Saturday, June 23, 2018

Newspapers cut back as newsprint tariffs bring double-digit increases in their second largest expense, printing

Rolls of newsprint at Paddock Publications in Schaumburg, Ill.
(Photo by David Kasnic for The Washington Post)
New tariffs on Canadian newsprint are shrinking newspapers, and could drive some small community papers out of business, reports Jackie Spinner of The Washington Post after a trip to Illinois, which probably has more newspapers than any other state, about 600.

"Nearly half the newspapers surveyed by the Illinois Press Association had reduced their page counts in early May because of the newsprint tariffs," Spinner reports. "If the tariffs become permanent, 40 percent of the respondents said they expected to reduce staff, and more than half would not fill open positions. Others planned to reduce publishing days or change the size of their format. Some said they would stop printing for civic and community groups, which they do free."

Another likely cut: fewer printed editions each week, as The Natchez Democrat in Mississippi just announced, dropping its "least profitable" days, Monday and Saturday.

The Commerce Department imposed tariffs of 6.5 percent and 22 percent in January and March, respectively. The International Trade Commission has scheduled a hearing on them July 17; if it rules against them, or Commerce demurs, they would expire.

The tariff squeeze has been especially bad for rural and other community papers, which have been the healthiest part of the newspaper industry partly because they still enjoy reasonably strong print circulation. Now, with a 30 percent increase in their second-large expense, more are looking to sell. “We’ve gotten more calls about little newspapers for sale this year than I can ever remember,” Scott Stone, chief executive of the Daily Herald Media Group in Northern Illinois, told Spinner.

Rick Campbell, a partner in C & R Media, which has five small papers in Southern Illinois, told Spinner, “I have major concerns for the whole industry, but especially small community papers in rural America, where papers have a very strong presence in people’s everyday lives.”

“I’m very rural,” he told Spinner. “I have four community papers under 2,000 circulation. When you talk about those small numbers, that’s significant. This increase in cost for me is actually hiring someone, another paid employee.”

Also in Southern Illinois, Jeff Egbert of the Pinckneyville Press and the DuQuoin Weekly "said a 30 percent increase in costs will make it difficult for his papers to do the kind of investigative reporting they are known for: exposing a police coverup involving the mayor’s son and uncovering a schools superintendent’s mishandling of surplus equipment that led to his resignation," Spinner reports.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Economist: Rural newspapers are 'surprisingly resilient'

Times are tough for newspapers these days, with shrinking profit margins and circulation adding to --or perhaps caused by -- a decline in trust and respect for journalism.  But small-town papers are faring better than their urban counterparts, Leo Mirani reports for The Economist: "Fully 61 percent of weekly papers and 70 percent of dailies that have ceased publication since 2004 are in counties with more than 100,000 people. Just 20 percent of weeklies and 11 percent of dailies disappeared in counties with fewer than 30,000 people, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina." Community papers have 60 percent of all newspaper circulation; it was once 50 percent, before the decline of dailies.

There are two reasons small-town papers are so resilient, Mirani writes: Local businesses are more apt to advertise in their local papers because they know that every reader lives nearby and is a potential customer; urban newspapers don't have that kind of captive audience. The second reason is that small towns feel a sense of ownership in their community papers: reader loyalty rates for small-town papers are twice as high as those for national or regional papers, Mirani reports. We would add that most of them face no strong competition in local news.

But the survival of small-town papers isn't guaranteed, despite those factors, Mirani cautions: "The towns they serve are growing older and thinning out as working-age Americans migrate from small towns to cities, often never to return. Mandatory advertising by local government, a significant source of revenue, is increasingly under attack as state legislatures try to save money. Tariffs on imported Canadian newsprint have raised costs. Another worrying trend is of local owners selling to big media companies as the industry consolidates, robbing local newspapers of the very thing that makes them valuable."

Mirani got to see some of these factors in play when he visited Jay Nolan in April. He owns a majority stake in eight small-town newspapers in southeastern Kentucky, and has expanded the company's printing business to other media. "I can make a lot more money in the sign business,” Nolan told Mirani, but he keeps his small papers alive: "If journalists aren’t here, Kentucky will become as corrupt as Afghanistan."

Case study shows how Oregon journalists are collaborating to dig through data about high school sports concussion

 Here's a case study for journalists about how some Oregon newspapers collaborated to dig through a "mountain" of data on concussions to high school athletes to report on the issue. Though Oregon schools have been legally required to document head injuries to athletes for more than a decade, no one had ever gathered or analyzed that data, Tara George reports for Montclair State University's Center for Cooperative Media.

But John Schrag, the executive editor of Pamplin Media Group, a chain of 24 community newspapers in Oregon that includes the Portland Tribune, wanted to dig into it. But looking through records from the 238 high schools in the state was a lot of work, and the reporters at his papers were already stretched thin.

