Friday, October 25, 2019

RTDNA's Murrow Awards have many rural winners

The Radio Television Digital News Association recently presented its Edward R. Murrow Awards, which are categorized by market size. The rural winners included:

The Eastern whippoorwill (
Vermont Public Radio, for overall excellence in small markets; coverage included a series on mental health care, the governor's reversal of a pledge to oppose more gun controls, a look at which towns issue the most speeding tickets, a comparison of dairy farmers in the state and adjoining Quebec, and a feature on the plight of a threatened bird species, the whippoorwill.

Marfa Public Radio in Texas, for feature reporting ("Without Hospice, Who Gets To Die In The Big Bend?) and for coverage via social media and multimedia.

Montana Public Radio, for a documentary titled "Cold Comfort" about climate change in the Arctic.

North State Public Radio in California , for continuing coverage of the Paradise wildfire.

Wyoming Public Radio, for excellence in sound in its coverage of scientists racing to research a stonefly species threatened by climate change.

Maine Public Radio, for excellence in video in a story about the Mount Washington weather station.

Some large-market winners covered rural topics. KARE-TV in Minneapolis won for hard news with a story on the troubles of dairy farmers, and NPR and PBS "Frontline" won for investigative reporting with "Coal's Deadly Dust," based on the reporting of Howard Berkes, who retired from NPR early this year. The complete list of winners is here.

E-Verify proposal would give legal status to farmworkers currently in the country illegally; Senate is a hurdle

A possible bipartisan deal would give legal status to farmworkers now in the U.S. illegally while requiring employers to verify the immigration status of future hires. However, it faces a tough audience in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Tim Henderson reports for Stateline, "Democrats hope the compromise could draw GOP support by forcing employers to use E-Verify, a federal online system, to ensure farmworkers are eligible to work, said David Shahoulian, the Democratic chief counsel on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, speaking at an immigration policy conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Farmers are not required to investigate claims of legal status in most states."

Currently, seasonal farmworkers are admitted with H2-A visas, and employers are required to house them and transport them in and out of the country. More than a third of the nation's farmworkers are immigrants, Henderson reports. A 2018 Republican proposal would have given only temporary visas to farmworkers in exchange for requiring future E-Verify checks, but was voted down.

EPA wants pesticide spray buffer-zone rule to exclude adjoining properties, members of farm families

Photo from Successful Farming
The Environmental Protection Agency wants to drop a rule that established no-spray buffer zones for pesticides around crop fields and orchards.

"The current rules stipulate that the so-called Application Exclusion Zone can range from anywhere between 25 and 100 feet from the site of application and can reach beyond a farm’s property line. EPA wants to shrink those exclusion zones by ordering that enforcement of the AEZ can’t extend outside of property boundaries, Liz Crampton reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "The proposal would also exempt farm family members from exclusion-zone requirements. During spraying, members would choose whether to leave or stay on the farm."

In the post on the Federal Register, the agency said the changes to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standards will simplify rules for outdoor application of pesticides, but critics say the rule could harm farmworkers and family members by making it more likely that they'll be around harmful pesticides, Crampton reports. The EPA is taking public comments on the proposal for 90 days.

The buffer zone is meant to minimize damage from pesticides like dicamba, which is notorious for vaporizing and drifting to nearby fields after application. EPA said in its notice, “As currently written, the off-farm aspect of this provision has proven very difficult for state regulators to enforce. Off-farm bystanders would still be protected from pesticide applications due to the existing ‘do not contact’ requirement that prohibits use in a manner that would contact unprotected individuals.”

"At present, a buffer zone of 25 feet is required around sprayer rigs that release large droplets more than 12 inches above the ground, and a 100-foot zone is required for aerial, air blast, and ground applications that release fine or very fine droplets as well as fumigations, mists, and foggers," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. "The EPA rule would revise the buffer zone to 25 feet for all ground applications and to 100 feet for aerial, air blast, air-propelled, fumigant, smoke, mist, and fog pesticide applications."

Mobile clinic brings better contraception to South Texas

The UT Health Rio Grande Valley mobile health clinic (Undark photo by Charlotte Huff)
A mobile clinic is bringing more effective contraception to rural areas in South Texas, Charlotte Huff reports for Undark, a nonprofit news organization that writes about scientific issues that intersect with policy and society.

The clinic is the brainchild of two professors and a hospital executive. It started with Joseph Potter, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studied postpartum access to contraception in 2016, Huff reports. Of the 1,700 new mothers studied at eight Texas hospitals, almost all were Medicaid patients, and over three-fourths were interested in sterilization or a long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) such as an intrauterine device or implant after childbirth. But six months later almost half were using cheaper, less reliable methods like condoms or withdrawal.

