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Editorial: ‘The Washington Post’ doesn’t understand Joe Burrow and Appalachia

Journalist or not, there are certain news outlets that most Americans are familiar with and hold to a high standard: The New York Times, the Associated Press and The Washington Post, to name a few.

As journalists, we’re often taught these outlets — among others — are the pinnacle of our craft. We read articles from major media outlets as examples of good work, and we all feel a twinge of jealousy when other student journalists land internships in such esteemed offices. 

But, despite all of their glory, publications hailed as the industry standard are not immune to irresponsible, damaging reporting.  

The Washington Post published an article Jan. 29 titled “Joe Burrow once made his Ohio town believe. Now he has Cincinnati dreaming.” The article is divided into three sections, with the first being about Burrow’s hometown of The Plains. Many of the assertions about The Plains and Southeast Ohio as a whole reinforce harmful, damaging stereotypes that Appalachians fight so hard to combat every day. It’s a pattern that keeps repeating as national outlets engage in parachute journalism, where their journalists are assigned to visit and cover communities they may know little about.

The overarching narrative of the piece is simple to follow. In a sea of mediocrity and complacency, Burrow rises like a phoenix out of the ashes. He led Athens High School to its first state championship and became the school’s first scholarship athlete at Ohio State University since the ‘50s. Seven years later, he led a Bengals team that had gone over three decades without a playoff win to the Super Bowl.

The article’s writer, Kent Babb, describes the Bengals franchise as having heartbreak as tradition and a “tortured fan base” — melodramatic but largely true. Until this season, the Bengals hadn’t won any relevant games in ages, and it’s a sports team, so nothing personal. 

Where Babb crosses a line, however, is when he ropes these descriptions of a mediocre football team into the region where Burrow is from: right here in Southeast Ohio. A sports franchise can be objectively bad, but a town and community are totally separate things and should be viewed as such.

Reporters from outside of Appalachia cling to motifs of poverty and hardship to describe the region — because they’re too lazy and out of touch to actually learn about the region and because poverty porn sells

When Babb says The Plains is a place where “kids say they are raised to leave” and describes the community as a “dusty old town, a place still wheezing long after the coal miners left,” it’s easy to tell he hasn’t spent much time here. 

Is the mention of the last strip mine closing in 2002 or that Burrow’s 2014 state championship appearance “erased all socioeconomic and generational differences” really necessary? To imply that the culture of The Plains and Athens is that of economic hardship and despair is intellectually lazy, journalistically irresponsible and downright insulting. 

Finally, Babb also writes “Most places never get a Joe Burrow.” How do you explain to someone who doesn’t soak in the warmth of The Plains and its sister city Athens every day that these communities on their own are our Joe Burrow? The star quarterback is only enlightening the world of their beauty — but we know their splendor has been here all along.

Our home has more to offer than just GiGi’s and a once-in-a-lifetime football player. There’s a college town full of people who have a lot to give, who recognized the beauty of Southeast Ohio long before Burrow took his first breath. We all recognize the moment Burrow is providing for this small town, but he didn’t make Athens. The people who will be filling up Court Street on Sunday to cheer Burrow on until their throats ache did. 

Editorials represent the majority opinion of The Post's executive editors: Editor-in-Chief Abby Miller, Managing Editor Bre Offenberger and Digital Managing Editor Matt Geiger. Post editorials are independent of the publication's news coverage.

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