So Schrag decided to collaborate, and apprached Lee van der Voo of InvestigateWest, an investigative journalism nonprofit that partners with commercial news organizations on projects. He also brought in Emily Harris, an award-winning broadcast journalist from Reveal, part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. They didn't stop there, pulling in the University of Oregon's Agora Journalism Center to help them get community members involved in the project and New York-based Solutions Journalism Network to train reporters to collect and analyze the data, George reports. And finally, they reached out to every high school journalism advisor in the state to see if students wanted to participate.

All told, they've received more than $61,000 in grants but what Schrag estimates is more than $100,000 worth of labor. "We are a medium-sized media company," Schrag told George. "That amount is the difference between a project getting done and not getting done."

They began requesting records in October 2017 and got about half of them by early spring 2018. By then the team had already uncovered some serious problems and human interest stories, and published the first installment of multimedia stories for "Rattled: Oregon's Concussion Discussion" in April.

Though getting hold of the records has been frustrating, and the team has had to scale back part of the project, the process has been rewarding for both rookies and veterans, Schrag said. Van der Voo outlined some tips for doing a project of such a daunting scale: begin it with a clear plan and precisely outlined expectations to keep people from feeling overwhelmed. Establish a clear chain of command, and keep clear records of conversations to make sure of quality control for sources.

Schrag said this collaborative model could be useful for other smaller media outlets."That’s the most hopeful sign I see," he told George. "Not to replace the small community newspaper but to help them them survive by leveraging their resources."

House finally but narrowly passes Farm Bill, with SNAP work requirements that appear doomed in the Senate

The House passed its version of the Farm Bill yesterday by a razor-thin margin of 213-211, weeks after the last version failed to pass because of Republican infighting over immigration.

"The farm bill got its votes, all Republican, after House leadership agreed to hold votes on immigration bills championed by conservatives. The initial immigration bill that GOP members wanted still failed earlier in the day," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Democrats remained unified against the House version of the farm bill because of changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that will make it more difficult for people without children to continue receiving assistance unless they are working or going through job training. The bill also makes it harder on states to raise income caps for people to remain on SNAP assistance," formerly known as food stamps. 

The Senate version of the Farm Bill has no such provisions, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has scheduled floor action on it next week. Once the Senate version is passed, the House and Senate will have to iron out the differences in the two bills and negotiate a final bill before the current farm law expires Sept. 30.

In addition to the SNAP provisions, the House bill also changes the way the Agricultural Risk Coverage program uses crop-insurance data to calculate yields, and eliminates individual farm coverage under ARC. It would also make changes in the two largest soil-conservation programs.

"The House bill would eliminate new signups under USDA's largest conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program," Clayton reports. "The contracts for the current 72 million acres in CSP would continue until they expire, but no new enrollment would be allowed. Instead, the bill would investment more in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program." A similar program, the Conservation Reserve Program, "would increase by 5 million acres, to 29 million acres, but would reduce rental rates to 80 percent of the current average county rental rate for ground. USDA would require more frequently updated rental rates under CRP as well," Clayton writes. "The Senate version of the bill would go to 25 million acres and lower rental rates to 88.5 percent of the county rental rate."

In a region and state with many teen births, E. Ky. program helps young women teach sex ed outside the classroom

All Access EKY trains young Eastern Kentucky women to make
media campaigns for birth control. (Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images)
A group called All Access EKY is hiring young Eastern Kentucky women between 17 and 22 to create media campaigns for reproductive health, with a focus on increasing access to a full spectrum of birth-control options in Eastern Kentucky, Ivy Brashear reports for Yes! Magazine.

Barriers to getting birth control in Eastern Kentucky are "profound," Brashear reports, and extend way beyond the ordinary obstacles of cost and access to care, to things like having access to reliable transportation (there is no public transportation), knowing if the employees at the clinic go to the same church as your parents, or simply finding a doctor who is willing to prescribe it.

"This is all assuming she knows anything about her birth-control options in the first place," Brashear writes, adding that many young women in Eastern Kentucky "must battle abstinence-only sex education in their schools and a cultural veil of secrecy about their bodies in order to fully understand their options."

She reports that only six of the 19 health departments and federally qualified health clinics in All Access EKY's seven counties offer the full range of birth-control options, and have only four nurse practitioners at public health clinics who are qualified to insert intrauterine devices (IUDs). And the region has a high rate of teen births, Kentucky Health News reports.

All Access, which began in 2016, is working to overcome these barriers by offering young women from the region an eight-week paid fellowship to create educational films that focus on birth control, with interviews of local women about their reproductive health experiences.

The women have also produced social-media campaigns, set up tables at local festivals, and distributed printed materials through clinics and local businesses, Brashear reports in her story, titled "Where Birth Control is Scarce, Young Women Create Sex Education Outside the Classroom."

All Access is a collaboration between the Kentucky Health Justice Network, the national nonprofit Power to Decide, and Appalshop, the media and arts organization in Whitesburg, where the project is housed.