Though LARCs are the most effective form of birth control on the market, only about 11 percent of U.S. women use them. Texas Medicaid does not cover them unless they're inserted immediately after childbirth, and new mothers must pay a separate fee for the insertion. Since the devices alone cost about $750, most low-income women can't afford them unless they get one right after childbirth, and the high cost keeps many hospitals and clinics from stocking them even if the mothers did want them, Huff reports. Texas did not begin covering postpartum intrauterine devices until 2016.

Tony Ogburn, obstetrics and gynecology chair at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley's medical school, wanted to improve women's health in the area, especially after reading Potter's research. They teamed with Aida Gonzales, vice president of DHR Health Women's Hospital in Edinburg, near the southern tip of the state, and came up with the idea of the mobile clinic. "By cobbling together several grants, and teaming up with Women’s Hospital, they’ve so far been able to provide the devices at little to no cost through the medical school’s outpatient obstetrics/gynecology clinic, a mobile outreach effort, and at the hospital immediately after delivery," Huff reports.

The trio have tried to expand area access to intrauterine devices in ways besides the mobile clinic. Ogburn has ensured that his medical students learn how to insert the devices and how to counsel women interested in a LARC while being sensitive to their opinions about childbearing and religion (most of the women are Catholic, a denomination that discourages some birth control methods). Women's Hospital has also been stocking IUDs; over two-thirds have been paid for by an anonymous donor, and the hospital has been able to get insurance or Medicaid to pay for the rest, Huff reports.

Quick hits, from Appalachia to Mississippi to Colorado to Minnesota to Canada

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Exploring Southern Appalachia: Conquistadors made Spanish the first European language spoken in Appalachia. Read more here.

Lack of shelters in rural Minnesota makes the homeless an 'invisible problem': Read more here.

"The Mountain Minor," a film about the spread of Appalachians and the roots of bluegrass and country music, is winning multiple awards. Read more here.

Mississippi Rural Broadband Summit reveals hurdles to cross. Read more here.

The Rural Health Information Hub has created a toolkit for rural communities wanting to implement Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease programs. Read more here.

A White House Office of National Drug Control Policy representative listened to government officials and health-care providers in Northern Colorado speak about their experiences with the opioid epidemic. Read more here.

The rural-urban divide is defining politics in other countries, as shown by Canada's recent election. Read more here.

The University of Colorado hosted a day-long conference on entrepreneurship in rural America. View the event info here and watch a livestream capture video of the event here.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Rural doctor's weight-loss clinic sees big results with old-fashioned methods: eat better food, less of it, and exercise

Dr. Carol Peddicord holds a model representing five
pounds of body fat. (Clinton County News photo)
A doctor and a pharmacist in rural Albany, Kentucky are seeing big results in the fight against obesity after opening a weight-loss clinic. Since The Doctor's Health and Weight Loss Clinic opened in January, its 433 patients have lost a collective 4,079 pounds, and most have maintained their weight loss, Brett Gibson of the Clinton County News reports.

Dr. Carol Peddicord and pharmacist Arica Collins of Dyer Drug Co. came up with the idea for the clinic after seeing how many patients came in looking for a quick fix to lose weight. But the best way to do that is to live a healthier lifestyle, not through a pill or a crash diet, the News notes.

The emphasis is on healthier, Peddicord told the News: "We don’t want people to be skinnier, we want them to be healthy and live longer."

Obesity is a significantly bigger problem in rural areas than in suburban and urban areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among adults, 34.2% of rural residents are obese, compared with 28.7% in metropolitan counties.

Though the duo first conceived of the clinic because they were worried about children's health, most of their patients are women between 35 and 58. There are a few high schoolers, though, and they're starting to see more men coming in. That's good, Peddicord told the News, because men typically have heart disease earlier in life.

Albany, in Clinton County, Kentucky
(Wikipedia maps)
The clinic, which takes insurance, offers individually tailored wellness plans for patients, depending on whether they have high blood pressure, diabetes, and/or heart disease. They offer diet plans and will soon have plans for meal replacements such as shakes, the News reports.

Though Peddicord was glad to note that the clinic's patients had lost 680 pounds last month, she told the News that pounds aren't the only thing that matter. Patients have seen other "non-scale victories," such as being able to stop taking insulin for diabetes. "People are losing weight, feeling better and are able to exercise," Peddicord said.

