Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rural journalists note the death of bin Laden; at least one points out hatred at home

Many rural weekly newspapers abandoned their local-only policy last week to give notice to the killing of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. Some did front-page stories with local reaction; the Todd County Standard of Elkton, Ky., gave it no notice on the front, but filled an inside page with the names of all the victims of the 9/11/01 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, overprinted with a gray image of bin Laden and a quote from President Obama. (Click on image for larger version)

Some rural weeklies ran commentary about the end of the hunt for bin Laden. We especially liked one that appeared this week, in The Woodford Sun of Versailles, Ky., by occasional columnist Susan Dunlap. She wrote that Bin Laden was "the Boogeyman" to her daughter, who turned 16 on 9/11. Then she turned to a local concern, writing:

"Is there an enemy -- a boogeyman or boogeywoman, if you will -- of local threat? A look through the police reports published in last week's Sun prompts me to answer yes. According to an account, someone left a dead raccoon covered in fecal matter on the steps of St. Paul's A.M.E. Church in Versailles. A more colloquial way of stating what happened: A dead 'coon' covered in s#*% was left on the steps of a church traditionally attended by blacks."

Dunlap said the news should have been on the front page. "At the least, it's the sort of news that ought to make us sit up and take notice. . . . In a world that has shifted its concerns toward an anti-Muslim bias, what happened at St. Paul's is a reminder that it's too early, at least in our county, to declare. the war against prejudice against African-Americans a finished effort." She went on to shame the perpetrator, writing, "What happened on Douglas Street is proof that there is a boogeyman among us."

The Sun does not put articles online, but we have scanned the column so you can read it here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Rural people 5 times likelier than urbanites to be treated for eye injuries in ERs; let's ask why

"Rural Americans were five times more likely than urban residents to be treated in emergency departments for eye injuries in 2008," reports Medical News Today, citing a report from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Neither source offered a possible reason for this phenomenon, but that's an open invitation for rural reporters to ask emergency-room doctors and nurses about it. When you find out, let us know and we'll tell the world.

UPDATE: AHRQ data show that rural Americans use emergency rooms at a rate 39 percent higher than urban Americans, but that accounts for only part of the disparity in eye treatment.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rural journalism wins Sigma Delta Chi Awards

The 2010 Sigma Delta Chi Awards for non-deadline reporting by smaller newspapers went to an extetsive series on "The Rural Health Care Gap" by David Wahlberg in the Wisconsin State Journal (circulation 50,000 to 100,000) and Paula Horton of the Tri-City Herald in southern Washington (under 50,000) for a two-part series on domestic violence. The Forecaster, a weekly newspaper in Maine, won the non-daily investigative reporting award for reporting on use of restraints on children in public schools, and The Times of Gainesville, Ga., won the small-daily award for public-service journalism for a series on the Chattahoochee River, above. The awards were announced today by the Society of Professional Journalists, formerly Sigma Delta Chi.

Wahlberg began his first story: "Throughout rural Wisconsin, clinics are struggling to find doctors. Hospitals are dropping nursing homes and doing away with delivering babies. Pharmacies are closing." The newspaper added in a graphic, "Good, consistent health care is hard to come by all across rural America. The consequences can be devastating." The series can be a road map for reporting on rural health in any state, and SPJ has made PDFs of all the pages available here.

The Washington series was prompted by "the recent deaths of two young women, allegedly at the hands of their ex-boyfriends, within two weeks of each other," Horton wrote. The series included short biographies and photos of domestic-violence victims in the Pasco-Kennewick-Richland region. The PDFs are here.

The restraints investigated by The Forecaster's Emily Parkhurst are defined as therapeutic, but have caused injuries to children. The story is available in online segments; links appear after the award's listing on an SPJ web page, here.

The public-service award to The Times came not long after the paper was embarassed by the failure to report its editor's drunk-driving arrest. Ashley Fielding and Sara Guevara did the series on the Chattahoochee, which can be read here.

The award for investigative reporting by daily newspapers of less than 50,000 circulation went to the St. Cloud Times for "Gambling on Growth," a series by Britt Johnsen and Kirsti Mahron on "the public cost of Central Minnesota's housing boom and bust." The public cost? "Government leaders who borrowed money to build utilities and roads that go nowhere are trying to figure out how to pay the bill," the paper said. Its pages are here.

The awards for feature reporting in dailies of less than 50,000 circulation went to Daniel Person and Michael Gibney of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, for a four-part series on the return of the gray wolf to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The PDFs are here.

Mike Tyree and David Miller of Northern Michigan's Traverse City Record-Eagle won the award for editorial writing in small dailies, for editorials about police misconduct. The PDFs are here. Jim Kenyon of the Valley News in Lebanon, N.H. (and White River Junction, Vt.) won the award for general column writing in small dailies. His work is here.