Pork and soybean producers brace for Chinese tariffs

Economists warn that the Chinese response to President Trump's tariffs will help other countries and hurt American farmers, Jim Spencer reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

Soybeans will likely take a big hit if China proceeds with the 25 percent tariffs it has threatened. Purdue University agricultural economist Wallace Tyner said American soy growers could face a loss of 69 percent of Chinese sales as American soy becomes more expensive than Brazilian soy, Spencer reports. Some of that soy could be sold to other nations, but if the tariffs stay in effect for a while, overall American soy exports could shrink by 29 percent, Tyner said.

American pork producers are already feeling the pain from the first round of retaliatory Chinese tariffs, and are bracing themselves for a second round next month. "China implemented a 25 percent duty on most U.S. pork items on April 2, and a 15 percent tariff on a range of fruits and nuts, in response to U.S. tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum products," Dominique Patton and Tom Polansek report for Reuters. "Last week it included both categories in a second round of tariffs to be imposed on July 6. No other products have been listed twice."

Total pork tariffs to China are at 71 percent right now, not including value added tax, and will reach 88 percent next month according to an industry expert's calculation, Reuters reports.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Farmer suicides are 5 times higher than rest of population; new program in Washington state aims to help

Suicide is an epidemic among farmers, with 84.5 deaths per 100,000 people, almost five times higher than the rest of the population, according to a 2016 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Washington state, a new law is trying to address it.

The Washington Young Farmers Coalition lobbied for statewide legislation to help reduce farmer suicide after one of their founding members killed himself. During the latest legislative session, the state House and Senate unanimously approved a bill that created a suicide-prevention task force of mental-health experts and representatives of different agricultural sectors. It took effect June 7.

"The task force will produce a study by Dec.1 that includes data on the suicide rates, substance abuse, and accessibility and usage of behavioral health services among agricultural workers; occupational factors that lead to suicide; components to be included in a preventative pilot program; and strategies for improving the behavioral health of agricultural workers and their families," Melissa Hellmann reports for the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter. "The state Department of Health will then create a pilot program for workers in the agricultural industry in a yet-to-be-determined county 'west of the Cascade crest that is reliant on the agricultural industry' by March 2019."

The pilot program will include telephone counseling and services in Spanish and English, since 71 percent of farm laborers are immigrants. Immigrant farmworkers will be represented by a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a fourth-generation farmer, sponsored the bill that led to the program. In an interview with Seattle Weekly he noted that farming is a "lonely occupation" since many of the social organizations that used to bring farmers together, like Ruritan or Lions clubs, are diminished or gone in rural areas without anything to replace them, Hellmann reports.

Some other factors that may contribute to farmers' high suicide rate: exposure to pesticides (which could affect the brain and encourage depression), the financial risk of farming, and the difficulty of quitting when times are hard. "Unlike other jobs in which workers can quit in the face of uncertainty, agriculture is interwoven into a farmer’s legacy, identity, finances, and housing," Hellmann reports. Washington State Dairy Federation Policy Director Jay Gordon put it more simply: "Nobody wants to be the generation that lost the farm."

Farmers increasingly go the legal route to get workers, through temporary visas; now they want the limit doubled

"The number of migrant workers in the U.S. on temporary agricultural visas is up 159 percent since 2011, as U.S. farmers seek replacements for the thousands of undocumented farmworkers scared away by anti-immigrant policies," Margaret Newkirk and Michael Sasso report for Bloomberg.

Many farmers once ignored the H2-A visa program because it was an expensive, bureaucratic bother and illegal laborers were plentiful. But as undocumented immigration (especially for farm jobs) has slacked off and immigration raids have increased, going the legal route has become more attractive. While most of the 1 million farm laborers in the U.S., are still undocumented more than 200,000 H2-A visas were issued in 2017, and numbers are on track to surpass that number this year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Now the farm lobby is pushing for changes that will allow farmers to double the number of legal immigrants, permit them to stay longer and cut the overall costs associated with using them," Newkirk and Sasso report. "Some of those changes were originally in one of two immigration overhauls moving through Congress, although farming advocates say they don’t know if they’ll still be there when the U.S. House votes this week."

Study concludes fear of racial diversity, not economics, was at heart of evangelicals' overwhelming support for Trump

It's well-known that white evangelical Christians--who are disproportionately rural--tend to strongly support President Trump, but the reason why is up for debate. A new book, Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, says evangelicals' fear of increasing racial diversity may be at the heart of it.

The book's author, Janelle Wong, details for The Washington Post how her research led her to that conclusion. She teamed up with other social scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles, Baylor University and Arizona State University to conduct a nationwide public opinion study online a few months after the 2016 election.

Their research showed how much white evangelicals differ from not only the overall population, but from other whites and other evangelicals. Election Day exit polls showed that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, while 59 percent of non-evangelical whites voted for Clinton. Part of that discrepancy is because white evangelicals are more conservative on many issues, even more so than Latinx, Asian American and black evangelicals.