Going deer hunting? If you kill one, take precautions against chronic wasting disease as you clean that carcass

CWD among free-ranging cervids by county as of August 2019. (CDC map; click on the image to enlarge it.)
Just in time for Halloween: zombie deer. As deer-hunting seasons open and expand among the states, wildlife officials across the nation are issuing new warnings about chronic wasting disease, an incurable neurological disease that lays waste to its victims' brains.

"According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 277 counties in 24 states have reported chronic wasting disease in free-ranging deer, elk or other cervids as of August," Ryan Miller and Ashley May report for USA Today. Symptoms can take more than a year to develop, and include dramatic weight loss, clumsiness, listlessness, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, aggression toward humans, or lack of their usual fear of humans.

CWD is spread by mutant proteins called prions, much like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of mad-cow disease that has killed over 220 people worldwide. CWD has not spread to humans, but some researchers worry it could, most likely by eating tainted deer meat. "About 7,000 to 15,000 animals infected with CWD are eaten each year, and that number could rise by 20% annually, according to the Alliance for Public Wildlife," Miller and May report.

Here is advice from the CDC and the Alliance to help hunters avoid CWD:
  • Wear latex or rubber globes when handling a hunted animal and its meat.
  • Minimize time spent touching the brain and spinal cord tissues.
  • Never use household knives or utensils for field dressing.
  • Always wash hands and disinfect hunting instruments after use.
  • If you usually get your meat commercially processed, ask whether animals can be processed individually to avoid the chance of contamination.

Land O'Lakes CEO: 'Rural America is the new inner city'

Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford speaks at the Fortune Most
Powerful Women Summit. (Photo by Danuta Otfinowski)
At Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., this week, two CEOs of iconic Midwestern companies spoke about why improving the quality of life in rural America is the best way to alleviate the struggles of the farming sector of the economy, Hadley Hitson reports for the magazine.

"Rural America is the new inner city; we have to be clear about that," said Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford, perhaps recalling a series of stories that The Wall Street Journal did almost two and a half years ago.

"We probably have 4,000 to 5,000 retail outlets in rural communities," Ford said, "so the question is: can we use those platforms to solve bigger problems in the community?"

"She thinks the answer is yes," Hitson reports. "Ford said a majority of her focus now is going toward promoting broadband accessibility for rural America in order to bolster economic development and social equity. Ford is also working to help her farmers obtain affordable healthcare. She said they have enough issues to worry about and healthcare should not be one of them." And because Land O'Lakes is a farmer-owned dairy cooperative, Ford said helping rural America helps her company."

Desnise Johnson, a group president of Caterpillar Inc., agreed with Ford, and said helping rural communities is critical, since the people who work for the company are its lifeblood, Hitson reports.

Ford and Johnson both work for companies that have boom-and-bust cycles, so both say they're always looking for ways to innovate, and both say they're struggling to attract more women. "While women comprise just over 36 percent of the agricultural labor force in the United States today, Johnson is hopeful that number will continue growing," Hitson reports.

BLM guesses shrinking wild horse numbers to cost $5 billion

Graphic by E&E News; click on the image to enlarge it.
The Bureau of Land Management estimates it will cost almost $5 billion over the next 15 years to bring the nation's population of wild horses and burros on public lands to a sustainable number. That will require shrinking the current population of about 88,000 to about 27,000, acting BLM Director William Pendley told reporters Wednesday, Miranda Green reports for The Hill. If the herds continue unchecked, they could hurt some grassland areas beyond repair, Pendley said.

"The federal government’s management of wild horses and burros has been the subject of criticism from public lands and animal rights activists. Critics have pushed back on a number of strategies the government utilizes to keep the herd population down, especially the practice of spaying wild mares," Green reports. "Pendley said the administration will continue to utilize the spaying practice and is looking to veterinarians and scientists to help devise other methods of fertility control. The agency also utilizes adoption and private corral leasing as a way to manage herd size."

Pendley would not say whether he supported euthanasia to bring down the herd population, but noted that Congress ruled against the practice and the BLM follows those guidelines. "Pointing to some positive news on the management front, BLM officials said the agency had successfully adopted out more than 7,000 wild horses last fiscal year, a 50-year record high. Pendley said the number was a 54 percent increase over the previous year’s total," Green reports.

FDA approves GMO cotton with edible cotton seeds

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a genetically engineered form of cotton that makes its seeds edible without hurting the valuable fiber. Researchers believe the seeds can become a cheap source of protein for people and animals, Jessica Fu reports for The New Food Economy.