WCHS Radio in Charleston, W.Va., won a breaking-news award for small-market stations for its initial coverage of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. The small-market award for public service in television journalism went to Rhonda McBride, Jonathan Hartford and Amy Modig of KTUU-TV in Anchorage for "Pandora's Bottle," about the effects of alcohol on the unborn.

You might say there was another rural winner, in a newspaper that is rarely thought of as rural but probably has the best rural coverage of any American paper, because it devotes staff and space to it. Dan Barry of The New York Times won the big-paper award for column writing, for "This Land," a column that often visits rural places. Only one of the columns he entered was rural, but we note the award in order to recognize the good work that he does.

Peabody Energy victim of widespread hoax

The No. 1 U.S. coal company, Peabody Energy, fell victim this week to an Internet hoax staged by the activist group Coal is Killing Kids. The group, which says it is "an environmental and public health group that aims to challenge Big Coal's expensive lobbying against sensible updates to the Clean Air Act," announced a "Coal Cares" initiative and website through a fake news release supposedly from Peabody. The release offered help for asthma sufferers living near coal-fired power plants.

Coal is Killing Kids said in a separate release, responding to the hoax, "that it worked with the Yes Lab, a project of The Yes Men" who aim to publicly humiliate "big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else" by impersonating them, Ashley Haynes of CNN reports.

"Peabody is proud to help hundreds of millions of people live longer and better through coal-fueled electricity," the company said. "A growing collection of studies demonstrate the correlation between electricity fueled by low-cost coal and improvement in health, longevity and quality of life." (Read more)

Feds and wildlife group reach agreement about review of species for endangered list

The federal government plans to "work through a backlog of more than 250 imperiled animal and plant species over the next six years to decide if they need protection under the Endangered Species Act," Matthew Brown of The Associated Press reports in AgWeek. This announcement comes as part of a pending court agreement between the Interior Department and environmental group, WildEarth Guardians. As a part of the agreement, the group has agreed to "limit the number of petitions it files."

The "backlog has been made worse by lawsuits that have bogged down the Fish and Wildlife Service and prevented it from doing needed scientific reviews and restoration work," Brown reports, citing Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes. (Read more)

Internet connectivity expands educational opportunities in rural communities: one example

Super-fast Internet connections are bridging the gap between rural and urban education. In Redwood Falls, Minn., 19-year-old father Brett Welsh (left) attends college at an Internet learning center inside a former grocery store, the Minnesota Post reports. While some communities still wait for connectivity and opportunity, "Redwood Falls has reached across a divide that defines the new line between poverty and prosperity in rural Minnesota."

"A local bank, the city and Jackpot Junction kicked in $25,000 each" for development of the learning center, local leader Harry Davis told reporter Sharon Schmickle. "Local residents and businesses donated everything from furniture for the lobby to art for the walls."

Through the learning center, Redwood Falls is able "to bring higher education closer to home for the single parents, displaced workers and others who can't or don't want to break small-town ties," Schmickle writes. It also helps the city recruit and maintain dependable employers. "The first thing companies would ask is, 'Where are your higher education opportunities?'," Julie Rath of the Redwood Area Development Corporation told Schmickle. (Read more)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Amid growing climate-change doubts, animals provide evidence, and every state has a story

Animal behavior is providing signs of, and clues to, climate change. That's the point of the final story in a three-part series in the Charlotte Observer, "Climate of change: the reshaping of North Carolina." (National Geographic Society photo)

"Polls show Americans are increasingly dubious about global warming, even as most climate scientists say they're ever more sure that it's real," Bruce Henderson writes. "Oblivious to science and politics, Carolina wrens (above) and cedar waxwings seem to signal climate change with their wings." He reports that 18 of the 20 most common backyard bird species "have shifted their winter ranges northward over the past 40 years, national data show. The average distance was 116 miles." (Read more)

Just about every state and locality has a climate-change story. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is illustrating the state-by-state impacts, and response to them, with a short story about each state. The 50-part series began on April 22, Earth Day Today's is about Ohio. For the stories, click here.

Study finds poorer health in Appalachian coalfield, especially near mountaintop mines

Health is pooer in Appalachian counties where coal is mined, especially those with mountaintop mining, according to a study published in this month's issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The study, conducted by the West Virginia University School of Medicine, surveyed residents of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia by telephone and "asked questions about how many poor mental and physical health days they had experienced in the previous 30 days," reports Pam Kasey of The State Journal in West Virginia. "Residents of mountaintop mining counties reported, on average, 18 more unhealthy days per year than did the other populations."

“We don’t know exactly how this (mining) affects the air and water,” co-author Michael Hendryx, associate professor in the medical school's Department of Community Medicine, told Kasey. "Hendryx published a controversial study in 2009 that found better health and greater economic prosperity in Appalachian counties with no coal mining than in those with coal mining operations," Kasey notes. "He and a co-author concluded in that study that the costs of illness and premature death outweigh the economic benefits of the coal industry. A National Mining Association-commissioned an analysis of that 2009 study suggested that it had failed to consider the effects of obesity, diabetes and alcohol consumption." (Read more)

Meth makers invade Amish territory in Ohio

The Amish communities in rural areas of Ohio's Holmes and Wayne counties, about 90 minutes south of Cleveland, are being invaded by methamphetamine manufacturers. "In March, authorities raided a rural home in Holmes County. . . seizing what officials called 'yet another methamphetamine lab'," John Caniglia of The Plain Dealer reports. The Amish are worried.