At the same time, white evangelicals are declining as a proportion of the population; almost all evangelical growth comes from Latinx and Asian Americans--and that's making white evangelicals nervous, Wong writes. Some pundits have conjectured that economic anxiety is the main reason for evangelicals' support of Trump, but Wong's research doesn't bear that out. Instead, her team's research found that "white evangelicals’ perceptions they’re the targets of discrimination – more so than other groups" was at the heart of evangelical votes for Trump, she writes, and predicts, "The racial fears and anxieties that underlie their support for the president will probably remain the driver in their political views long after he leaves office."

Rates of severe obesity have increased much faster among rural adults and children than among urban counterparts

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chart
Obesity has long been more common in rural areas; now two studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the scope of obesity in among rural adults and children. One shows that rates of severe obesity have increased much faster in rural America than in urban areas.

And there are differences between rural men and women: 39 percent of rural men and 47 percent of rural women were obese, compared to 32 and 38 percent among urban men and women, respectively. And while severe obesity doubled among rural women in 2013-16, it more than tripled among rural men during that time period, Dennis Thompson reports for CBS News.

The second study, which looked at children and adolescents aged 2 to 19, found no significant differences in obesity between rural and urban areas (both were around 17 percent), but 9.4 percent of rural children were severely obese compared to just 5.1 percent of their urban counterparts, Thompson reports.

Aaron Kelly, co-director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine, said he was troubled by the relatively high percentage of severely obese rural children. These kids with severe obesity really need to have access to specialized medical care to treat their obesity, in the form of weight management services," Kelly told Thompson, but noted that access was a barrier to many rural patients: "They just aren't going to be able to reasonably drive to the bigger cities where these obesity specialists are who can help them."

NCSU uses drones to pinpoint plant diseases, deficiencies

Bobby Vick of PrecisionHawk lands a drone.
(Wilson Times photo by Drew Wilson)
Drones are helping a study of plant diseases  get off the ground, Drew Wilson reports for the Wilson Times in North Carolina.

North Carolina State University student Joshua Henry is collaborating with North Carolina Cooperative Extension  and drone company PrecisionHawk to gather information about diseased tobacco plants interspersed with healthy plants over an acre on Vick Family Farms.

"We are looking at nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium deficiencies as well as magnesium and sulfur deficiencies and boron toxicity," Henry told Wilson. Henry, a doctoral student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, placed about 50 plants with each disorder, 300 total, among an equal number of healthy tobacco plants.

Examining so many plants is a tall order, but drones can fly in a search pattern grid and gather a great deal of information quickly with remote sensors. Each nutrition deficiency creates a unique light signature; since the drones' remote sensors collect 270 narrow bands of light, they can pinpoint which disease a plant has.

Drones don't require much expertise, said PrecisonHawk solutions engineer Bobby Vick, whose parents own Vick Family Farms: "All you have to do is tell the drone where to go . . . The software is telling the drone what positions to go to and what altitude and speed to fly. The drone actually flies itself. Any one of us out here could fly these drones in five minutes time and feel comfortable doing it."

Graduate student Henry hopes drones, which can cost as little as $1,500, can help farmers develop better fertilization plans. Farmer Linwood Vick agreed: "I think it’s always good to be looking ahead and not getting stuck in the past, so we are looking to do new things and new technology."

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Campaign sites say they offer 'truth' but push partisan arguments; shows need for more journalistic fact-checking

There are facts, and there are opinions, and there are falsehoods. For years we have relied on fact-checkers at news organizations and nonprofits like to nail down the truth, especially when it comes to politicians and their campaigns. Now they have started their own "fact checking" websites that deal more in argument than fact.

The site has since been reconfigured.
Perhaps the latest is from the campaign of Rep. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican challenging U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, reports Glenn Kessler, who writes "The Fact Checker" column for The Washington Post: "The website . . . directs people to 'find the truth,' which leads to a series of 'articles,' which mostly read like news releases that attack Heitkamp or bolster Cramer."

One example: “Heitkamp’s talk of deficits is pure speculation and none of it takes into account the economic growth the Trump pro-growth agenda is delivering.” Kessler notes that the 'talk of deficits' comes from the Congressional Budget Office, "the official scorekeeper of Washington. The CBO is so well respected that Cramer’s 'fact' website cites a CBO projection in another article to attack the Affordable Care Act."

Kessler writes, "Given how [the site] is pitched, it needs to hold up to a high standard of 'the truth'." And he gives it his worst rating, four Pinocchios.

This trend, which Kessler accurately calls "pernicious," illustrates that it is more important than ever for local and state news media to provide reliable fact checking, either on their own or by using The Fact Checker, or Politifact, a paid service of the Tampa Bay Times. Kessler offers a form to submit items for checking and a weekly newsletter, as does

Fact checking is needed beyond political campaigns. USA Today has a fact check today on the separation of children and parents at the Mexican border.