The U.S. is a powerhouse cotton producer, bringing 9.6 billion pounds worth $7 billion to the world market every year. Most of its value is in the fiber; seeds have been of little use because they contain a toxic chemical called gossypol. The chemical can trigger severe respiratory distress, impaired immune and reproductive function, and death in humans. Cotton seeds are used in some cattle feed, a few insecticides, and for cottonseed oil, production of which removes gossypol, Fu reports.

Keerti Rathore, a plant-biotechnology professor at Texas A&M University, has been working for the past two decades to change that. It turns out that cotton seeds are rich in proteins, but Rathore found it difficult to reduce gossypol levels in seeds but not in the rest of the plant, where it serves as a natural insecticide, Fu reports.

After years of experimentation, Rathore submitted a low-gossypol cotton to the FDA and the Agriculture Department for approval in 2017. "Last year, USDA deregulated the genetically engineered cotton, giving farmers free rein to grow the crop. FDA’s move this month gives producers permission to use it as an ingredient in human food, as well as animal feed," Fu reports.

It will still be a while before the new seeds are on grocery and feed-store shelves. Seed companies must agree to sell them, and farmers may be slow to grow a new form of cotton. And, "beyond the bureaucratic aspects, low-gossypol cotton seeds also face the challenge of overcoming the cultural stigma surrounding genetically modified foods," Fu reports.

Air ambulance bills may not be getting enough attention in Congressional crackdown on surprise bills

Are air ambulances' surprise bills being overlooked? That's what Karan Chabra, Kevin Schulman and Barak Richman argue at Health Affairs' blog, saying that air ambulance bills — which are frequently out of network — aren't getting enough attention amid the bigger crackdown on surprise bills.

"The air ambulance business model does not rely on a new technology or providing a valuable service," the authors write. "[I]nstead, it rests upon a carefully devised legal strategy that exploits the basic charge model in health care and then hides behind a legal loophole."

States can't regulate air ambulances because the industry falls under the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration. Congress formed a committee last year to look into air ambulance bills, which hurt rural residents the most.

Air ambulance lobbyists protest that legislations aimed at protecting consumers from surprise bills could cost rural residents access to their services, Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. Dark money sources have shelled out millions of dollars for ads designed the kill the legislation.

Dwindling emergency services is an undeniable concern in rural areas, which have fewer hospitals and less access to road ambulance services. Rural ambulance services "are closing in record numbers, putting around 60 million Americans at risk of being stranded in a medical emergency," Erika Edwards reports for NBC News. "Because so many emergency medical services agencies have been struggling financially, some states are stepping in with funding. But emergency medical experts say it’s not enough to cure the dire situation."

The lack of access to ground services makes rural areas the main customers for air ambulances; about 90% of the industry's customers are rural, Carey reports. But rural residents may be paying surprise air ambulance bills for a while, according to the Health Affairs blog: "recent headlines suggest that federal legislative momentum has stalled, despite an initial surge of bipartisan interest."

Eleven journalism values, most a century old but all still pertinent, with four modern updates, from Roy Peter Clark

By Roy Peter Clark
The Poynter Institute
I recently discovered in an old journalism textbook a list of 11 suggestions to young journalists on how they might live upright, professional lives. The list amazed me. I could not recall any similar list where journalism values were expressed so well, so succinctly and with such enduring relevance. The list appears as the last words in the book Newspaper Writing and Editing, written by Willard G. Bleyer, perhaps the outstanding journalism educator of his day, and published in 1913. Here then, for all to share, are, not the Ten Commandments, but the Eleven Suggestions:
  1. Remember that whatever you write is read by thousands.
  2. Don’t forget that your story or headline helps to influence public opinion.
  3. Realize that every mistake you make hurts someone.
  4. Don’t embroider facts with fancy; “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
  5. Don’t try to make cleverness a substitute for truth.
  6. Remember that faking is lying.
  7. Refer all requests to “keep it out of the paper” to those higher in authority.
  8. Stand firmly for what your conscience tells you is right.
  9. Sacrifice your position, if need be, rather than your principles.
10. See the bright side of life: don’t be pessimistic or cynical.
11. Seek to know the truth and endeavor to make the truth prevail.
. . .
If you distill from the list its dominant themes, they reveal most of journalism’s key concerns: Not writing and reporting to please yourself or advance your career, but with a keen sense of service to an audience. An understanding that the audience turns to you for information that will enrich them as citizens in the process of self-government. That accuracy is a practical virtue and that the failure to achieve it can have negative consequences. Truth seeking and truth telling are at the heart of the discipline. Your ultimate loyalty cannot be either to special interests or even to your employer. It must be to the public interest. Cynicism corrodes the soul of the journalist and erodes the trust of the public in institutions that sustain civic life.
. . .
I could argue that the list is necessary but not sufficient to fulfill the journalistic mission in the 21st century. I might be tempted, immodestly, to add a couple more points in the spirit of transparency and diversity.
 12. As much as you can, be transparent in your methods, revealing what you know, how you know it, and what you still need to learn.
 13. Remember the limitations of your own experience and point of view. Gather the perspectives of others, especially those too often excluded from public life. (OK, 13 is unlucky. Let’s add two more.)
 14. Be aware of the dangers of false balance in news coverage. Strive for proportionality, submitting key claims to the discipline of fact-checking.
 15. Understand that while a particular story may be true and useful — coverage of a crime — the cumulative effect of such repeated coverage may give a distorted view of the world we live in.
There you have them, the Eleven Suggestions, or the Fifteen Suggestions, or add a few of your own.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

