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Gary Younge
US election: 'There are people other than banjo pickin' raccoon hunters'

I make no apology for the raccoon. It came to us, we didn't go it.

During a day of filming down by Roanoke market, two women approached us while we were looking for interviews. They said: "Are you from the news? There's the news," pointing to a bizarre scene unfolding just off the main drag. "There's a raccoon on the street."

We took the camera. It was the funniest thing we saw all day, in a day without a lot of fun in it. It went in the video.

To a few readers from this area, that became an emblem of patronising outsiders poking fun at hillbillies. To a handful, the only thing worse than showing a raccoon cowering in the drain was the banjo music that accompanied it.

"Everyone does not own a guitar," wrote Linda Sims, who left Roanoke a few years ago, "although there are many good musicians in the area and all over south-west VA."

And then there was "deminva", who said: "This area, although proud of its musical heritage, is much more diverse than the twanging, backwoods image this implies."

"Could you please at least try to show that there are people in Roanoke other than hot dog eatin', banjo pickin', bible thumpin' raccoon hunters?" Christopher Franklin - who clearly knows the area well - asked.

At a bar and restaurant late on Saturday night, I was approached by a big guy who recognised me from the video and who may have had too much to drink.

"George," he said. "You're the guy doing that video about how we're all rednecks."

He particularly took issue with my comment that "there is nothing remarkable about Roanoke". The fact that, in the very next sentence, I said: "It's just like anywhere else. That's why we're here. It's an average American town," had clearly passed him by.

These are by no means majority views. As a foreign correspondent, I'm usually long gone by the time my pieces run and so don't face the consequences.

I've been here a week now and still feel I can hold my head up high in the Texas Tavern. I have long since come to terms with the fact that, just as I will write what I like, people will read into it whatever they like.

But these comments are interesting, raise important issues and - given that I'm planning to be here for a while - I thought I might address them.

So first things first. Journalists do have a responsibility to avoid caricature and stereotypes (although I wonder how many of these Democratic readers would have complained if I had gone to Alaska and done a piece on clueless beauty queens).

They have to balance that with the responsibility to tell the truth, be interesting and be fair.

That's not always as easy as it sounds. We are looking for the most interesting quotes, the most arresting moments and the most engaging characters.

By their nature, they are not always the most representative - but when the story is told in the whole, you'd hope to do a place, issue or person some kind of imperfect justice.

When you're dealing with places or people that receive either little or bad coverage, that responsibility should weigh particularly heavily.

Few people write about the Caribbean, where my parents are from, other than if they're writing about holidays.

When they do, they usually feel compelled to mention laidback people smoking spliffs, horny rastas and reggae. It's annoying, and speaks far more about what they are looking for than what they might see if they were slightly more curious.

Similarly, I have seen journalists report on black British attitudes to fatherhood entirely from a McDonald's in Brixton. It's lazy and, in terms of feeding popular misconceptions, quite dangerous.

But none of that means you won't find black British people in McDonald's, or that reggae, horny rastas and spliff smokers are absent from the Caribbean.

In the words of the black intellectual and civil rights activist, WEB Dubois: "Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasised that we are denying that we ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways, we are being hemmed in."

It's also true that no two people in the Caribbean, black Britain, or anywhere else will have the same view about a place. Instead, they will have their own sense of what makes it authentic.

Which brings us back to Roanoke and that pesky raccoon. Reporting from a town's main square, the place where you are most likely to bump into people, seems a fairly reasonable way to introduce a place in a four-minute video.

If I stood there every day for the next three weeks, it would be a problem. But for one day - and particularly the first day - it makes sense. Or at least it does to me.

The anxiety about being caricatured is a perfectly legitimate one, particularly in a city that's this size and rarely receives international attention (there are Finns here but that's a subject for a whole different posting).

I can't say it won't happen, because I'm still finding out about the place. All you can every do is try and hope that people will look at the body of work on this page rather than a single piece.

But the desire to proscribe portrayals, portraits and situations that you don't like or that don't chime with your own experience is no less a problem.

The same is true of dismissing an outsider's view on the grounds that it came from outside.

So Ralph Berrier, if you don't think this is a former railroad town, take it up with the local historian and everyone else here who has described it as such.

Just because a town still has a lot of railroad employees in it, that doesn't make it a railroad town. If it did, New York and Chicago would be railroad towns.

Linda Sims, if it's your view that everyone here doesn't own a guitar, take it up with the guy in the Fret Mill Guitar Company store. I was quoting him (I don't think he was talking literally, either).

He's from here, just like you. And he sells guitars, which I'm guessing you don't.

I don't doubt that musical tastes in the area are more diverse than twanging banjos. But down at the harvest festival on Saturday, they weren't playing gangsta rap, R&B or techno. They were playing bluegrass.

And the next time I see a raccoon in the street, I promise to look the other way - it wouldn't be funny second time around, anyway.

In the meantime, here are another few clichés that turn out to be true.

People here are really very friendly and have made me incredibly welcome. My next post will relate my night out shooting a glock with a charming conservative voter in Boones Mill, Franklin county (I have to learn to defend myself in case I meet another enraged Nader voter).

Oh, and since there will apparently never be a good time, now seems as apt a moment as any to show a video of two guys playing bluegrass. One of them has a banjo.

It's not my kind of music. But I think they're pretty good.

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