Chesapeake Bay judged healthiest it's been in 33 years

Virginia Tech map
"For the first time in the 33 years that scientists have assessed the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary showed improvement in every region, a likely sign that a massive federal cleanup plan is working," reports Darryl Fears of The Washington Post. "The bay’s overall grade is a C, because some areas, such as the Patuxent, Patapsco and York rivers, are bouncing back from near-failure. The category of water clarity faltered, falling to an F from last year’s D. But the James River area and the lower stem of the bay closer to the Atlantic both earned grades of at least B-, their highest ever, and shored up the overall score."

Bill Dennison, vice president for science application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told Fears, “We have seen individual regions improving before but not the entire Chesapeake Bay. It seems that the restoration efforts are beginning to take hold.”

Under the cleanup plan, which Barack Obama ordered as president in 2010, the states in the bay watershed "agreed to substantially improve wastewater treatment facilities and decrease runoff from farms once responsible for significant amounts of waste reaching the rivers and streams that run into the bay," Fears writes. "Although President Trump tried to eliminate the plan’s funding in his fiscal 2018 budget proposal and cut it by 90 percent for fiscal 2019, congressional support for the restoration effort remains strong."

While the report is upbeat, it warns of possible trouble ahead. Read more here.

N.M. federal judge says BLM must analyze 'downstream' impact of energy leasing on federal land, including climate

A federal judge in New Mexico has issued a ruling that, if upheld, could require the Bureau of Land Management to consider the "downstream" impacts of leasing federal land for oil and gas drilling, including "cumulative impacts on climate change of the use of the fuel produced," Brian Oswald reports for the Albuquerque Journal.

Senior U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo of Albuquerque set aside leases on more than 19,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest that the BLM approved in 2015, and ordered the agency "to conduct further analysis on environmental impact of the potential drilling," Oswald reports.

"The BLM had argued that only greenhouse-gas emissions from oil and gas exploration should be considered, not what happens when the fuel produced is actually used by consumers or industry down the line. The agency stated in its decision in favor of the leases that their 'incremental contribution' to greenhouse gas emissions 'cannot be translated into effects on climate change'."

But Armijo said federal law acknowledges that the impact of one such action "may be significant in combination with other actions," Oswald reports. "She also held that the BLM had failed to take an adequate look at how the national forest leases allowing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would impact water quantities and the environment in general."

Small daily in Ohio helps force resignation of the mayor

The latest report in Kirsten Hare's "Local Edition" series for The Poynter Institute focuses on the work of the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette in Ohio, which has five people in its newsroom and did stories that forced the resignation of Brian Kuhn as mayor of the town of 39,000, about 30 miles southeast of Columbus.

Reporter Spencer Remoquillo told Hare, “His wife was indicted for embezzling money and he was subsequently investigated. Kuhn faced minor felony charges relating to his taxes and was not forced out of office. Once his criminal case was closed, we requested all of the investigative records from the prosecutor’s office. We thought we’d have at least another week before the first print date, but a large metro paper had broken the story about Kuhn’s gambling the Sunday before ours was set to print. This development changed everything. We hunkered down in a room all week, finishing up interviews and cranking out stories as fast as we could write them to hit the daily deadlines for stories that could have taken us a couple days to write and perfect.”

Remoquillo concluded, “With a newsroom this small, you have to have a team of dedicated reporters who care about their work and the community. This project showed just how much we care about our craft and the importance of breaking big stories in small newsrooms.” The Eagle-Gazette is owned by Gannett Co. Inc.

Many rural cemeteries are abandoned; who will tend them?

Photo collage by The Daily Yonder
"As families pull up roots to look for opportunities elsewhere, as young people move away from their hometowns, and as elders who had time for such tasks die out, rural communities are faced with a difficult question: Who will tend the graves? Additional factors like weather, climate change, economic challenges, and the mysteries of human behavior make the story even more complicated," Donna Kallner writes for The Daily Yonder, offering "the grave news from a few rural communities."

Her first example is from Nebraska, where "The Kearney Hub reported that the tax-exempt request for Dove Hill cemetery lists as its caretaker one Miriam Brandt. Brandt died in 2012. The county doesn’t know if someone else has assumed responsibility, although someone has left plastic flowers there. The unmarked, unfenced burial ground is overgrown by tall grasses. The lettering on its one standing gravestone is illegible, likely because of cattle rubbing against it."

State laws on cemeteries vary, but Kallner, who lives in Wisconsin, writes generally: "Unless neighbors come forward to tell the county board a cemetery is neglected or abandoned, local government’s options are limited. Many people don’t know that, or don’t want to seem disrespectful to the dead by complaining. They may take on the job informally and then move on — or die themselves, taking the secret of that good deed to the grave and leaving no one behind to carry on."

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Americans have a slippery grasp of fact and opinion, and that's not all their fault. News outlets should self-examine.

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Professor, School of Journalism and Media, University of Kentucky

The latest Pew Research Center poll has troubling findings for American democracy and journalists who try to serve it: Many if most Americans have trouble telling the difference between fact and opinion. The survey of 5,035 adults, taken Feb. 22 through March 8, presented them with five statements and asked them to identify each as fact or opinion. The results were not encouraging.