GAO says employees of BLM and other federal agencies routinely face threats, assault; calls for safety measures

A new report from the Government Accountability Office of Congress finds that the Agriculture and Interior departments have failed to complete security assessments of federal facilities on public land, and calls for making federal land-management facilities safer in the wake of threats and assaults against government employees, Jennifer Yachnin reports for Energy & Environment News.

According to data compiled from the four federal land-management agencies -- the USDA's Forest Service and Interior's Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service -- employees faced issues ranging from threatening telephone calls to attempted murder in fiscal years 2013 through 2017. "However, the number of actual threats and assaults is unclear and may be higher than what is captured in available data for various reasons," the report acknowledges. "For example, employees may not always report threats because they consider them a part of the job."

The report found that Forest Service employees reported the most threats and assaults, with 177 incidents in the time period studied. BLM employees reported 88 incidents, FWS employees reported 66, and NPS reported 29. The NPS tally doesn't include the U.S. Park Police.

The GAO conducted the review after a 2017 request by House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who wanted to know how land managers were responding to "anti-government extremism," Yachnin reports. Grijalva referred to incidents such as the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by anti-government activists.

Major U.S. farm lender sees highest rate of delinquent loans among major banks after being too loose with money

One of the biggesr lenders to U.S. farmers has triggered a slew of loan defaults and lawsuits in recent years after rushing in where other banks tried to scale back, P.J. Huffstutter reports for Reuters.

Chicago-based BMO Harris Bank, a subsidiary of Canada's Bank of Montreal, aggressively expanded its U.S. farm loan portfolio over the past decade, giving some farmers more than they had asked for and without ensuring that they were good loan risks, Huffstutter reports.

That includes farmers like Greg Kruger, who grows corn and soybeans in Harrod, Ohio. In 2013, Kruger initially asked BMO Harris for a $2 million loan to build a grain elevator. But the bank gave him $12 million in loans and told Kruger not to bother providing standard documentation that would prove his financial worth. In 2018, "the bank called in Kruger’s loans as corn and soy prices collapsed and the United States was starting a trade war with China."

BMO Harris "has struggled to recoup some of its investments through a slew of bitter legal fights, according to a Reuters review of court documents and bank regulator data, as well as interviews with dozens of U.S. farmers, bankers, and former and current BMO Harris employees," Huffstutter reports.

As of the end of June, almost 13.1 percent of the bank's U.S. farm loans were at least 90 days late or had stopped accruing interest because the bank doubts the money will be paid back, compared to 1.53% for all such loans insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Huffstutter reports. That's the highest rate among the 30 largest FDIC banks, according to a Reuters analysis.

"The plight of BMO Harris and its customers reflects broader distress in the U.S. farm sector. Farmers are struggling to pay back their loans or obtain new ones," Huffstutter reports. "Shrinking cash flow is pushing some to retire early and a growing number of producers to declare bankruptcy, according to farm economists and legal experts."

Cable, satellite firms protest consolidation of low-power stations in small market; buyers snap up newspapers, too

Broadcast television station owners aren't supposed to own more than one "top-rated" station in a market, but many are buying multiple stations in small markets, prompting complaints to federal regulators from cable and satellite companies. Examples include Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Greenville, Mississippi.

The move is possible because the Federal Communications Commission's anti-competition rules don't apply to low-power stations or multicast digital stations, Margaret Harding McGill reports for Axios. Broadcasters who buy up multiple local TV stations, and sometimes the local newspaper, say it's the only way they can survive.