"I don't profess to be totally cognizant of what is going on, but from observation and following the police blotter, you can see that it is here," Paul Miller, director of the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center, told Caniglia. Amish church leaders are meeting with law enforcement to learn more about the drug. In Millersburg, over 150 Amish men and women gathered for a meeting, Caniglia reports. Authorities say meth production can go "unnoticed in rural sheds and farm fields," making the Amish community an easy target. (Read more)

Judge throws out one suit aimed at blocking federal coal leasing in Powder River Basin

A judge has ruled in favor of the federal government in a coal leasing case we reported last August. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly "rejected an attempt by environmentalists to challenge the upcoming sale of federal coal reserves in Wyoming's Powder River Basin," The Associated Press reports.

Defenders of Wildlife, WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club filed the lawsuit last August based on "worries that burning the coal could make climate change worse," but Kollar-Kotelly said the groups failed to adequately support their claim of a flaw in the Interior Department's leasing program, AP reports. Another lawsuit by the group is pending. (Read more)

Monday, May 09, 2011

Duke U. study links gas drilling and fracturing to presence of methane in drinking water

"For the first time, a scientific study has linked natural-gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination," Abram Lustgarten reports for ProPublica. The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests "potential for widespread contamination of rural drinking water from drilling in the Marcellus Shale under Pennsylvania, New York and other states," Mike Soraghan writes for Greenwire.

The drilling industry has pooh-poohed the concerns, and is criticizing the study, but "Some of these landowners have a legitimate complaint. It looks like there's a real problem," study author Robert Jackson, an environmental chemist at Duke University, told Greenwire.

"What the study did not find is evidence that hydraulic fracturing fluid or flowback waste is getting into drinking water," Soraghan notes. "The contamination was methane, the principal component in natural gas, which can build up inside houses and cause them to explode. The study found average methane was 17 times higher within 3,000 feet of drilling than water farther away." Industry groups said there is no proof that the methane came from drilling, and noted the lack of before-and-after data. (Read more, subscription required) For the ProPublica story, click here.

Chesapeake Energy delays public release of chemicals used in gas well that blew out

Chesapeake Energy, a leader in drillers' voluntary disclosure of chemicals use in hydraulic fracturing, complied with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's request for a list of chemicals used at its well that blew out last month in Bradford County, but is reluctant to publicly disclose the information, Mike Soraghan of Greenwire reports for The New York Times.

Chesapeake spokesman Jim Gipson told Soraghan the company has complied with the state's request for a list of the chemicals, but "the company doesn't plan to file a report until it is done with 'completion,' the preparation for production after drilling." It is not clear when or if completion will happen and that bothers the official in charge of the disclosure registry, Soraghan reports. "You have to treat it like one that was completed," Mike Paque, executive director of the Ground Water Protection Council, said in an interview. "The chemicals were down the hole." (Read more)

In negotiations to raise national debt limit, both parties looking at cuts in farm programs

Cuts in farm programs appear to be a common element on which Republicans and Democrats can agree in negotiations to pass a bill increasing the federal debt limit. "Conservatives condemn them as intrusions into the free market, liberals denounce them for encouraging environmentally harmful overfarming, and both sides see them as a form of corporate welfare," Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times writes.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor "attended the first session of debt-limit negotiations on Thursday with a list of areas where he saw a potential agreement between Republicans and the White House, including farm subsidies," Steinhauer reports. While some disagreement exists, both parties tend to agree cuts are necessary, and even some strong supporters of the programs have said farmers should expect cuts.

"The scrutiny of farm programs is stronger than ever," Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, told Steinhauer. "It's not that farmers don't want to participate in deficit reduction, but at the same time, we hope people appreciate that all other federal programs have skyrocketed, which is why we are in this mess, and farm subsidies have not." (Read more)

Ogallala Aquifer, a vast reservoir that makes the High Plains green, is being depleted

Though "people continue to use" the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water supply that lies beneath the High Plains ,"as if it were a renewable resource, some geologists fear it could dry up in as soon as 25 or 30 years," Katharine Seelye of The New York Times reports. (Science Daily map)

The aquifer spans 174,000 square miles and supplies water for residential, industrial, and agricultural use in eight states. It supplies the center-pivot irrigation systems that put green circles on the landscape in areas that are usually brown.

"The Ogallala was first pumped 100 years ago to irrigate farms and ranches," Seeyle writes. "It is being drained faster than nature can recharge it, especially in the most arid areas . . . where high winds accelerate the evaporation of what little moisture there is." (Read more)