"A majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set, but this result is only a little better than random guesses," Pew reports. "Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion."

The Pew researchers write, "With the vast majority of Americans getting at least some news online, gaps across population groups in the ability to sort news correctly raise caution. Amid the massive array of content that flows through the digital space hourly, the brief dips into and out of news and the country’s heightened political divisiveness, the ability and motivation to quickly sort news correctly is all the more critical." The poll found that people who identify with the major political parties tend to identify a statement as factual when it favors their side.

The study found that people tend to disagree with factual statements that they incorrectly label as an expression of opinion. The full report has a list of the statements, the responses to each, and the methodology of the study.

In another part of the study, respondents were shown statements attributed to one of three news outlets: "One with a left-leaning audience (The New York Times), one with a right-leaning audience (Fox News Channel) and one with a more mixed audience (USA Today)," Pew reports. "Overall, attributing the statements to news outlets had a limited impact on statement classification, except for one case: Republicans were modestly more likely than Democrats to accurately classify the three factual statements in this second set when they were attributed to Fox."

What does this study have to say to local news organizations? More than you might think. The last two years have shown that the opinions of readers, viewers and listeners about their local news outlets has been influenced by the increasingly partisan and polarized atmosphere of national politics. Most of the criticism of the news media comes from President Trump and Republicans, but those on the left also criticize national media outlets for pro-corporate bias and cashing in on Trump.

Perhaps the main lesson of this study is that news outlets need to do a better job of separating, or at least differentiating, fact fact from opinion. It may not be enough for a newspaper to signal, with the writer's photo and "columnist" in small type, that the piece is an expression of opinion. And maybe such columns should be reserved for a particular place on the printed page -- the far-left or far-right column -- or reserved for the editorial spread or web page.

There's an old saying: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” There’s plenty of room in that aphorism to fool a large percentage people a very large percentage of the time, and we now have people making millions of dollars and gaining high office by doing just that. People want entertainment more than knowledge, and the digital explosion has fed that appetite. But the devolution began well before digital, as Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote recently.

Oh, and there’s no proof Abraham Lincoln ever said that aphorism. Fake news isn’t new.  Maybe a good daily feature for a newspaper or TV station would be “Really Fake News,” regularly exploding myths new and old. Journalism has to do something to get its authority back. It could start with regaining its moral authority, but too many of its big paymasters stand in the way. As the network bosses have said, President Trump is good for their business. Local news organizations do better, but they should try to do even better, to earn and keep the trust of their audiences. That's good journalism, and good business.

Study: SNAP recipients' diet less nutritious than others'

A recently published study has found that the diet of the average person receiving assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) is less nutritious than that of people not in SNAP. The study was done by the Food Policy Review and Intervention Cost-Effectiveness, or Food PRICE, at Boston's Tufts University, which studies population-wide nutrition and its relationship to cancer and cardiovascular health outcomes, Siobhan Gallagher reports for Tufts. Rural areas have the highest percentage of SNAP recipients.

The study compared the diets of three groups: people on SNAP, people who qualified for it but chose not to participate, and people whose income is too high to receive it. Researchers scored diets as poor, intermediate or ideal, based on how much they adhered to the American Heart Association's 2020 Strategic Impact Goals for diet. Poor diets are those that adhere to less than 40 percent of the AHA 2020 goals, intermediate diets scored 40 to 79.9 percent adherence, and ideal diets scored 80 percent or better.

In the ten-year period studied, 2003-04 to 2013-14, the average diet score among SNAP recipients didn't significantly improve, but improved significantly among both income-eligible nonparticipants and those with higher incomes.

Though there were improvements in consumption of some food groups and nutrients among SNAP participants, like whole grains, whole fruits and dark green vegetables, that group still had the lowest consumption of most healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and shellfish, and nuts, seeds and legumes. They also had the highest consumption of sugary-sweetened drinks.

"Disparities persisted for most food groups and nutrients. Even after adjusting for differences in age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, and income over time, diet-related disparities by SNAP participation status were not materially altered for most dietary components," co-author Junxiu Liu told Gallagher.

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, said "These poor diets should not be interpreted as a cause-and-effect of participating in SNAP. It is possible that dietary trends of these low-income Americans could have been even worse without participation in SNAP. With the 2018 Farm Bill being debated in Congress, our findings underscore the need for robust new strategies for healthier eating and reduced dietary disparities for all Americans."

Supreme Court punts on gerrymandering cases but leaves door open to proposed formula measuring partisanship

The U.S. Supreme Court punted Monday on two potentially landmark gerrymandering cases, sending both back to lower courts for further consideration on procedural grounds. "The justices left the door open for future challenges to partisan gerrymanders. But as a result of Monday’s technical resolutions, both states’ maps will be intact for the 2018 elections, and the status quo remains," Robert Barnes reports for The Washington Post.