"Broadcasters have long faced unique regulatory limits on their reach, but now digital competition has shrunk their share of the ad pie. Consolidation, they argue, is how they can compete with digital giants as well as cable and satellite companies while still providing local broadcasts," McGill reports. "Cable companies, which pay broadcasters to retransmit TV signals to their customers, say the local TV market consolidation raises their costs and harms consumers. But broadcasters, who scoff at the notion they have more leverage than giants like AT&T and Comcast, argue the arrangements provide rural Americans with network programming and more local news."

The FCC is seeking comments on a possible update to media ownership rules that could limit or prevent broadcasters from buying multiple low-power or multicast channels in one market.

Study documents commonplace and illegal government policies restricting employee communication with journalists

The anonymous whistleblower who kicked off the Ukraine impeachment investigation has renewed public debate about the role of such sources in a democracy, and has highlighted how government agencies often try to control leaks. Agencies throughout the nation have passed broad policies that try to prevent public employees from speaking to journalists without approval, even though federal courts have repeatedly found such policies unconstitutional.

A new report from the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida documents nearly two dozen cases in which courts have struck down policies in local, state and federal government offices that forbid employees from freely communicating with the press.

“There’s widespread ignorance that public-relations offices have no legal authority to forbid public employees from speaking to the news media," Frank D. LoMonte, director of the center and lead author of the report, said in an introduction. "Whether it’s called a rule or a policy or a handbook, the result has been the same every time an employee has challenged a requirement to get approval before speaking to journalists: The employee always wins and the agency always loses."

"Policies that have been struck down as unconstitutional include a Michigan fire department’s regulation providing that only the fire chief could 'release facts regarding fire department matters, fires or other emergencies to the news media,' and a Connecticut police agency’s policy forbidding officers from making 'official comments relative to department policy' to members of the press or public without approval," says the introduction.

The report explains where the courts tend to draw the line these days for public employees' free speech and provides strategies and best practices journalists can use when challenging gag rules. 

Pregnancy on the farm comes with unique risks

Pregnancy can be challenging for anyone, but being pregnant on the farm comes with an unusual combination of risks, Christina Stella reports for Harvest Public Media, an NPR affiliate.

Pregnant women in rural areas are overall at risk, since rural maternal care has dwindled for years, Stella reports: "Since 2010, 134 rural hospitals in the U.S. have shut down their obstetrics units, and 18 have closed entirely. That left less than half of rural hospitals providing reproductive care. The closures are coming at a time when at least one woman now works at more than half of America’s farms — a 27% increase, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent census (which didn’t ask whether people were in operations vs. in the field)."

In addition to the general risk of rural pregnancy, pregnant farmers, farmworkers, and livestock veterinarians face additional concerns, such as the risk of working with agricultural chemicals that could harm a fetus. Some studies have linked commonly used chemicals such as glyphosate (Roundup) to lowered fertility among women, birth defects, and miscarriage, Stella reports.

"Working with livestock while pregnant can also be a concern," Stella reports. "Some hormones for livestock can trigger abortions, so getting accidentally stuck with a needle can be disastrous. Plus, animals carry bacteria and zoonotic illnesses that can be unsafe for human mothers and their fetuses."

Since women are a minority in agriculture, many doctors are unaware or unsure about possible dangers to pregnant farmers, and many not know how to warn them about safe practices or deal with questions, Stella reports. Health-care providers must be taught about common issues that could affect pregnant women on farms, whether in college or through continuing education, community-health nurse Linda Emmanuel told Stella. Emmanuel works with Agrisafe, a nonprofit that offers safety and health training services to people working in agriculture.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Weekly editor-publisher, one of several speakers at Nov. 15 workshop on Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery, tells why and how she covers it, and why you should too

Sharon Burton has been getting national attention for her series "The Cost of Addiction" in her weekly Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Kentucky. On Nov. 15, in Ashland, Ky., she will discuss with journalists how to cover a subject that can be difficult and many don't want to cover.

"It's something that's affecting everyone's lives, and we need to be talking about it and we need to be looking for solutions," Burton says in a video interview with Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. IRJCI is sponsoring the workshop with Oak Ridge Associated Universities, where research has shown that the stigma attached to drug abuse inhibits news coverage and community conversations about it.

Burton, who has a local competitor, says in the video that she understands rural journalists' reluctance: "It's not a pleasant thing to discuss, and I think a lot pf people feel embarrassed because they're talking about their loved ones. . . . A lot of times, they're talking about themselves." However, people have mostly been cooperative when approached for a story, she says: "They want to help other people. . . . They want to share their experiences and help others."

