In 2017, 19.1 percent of West Virginians experienced poverty, 5.7 percent higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But poverty isn’t an isolated problem in West Virginia. In one of the poorest states in the country, poverty touches housing, education, health care and food.
While journalists throughout the state loosely cover poverty’s effects on West Virginians, no one was solely focusing on the topic. That is until Amelia Ferrell Knisely, a 2019-2020 Report for America fellow, was placed at the Charleston Gazette-Mail to cover West Virginia’s poverty crisis. Report for America, a service program created by the nonprofit The GroundTruth Project, places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.
Prior to the fellowship, Ferrell Knisely has previously reported on education and children’s issues at The Tennessean in Nashville and served as editor of The Contributor, a nonprofit newspaper sold by people experiencing homelessness.
Knisely spoke to 100 Days in Appalachia’s Kristen Uppercue about her reporting.
KU: You are a West Virginian who previously worked in West Virginia as a reporter, left, but now has come back as a Report for America fellow to specifically cover poverty after spending some time just outside of Appalachia. This isn’t your first time covering the issue, though. Can you tell us a little about how you came to be interested in covering poverty, and about the work you’ve done in this space in the past?
AK: So, I think growing up [in West Virginia] in Rand and seeing poverty around me definitely influenced my desire to be a reporter and what I wanted to write about. But when you launch into journalism, certainly my experience was not immediately becoming a reporter who could only focus on poverty. And so throughout my career, I always tried to do stories that incorporated people experiencing poverty or policies aimed at poverty, but I also covered a lot of other things as well. And while I was in Nashville, I had the opportunity to become the editor of a street paper sold by men and women experiencing homelessness. It was really there that my eyes were opened to the issue of homelessness in a way that it hadn’t been before and I did a lot of writing on both homelessness policy and housing policy, which was something I hadn’t had much experience in in West Virginia. While I was in Nashville, I also was an education reporter at the Tennessean and I use that beat to try to focus the education coverage on poverty and issues of inequality in schools, which is kind of how education reporting is shifting these days.
So when I had the experience to come back to West Virginia and report on poverty here, I am so thankful for that experience in Nashville because I’m bringing this knowledge base of reporting on those issues there back to Appalachia, specifically to West Virginia, and looking at those issues and more here in this area. So reporting on poverty is something that’s really been important to me since college and I’m really thankful for the opportunity to now do it full time.
KU: I think the folks reading this interview will know that the challenges the state and our region face when it comes to high rates of poverty aren’t new– it reaches into so many other coverage areas for journalists, like health, education and politics– but you’re now the only person in the state of West Virginia who covers poverty exclusively. Knowing that it touches so many parts of people’s lives, how do you approach reporting on the topic?
AK: It is a very complex and large topic. Certainly, my topic kind of bleeds into other beats in the newsroom, whether that’s courts, or certainly education. For me, I try to focus on the systemic issues and the policies that could be pushing people into poverty or keeping them there.
For example, one statistic that I keep coming back to is one in five kids in West Virginia faces food insecurity. And we hear a lot about children facing hunger in West Virginia. So for me, I want to break that down. Why is that? Well, it turns out that transportation is a major issue for food pantries. They have a hard time getting food from food banks. A lot of families don’t have cars so they have trouble transporting large amounts of food back to their homes, or now grocery stores are moving out and dollar stores are moving in and that’s limited fresh food for kids. So I try to look beyond those statistics and focus in on why that statistic exists and then maybe what policy is or isn’t in place that’s keeping that statistic there.
KU: Has it been a challenging beat to cover, both personally and professionally?
AK: Absolutely. I think the hardest part of my job is that I can’t fix anything right away, but the best part is that I can try. And I always like to say that I’m not giving a voice to the voiceless, I am giving someone a platform to use their voice through my writing. I believe that people in West Virginia know what they need. But we often don’t allow them to advocate for themselves or they don’t have the means to come to Charleston and talk to a lawmaker. So if I can connect those dots, I feel really thankful for that opportunity.
I think the most challenging thing is that I just love this state and I want to make sure that I portray people with dignity. I talk to people who live on the streets, I talk to people who are facing extreme poverty and I never take it for granted that they allow me to come into their homes to be photographed, to be recorded for an interview. That takes a lot of vulnerability. And I sometimes get overwhelmed at the task of making sure that they present themselves the way they want to be. I sometimes get overwhelmed at just making sure that they come across as the person that they really are in the story and not just a statistic.
KU: Do you have a favorite story that you’ve been able to tell so far?
AK: My favorite story so far has been about a struggling food pantry in Dille, which is a tiny former coal town in Clay County. It’s about an hour and a half, two hours from Charleston. And I had the opportunity to go to that town three times before I even wrote the story, which is really a luxury in the journalism world. And this food pantry is feeding more than 50 percent of the people that live in the community. It really was, in my experience, the worst poverty I’ve seen in West Virginia, and to see these four elderly volunteers running this pantry with such tenacity, it really was like a welcome home for me. [It made me sure that] this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell their story and show the systemic issues that led up to why they were struggling.
KU: I mentioned that you are from West Virginia and you aren’t new to covering issues of class and income, but did that mean you were fully prepared for what you found when you took on this issue for the Gazette-Mail?
AK: Yes and no. I felt that this is something I’ve been working toward for about five to six years, so it just felt so right. It felt like the right reason to sell our home and for my husband and I to move our family back to West Virginia. But I don’t think that I will ever feel prepared to report on such an important issue for our readers.
KU: We also mentioned that your work is part of the Report for America project– can you talk a little bit about that project and why it’s important specifically in rural areas?
AK: So, Report for America is a nonprofit that places journalists in news deserts and in newsrooms that need more reporters and beyond that, it’s not just about putting a body there. It’s about staffing reporters in beats that really need covered. For example: Poverty. The Gazette-Mail’s never had a poverty reporter before, but that was an issue that obviously comes up a lot across a lot of beats. And we also had another Report for America corps member, Caity Coyne, over the last few years, and she’s been focused on southern West Virginia. So those are two coverage areas that are really valuable for the paper that they had struggled to have funding for in the past.
This year, there’s 60 of us corps members across the country and next year, we will go up to 250. The program launched three to four years ago in Appalachia with three reporters, including Caity in our newsroom, and our founders really understood that Appalachia was a place that could use not only more investigative and enterprise reporting, but also it could use more people focused on the issues that Appalachians are experiencing. And the coverage there shouldn’t be limited to The New York Times or The Washington Post sending a parachute reporter in for a couple of days and leaving, and I really love that the program started in Appalachia.
KU: Are there any big projects you’re working on right now or hope to tackle in the new year?
AK: I will say right now I’m really focused on covering the foster care crisis in West Virginia. I think our state is really at a crossroads when it comes to how we manage the next few years of these children and their families. And it’s important to me to really spend some time digging into both the policies and the state agencies that oversee the foster care agencies.
Foster care isn’t spelled out in my beat, but I’ve taken it on because so many of the children who are ending up in foster care are coming from families that are experiencing poverty, or they’re more likely to end up experiencing homelessness or poverty once they age out of the system. It’s important for me to focus on the treatment of these children and just make sure that more eyes are on those tasked with keeping them safe.
I never really dreamed that I would have the opportunity to cover poverty full time for so many years. I’ve been telling people I want to cover poverty full time and so the chance to do it but to do it in West Virginia, which is why I had a love of the subject is just honestly, a dream come true for me and I feel really thankful even on the hard days that I have this opportunity.