In the Maryland case, Democrats had redrawn congressional districts in an effort to regain two traditionally Republican districts. "The difficulty with the Maryland case, the court said in the unsigned opinion, is that it concerned a request from challengers that courts step in now to keep 2018 elections from being held in districts that have been in place since 2011," Barnes reports. "There was no reason to do that before a trial has taken place." The court voted 7-2 to send it back.

The second case, centered on the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state legislature's 2011 redrawing of congressional districts, is potentially more significant. The lower court concluded that the redrawn map favored Republicans and couldn't be explained by nonpartisan reasons, and cited a formula that the plaintiffs offered to measure the partisanship of redistricting,

But the formula looked at the statewide impact, and Chief Justice John Roberts said the plaintiffs hadn't shown that they were hurt individually, which he said was necessary before they had standing to sue. He said the Wisconsin plaintiffs should have another chance to show a lower court they had been individually harmed. He also wrote that the problem with the proposed formula is that it measures the effect gerrymandering has on political parties, not individual voters. 

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a concurring opinion in the case that "laid out a road map for future challenges, including under a test [Justice Anthony] Kennedy has proposed: that partisan redistricting schemes might be judged as punishment for voters because of their past political allegiances, which would violate the First Amendment," Barnes reports. Kennedy "has expressed a willingness to strike down partisan gerrymanders but has yet to accept a rationale for it," Michael Wines reported for The New York Times in 2016.

Research reveals 'severe' shortage of rural ER doctors

New research shows a "severe" shortage of emergency physicians in rural areas, Christopher Cheney reports for HealthLeaders. The study, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, examined 2014 Medicare data and found that urban counties had a higher proportion of emergency physicians compared to overall emergency clinicians such as nurse practitioners--63.9 percent--compared to rural counties' 41.4 percent.

According to the study's lead author, M. Kennedy Hall, earlier research shows that rural areas have fewer incentives to lure ER physicians and more barriers; that research also showed several factors influence which location a doctor chooses to practice, including lifestyle, access to amenities and recreation, ER volume and acuity, family and spouse considerations, access to specialists, and location of residency programs (most are in urban areas).

Other previous research shows that strained budgets keep rural hospitals from hiring more ER physicians.

Hall said hiring non-emergency physicians and advanced practice providers such as nurse practitioners for emergency care positions might be a good fit for rural ERs struggling with costs. "As emergency departments increasingly serve as health safety nets in rural areas—becoming both primary sources for hospital admission and hubs for unplanned acute care—a mixed ER staff of emergency physicians, non-emergency physicians, and advanced practice providers may be able to better collaborate on care coordination," Hall said.

Speaking of rural broadband . . .

Here's an ironic update on an item we reported recently:

The Farm Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several other organizations have created a series of listening sessions on how to improve rural broadband. Today's is being held at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault, Minn., and the foundation planned a live webcast.

This morning we got an email from the foundation, saying it had discovered that slow internet speed in the Faribault area made a live stream impossible. The foundation's vice president of communication, Mary Thompson, wrote: "We regret that we are not able to share the live session with you. This complication does, however, emphasize the need to improve broadband connectivity in rural America."

Click here to see a video of the session afterward.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Trump announces Chinese tariffs; China responds with its own tariffs on crops, coal, oil, cars, whiskey and more

Despite the Trump administration's announcement last month that the U.S. and China had created the "framework" of a trade agreement, the president announced 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods that contain "industrially significant technologies." The administration also said it would announce tariffs on another $16 billion in Chinese goods later this summer. China swiftly responded with an announcement that it will slap 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion in U.S. goods such as pork, chicken and soybeans on July 6, and will announce 25 percent tariffs on $16 billion in U.S. goods later this summer, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

China's tariffs are carefully calculated to hurt the rural communities that voted for President Trump in 2016. Industries that Chinese tariffs would hurt include soybeans, dairy, alfalfa, seafood, coal, oil, automobiles, and whiskey, Alexander Kwiatkowski reports for Bloomberg.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at a press conference late Friday that the effect of the tariffs won't be immediately apparent, and urged reporters not to pay too much attention to the sharp drop in grain and oilseed commodity futures that accompanied the announcement, Clayton reports. "You can't demonstrate any damage on the day that tariffs are announced," Perdue told reporters. "We're going to look at this very carefully. We're going to calculate -- we have been calculating market impact on a weekly basis on a number of months now, frankly. . . . When we determine, and if we determine, there is legitimate and lasting market impact, based on market disruption of tariffs and retaliation, then we're prepared to take action." The action he may be referring to is whether or not to tap into Commodity Credit Corp. funds to help farmers.

The American Soybean Association called the tariffs "devastating" in a press release, and cited a Purdue University study predicting that soybean exports to China could drop by as much as 65 percent if China imposes its retaliatory tariffs. Davie Stephens, a Kentucky soybean farmer and vice president of the ASA, said in the press release that China buys about 60 percent of all U.S. soybean exports and that "frankly, it's not a market U.S. soybean farmers can afford to lose."