For details and registration, click on the link in the paragraph below.
Burton says rural newspapers contribute to the stigma of drug abuse when they cover it only as a criminal-justice issue: "We as newspaper people have probably been some of the most cynical when it comes to, you know, 'Put em in Public Record and throw 'em in jail' kind of attitude."

She says the problem is primarily a health issue, but also also affects the general public through higher jail costs and difficulty of employers and prospective employers to find drug-free employees.

At Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery: A Workshop for Journalists, Burton says, "I hope to encourage them" to help their communities: "If nothing else, to say its worth the effort." For details on the workshop, registration and accommodations, click here. The fee is $50 until Nov. 1 and $60 until Nov. 8, when registration will close. Space is limited.

Websites in Michigan are latest examples of partisans publishing biased content meant to look like local news

A conservative group has launched nearly 40 sites masquerading as local news in the battleground state of Michigan, and plans to launch thousands more nationwide, Carol Thompson reports for the Lansing State Journal.

Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, told Thompson he noticed the sites through promoted posts on Facebook, and did some digging after he saw the partisan slant of the stories and the unfamiliar site names. He discovered a "vast network of related outlets" meant to look like local news sites. 

The publisher, Metric Media LLC, says on its "About" section that it aims to fill the "growing void in local and community news after years of steady disinvestment in local reporting by legacy media." It is run by conservative lobbyist Bradley Cameron, whose "biography also says he has worked for pharmaceutical manufacturers, technology companies, and is retained by national conservative leaders to respond to 'government targeting of their operations and initiatives'," Thompson reports.

Cameron's plans are big, but his approach isn't new. In recent years, partisan operatives have been increasingly capitalizing on the "vestigial credibility" readers give local news to publish sites that look like local news but publish highly biased content.

"As local news becomes less profitable as a commercial business (and re-spun as more of a public good) but still retains high levels of trust, some political players see its situation as an opportunity," Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's NiemanLab. "Among them has been a series of conservative news sites with opaque funding that focus almost entirely on portraying governments as wasteful and corrupt." The problem isn't so much with politicians promoting agendas as concealment of that, and their attempt to capitalize on the trust earned by newspapers, Schmidt writes.

Some liberal operatives are doing likewise, but lately it's been mostly conservatives. "The Free Telegraph' states nowhere on its homepage that it’s published by the Republican Governors Association," Schmidt notes. "The California Republican sprinkles heroic headlines about GOP Rep. Devin Nunes ('Devin Nunes Exposes Collusion, Left Gets Abusive') until you scroll down to see 'Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee' in tiny type at the bottom," Schmidt reports. "Politico and Snopes uncovered a network of sites in key 2020 states (The Ohio StarThe Minnesota SunThe Tennessee Star) created by Republican consultants and mislabeling people paid to elect a GOP candidate as 'investigative journalists' who were now covering them."

County-level map shows estimates of rural food insecurity

Daily Yonder adaptation of Urban Institute map shows food insecurity and associated factors such as housing costs and health risks in rural and mostly rural counties. Click on the map to enlarge it, or click here for the interactive version.
"Food insecurity on average tends to be a bit higher in rural counties versus urban ones. But there’s a tremendous variety in food insecurity across rural counties – and even within the same states," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. That reality is displayed in a newly published Urban Institute report about food security in the U.S. in 2017, the year with the most recently available data, and an interactive map with county-level data. About 40 million Americans, including 12.5 million children, are estimated to be food insecure. 

"To me, one of the most striking revelations of the map is how food security and insecurity exist side by side in many states," Marema writes. "Blue (low insecurity) and orange (high insecurity) abut in Southside Virginia. Eastern and Western Oklahoma are worlds apart on the food security scale. And single counties with food insecurity dot across the otherwise blue northern Great Plains. Nearly all these counties with food insecurity (red) are home to Indian nations."

Over past two decades, farmers have had to borrow more and stretch some loans over longer amounts of time

Average repayment term on all non-real-estate farm loans at
commercial banks (Agricultural Economic Insights chart)
Though farm income has increased a bit since 2018, farmers are still struggling with ever higher levels of debt, and they're having to stretch payments over a longer amount of time to manage monthly payments, David Widmar reports for Agricultural Economic Insights.

