Q&A with Local News Researcher Mimi Perreault

Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy and the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) are hosting the Local News Researchers Workshop Feb. 16-17 in Chapel Hill. In preparation for the conference, supported by Democracy Fund, CISLM reached out to a selection of the researchers attending to discuss recent projects, and why local news research can help journalists, community members, funders and academics understand the challenges facing local news.

The research and teaching expertise of Dr. Mimi Perreault — she/her, Assistant Professor, East Tennessee State University —are in community-media relations and media writing, specifically helping local non-profits develop strategic communication plans. She has researched local journalists, public relations practitioners and citizen scientists as both stakeholders and disaster communicators. She has been published in “Games and Culture,” “Disasters,” “Communication Studies,” and “Journalism Education.” Her research expertise informs her teaching in public relations and crisis communication-related career preparation. Dr. Perreault is also the advisor to the student-led regional publication, Overlooked in Appalachia.

CISLM intern Adejuwon Ojebuoboh sat down with Perreault via Zoom for the following interview.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: What’s a recent research project you’ve done that has helped us understand the challenges facing local news?

Mimi Perreault: I’ve been working on a group of papers with a group we call the Rural Journalism Research Group. Our papers focus primarily on how rural journalists in different regions of the country think about what they do and how they cover different topics.

We’ve written about 5 papers.

Our first one was published earlier this year. It’s actually called “It’s not hate, But” because when we asked journalists, Have you ever had to cover an incident involving hate speech?, a lot of them responded with, “It’s not hate, but I’ve covered this issue.”

And so for us, that kind of qualifying language was very interesting.

CISLM: What should non-academics — local journalists or civically engaged community members — learn from that research?

MP: I’m very concerned that we focus so much on disparities in communities that we don’t realize the resources they have.

My local journalist (in my community), who I text with all the time, I go take him coffee every once in a while, just to thank him for what he’s doing, because he is a public servant.

He brings a lot to our community because if he wasn’t in these meetings, I don’t know who would be there.

My journalist is valuable because of what he’s doing, and he’s doing so much, and he’s making a difference in the way that people see the community. And so, instead of thinking that is a news desert or a place that doesn’t have a lot of things, let’s recognize what’s there.

When I talk about natural disasters and rural communities, people are doing things with very little and actually one of my projects is about radical resourcefulness.

How do these rural journalists do so much with so little?…

So much research has focused on the limitations of individuals. We could look at some of the ways that they’re being really amazing problem solvers.

That might actually provide us with some great solutions for the future of journalism and its impact, even in larger communities.

CISLM: What’s a recent research project in local news that you admire?

MP: April Lindgren’s philosophy on news poverty. She’s from Canada and she’s also in the (CISLM) local news researchers group. When she coined the term news poverty, I think it really revolutionized the way that I think about what my journalists are doing right.

Because you think about poverty like we talk about food deserts. That was a real term and Penny Abernathy went with the direction of news deserts because it’s very clear. But, what is a food desert? There is food there, but it’s not good, healthy food, right? How do we get good, healthy food into the hands of people?

Same with how we talk about people living in poverty. It’s not necessarily that they don’t have food. It’s just that they don’t have the right kind of food to nourish their bodies and help them to have a good night’s rest, have their brains function correctly, not suffer from health problems.
Because poverty really affects your body.

I love this term “news poverty” that April coined with her collaborators.

Because a lot of the news we get is from social media and it’s at the national or international level. It’s like, I want to eat cotton candy today so I’m going to watch TikTok.

It’s not nourishing us or providing us with those critical information needs like (Duke DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy Director) Phil Napoli says. I love that term because, yes, people are getting information but we are so overwhelmed with information.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

MP: We all care about where we live. All of us have a home. Human beings like what happens in their community especially if we talk about crisis and disaster.

What you know about your community can change the outcome for you in a crisis for disaster. If you don’t know that you’re on the same power grid as the fire station, if there is a snowstorm, you might get to keep power.

Take Texas, for example, some of these rural communities that lost power because of the snowstorm 2 years ago.

People did not understand that their electricity was not produced in their communities. It was coming from the Midwest and it’s being shipped in. If that had been covered by local journalists more extensively, I think they might have actually understood the risks associated with where they lived.

It can illuminate things. It can bring us joy. It can help us be prideful for our community, and recognize the value of where we live.

CISLM: What excites you about the future of local news?

MP: It’s so great to see the funding and so many people excited.

Many of the people I train are teachers. They’re taking this information and they’re feeding it to their students in classrooms. And, it’s changing the way students think about the future of journalism.

Journalism’s alive. It is not dying. Perhaps it’s changing…the way that we practice it is changing. But maybe it needed to change for a long time.

That’s really exciting for me to see other people so on fire. We all have something to share with each other…

I’m really grateful to have this opportunity to get to hear from more people and engage with more people and see what they think the future of news looks like, because I think that it is bright. I think that it can change our world, and I hope it does.

CISLM: What helps you get through a long day of work?

MP: My kids and my students.

I have students that are making huge differences in their communities. They are local journalists. That’s why I studied this stuff.

My kids are the future and they’re thinking of the world differently because of how I think of the world differently now.

I think that’s what gets me through a long day of work.

Are you a researcher, either academic or of the practice, who’s studying local news? Join our Local News Researcher Community, a peer group that meets every month to discuss upcoming, in-progress and recently published projects. Sign up here to join this awesome group!