Only 12 percent of public think journalists cover rural people accurately, and only 8 percent of journalists think they do

Only 8 percent of journalists and 12 percent of the public think journalists accurately cover people in rural areas, according to the Media Insight Project, a joint effort of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The finding somes on the heels of a poll that found most people living in rural areas don't think urbanites share their values, and that most urbanites probably think likewise of ruralites.

The latest poll also gave low marks to coverage of low-income people and grass-roots political movements.

UPDATE, June 22: At our request, Kevin Loker of API provided more details: People in rural areas are "more likely than people in urban areas to think the coverage of people in rural areas is just slightly or not at all accurate (51% vs 42%). Views of accuracy of people in urban areas are about the same across the urban, suburban and rural populations."

Utilities still plan to close old coal-fired and nuclear power plants despite Trump's order to save them

Despite President Trump's June 1 order to Energy Secretary Rick Perry to halt the shutdown of ailing coal and nuclear power plants, perhaps through emergency powers to force electric utilities to buy coal, many utilities say the announcement hasn't altered their plans to retire the unprofitable plants.

Mainly, the problem is that "utilities are reluctant to reverse course on plans put in motion years ago or to backtrack on pledges to embrace renewable energy," Ari Natter reports for Bloomberg. "Plant closures that have been worked out under consent decrees to settle environmental lawsuits or in deals with state regulators also can’t be easily reversed."

Coal- and nuclear-powered plants have been closing in increasing numbers for years in the U.S., Natter reports. Nearly 40 percent of the capacity of coal-fired plants has been either shut down or designated for closure since 2010. And more than one-fourth of U.S. nuclear plants aren't profitable. Also, some utilities worry that Trump's use of emergency powers wouldn't stand up in court.

"Certainly I think right now utilities are considering going forward with retirement plans as is,” Richard Glick, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told Natter. "It’s pure economics. Gas prices are way down, renewable projects are getting much less expensive and they are beating other older technologies out in the markets."

EPA keeps ban on minors from handling pesticides and rule for more training; still intends to block chemical disaster rule

The Environmental Protection Agency decided last week not to suspend an Obama administration rule aimed at educating farm workers about the safe handling of pesticides. The move was apparently spurred by a lawsuit filed at the end of May by the attorneys general of California, Maryland and New York that argued that suspension would hurt farm workers, Miranda Green reports for The Hill. The EPA has announced an intent to publish the new pesticide safety training materials in the Federal Register, Green reports.

The 2015 update to the rules was the first in 25 years. It included provisions such as requiring pesticide handlers to be at least 18, and educating farm workers about pesticide residue that could cling to their clothes and harm children who came into contact with the clothing, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Meanwhile, EPA faces criticism on another front after announcing that it intends to block most implementation of Obama-era rules that would require companies to "routinely disclose which hazardous chemicals they use, share information with emergency planners, submit to outside audits and publish reports on the root causes of explosions and leaks," Rebecca Hersher reports for NPR. Hersher notes that not implementing the rule "effectively shield[s] companies from scrutiny about how they prevent and respond to chemical disasters."

The new rules were supposed to take effect in March 2017 but the EPA delayed them after heavy lobbying from the chemical and petroleum industries. Last month, the agency announced it intends to block most of the rules; EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the move would "reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, address the concerns of stakeholders and emergency responders on the ground, and save Americans roughly $88 million a year," Hersher reports.

But EPA must take public comments before making a final decision, and dozens of people who live and work near chemical facilities showed up to do just that at a hearing last week. "Grandmothers, teachers, firefighters and community activists traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge the agency to block the proposal," Hersher reports. "Representatives from industry groups countered that they're already doing enough to keep people safe and that companies don't need more oversight." EPA is taking public comments on the chemical disaster regulations until July 30.

Shortage of rural veterinarians has reached the point of posing risks to farmers, ranchers and the food supply

Large-animal veterinarians are critical for ranchers and farmers, but they've been in short supply in rural areas since 2003 because of low wages, long hours, and fewer new veterinarians wanting to live outside a major city. Last year the Department of Agriculture identified 187 mostly rural areas with a veterinarian shortage; the list almost exactly mirrors areas with a shortage of rural physicians, Esther Honig reports for Harvest Public Media.

Large-animal vets must inspect livestock before they can legally be sold for slaughter. The rule helps prevent the spread of illness among a herd or flock, or among the humans who eventually eat the meat. "And early detection is key to preventing devastating outbreaks, like the 2015 bird flu in the Midwest that led to the deaths of 50 million turkeys and chickens," Honig reports. Without large-animal vets, sick and infected animals would increasingly go untested, rendering the nation's food supply more vulnerable to disease outbreaks.

The shortage of vets isn't because of lack of initial interest: a recent survey by Mark Stetter, the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University, found that 30 percent of the students wanted to work in rural areas at the beginning of the program, but fewer than 10 percent actually took rural jobs after graduation.

Low pay is a big problem. Rural vets have the same school loans to pay back as their urban and suburban counterparts, but Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that rural vets make between $61,470 and $73,540 a year, half of what they could make in a city, Honig reports.