How do the major media portray rural America? And, how does their portrayal change during a presidential election year? That's what a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation looked at. It compared urban media coverage of rural America from January through June 2002, with the election-charged period June to November 2004. Rural subjects appeared in 57 percent more stories in 2004 than in 2002.

However, the increase was not in political stories. Rather, the No. 1 rural topic tht urban media addressed in both 2002 and 2004 was zoning and land use. "A quarter of all rural stories were on this subject, reflecting the attention newspapers paid to exurban counties encroaching on open countryside," says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Washington, D.C.-based CMPA.

Other major findings of the study included:

  • Only 3 percent of media's rural stories involved farming; just 1 percent of all sources quoted had any connection to agriculture.
  • Three out of four terms used in rural-based stories to describe rural America had a positive tone.
  • Coverage of rural crime dropped from one in five stories in 2002 to one in eight (13 percent) in 2004.
  • While rural news increased by 57 percent overall, it dropped by 23 percent on television, from 62 to 48 stories.

"The media largely presented rural America as a vestige of our past, facing an uncertain future," says Lichter. "It was not associated with agriculture or countryside so much as empty space and the real or imagined qualities of small-town living."

CMPA's studies in 2002 and 2004 examined the same 10 news outlets: The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Newsweek, Time, U.S. News and World Report; and ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news shows, including their prime time newsmagazine programs. Those outlets produced 529 rural stories during the 2004 study period compared to 337 stories in 2002. The full study "Media Coverage of Rural America: 2004 vs. 2002" can be viewed online at

Center for Media and Public Affairs for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation