belt, and an Iowan. As our phone conversation came to a close, Ingraham noted that journalists could probably learn a lot just by talking to people in their hometowns. “Actually go out there and listen to them… don’t just get a few Facebook comments and call it a day,” he said. The fix to the nation’s nearsightedness—and there’s a long, hard climb ahead—could start with a closer look at ourselves.