Farm debt has risen steadily since 2015 and is approaching levels last seen in the '80s, Widmar reports. Repayment terms on all non-real-estate farm loans have increased from around 11 months in 2000 to almost 16 months in 2018, with a big dip in the middle during the recession, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Terms for equipment and livestock averaged about a year to a year and a half longer in 2018 than in 2000-10, Widmer reports. Equipment loans in the early 2000s averaged about 25 months; in 2018 they were nearly 35 months, about 45% longer. Loans for non-feeder livestock averaged around 11 months in 2000; in 2018 the average was almost 19 months, a 60% increase, Widmer reports.

"On the one hand, longer repayment terms – coupled with historically low interest rates – make it easier for producers to meet the annual debt service obligations of historically high debt levels. Longer terms and low rates are certainly preferred to a scenario of short repayment terms and high-interest rates," Widmer writes. "On the other hand, the extended debt terms leave producers “on the hook” for a longer period of time.

New Yorkers offer bills to revamp, raise rural funding, create Rural Future Corps to send youth to rural areas, maybe stay

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who recently gave up her Democratic presidential bid, has introduced legislation meant to revamp and increase federal funding for rural areas. Rep. Antonio Delgado, also of New York, will introduce a House version, Cara Chapman reports for the Plattsburgh Press-Republican in the state's northeastern tip.

The Rebuild Rural America Act would establish a new $50 billion Rural Future Partnership Fund that would provide flexible, multi-year block grants for regional rural revitalization projects. "Rural regions that work together to become certified would automatically receive a commitment of five-year, renewable funding to support progress on the region’s locally developed goals and objectives," says Gillibrand's summary of the bill.

Gillibrand told Chapman that the bill is needed because "Federal grants are often too narrow and inflexible to support the development needs of rural communities." Rural communities can find it difficult to apply for grants because they often don't have enough staff and expertise, and shouldn't have to employ lobbyists or dedicated grant writers to access funding, she said.

Eligible projects would include entrepreneurship, infrastructure, public services, skills training and job placement, and improving disaster response. Gillibrand's summary of the bill promises a new, streamlined approach to disaster response and recovery that can help aid arrive sooner. 

The bill also proposes launching a "Rural Future Corps," which would be a joint effort of the Department of Agriculture and AmeriCorps to expand services like child care, health care, nutrition assistance, education and job training. Another aim of the program: persuade corps members to stay in the rural areas where they've served after they're done with their stint.

The act would be funded one of two ways, Gillibrand said. "Should a hoped-for bipartisan infrastructure bill come about — the senator noted President Donald Trump's frequent statements that he wants to invest $1 billion in that sector — a $50 billion piece would be dedicated solely to rural America," Chapman reports. "That would be combined with other infrastructure bills the senator has written to make for a comprehensive approach."

Monday, October 21, 2019

West Virginia governor still involved in running family's billion-dollar businesses, though he promised he wouldn't

Gov. Jim Justice
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is still involved in running his family's businesses, though he promised during his campaign that he wouldn't do that. "Back then, the billionaire promised to put his business empire aside and focus on public service. In an arrangement that echoed that of President Donald Trump, Justice said his adult children, Jay and Jill, would run his family’s coal mines, resorts and farms," the Charleston Gazette-Mail's Ken Ward Jr. reports for ProPublica's Local Reporting Network.

But Justice has remained deeply involved in his businesses, and has often used official public appearances and "the trappings of his office" to promote them. "Over the past year, he has hosted a news conference at the governor’s office to tout a settlement between his coal companies and his administration’s tax collectors," Ward reports. "He has used an interview at the Governor’s Mansion to press his luxury resort’s $75 million lawsuit against its insurance companies. And he’s turned an appearance at a statewide business gathering — held at that same resort — into breaking news about his family’s plans to reopen a coal mine."

As the Republican and former Democrat seeks a second term in 2020, critics in both parties complain that Justice is often an absentee governor who isn't doing much to lead the state through issues such as the opioid epidemic and the decline of coal industry jobs, Ward reports.

Justice wouldn't comment for Ward's story, but issued a statement through a company spokesperson saying that his interactions with the business are limited, but "because the businesses employ thousands of West Virginians, I continue to have an interest in their success and do check in on them from time to time. . . . There are also times where I have specific historical knowledge of a particular aspect of one of the businesses, and Jay and Jill will ask me about it."

"Unlike his recent predecessors, Justice has refused to place most of his holdings into a blind trust, which would put them under the control of an independent manager and shield him from at least the appearance of a conflict. Instead, the governor has retained ownership in 130 corporate entities, and his assets are valued by Forbes magazine at $1.5 billion," Ward reports. "Many of Justice’s businesses, from coal mines to farms to a casino, are regulated by the state, and some of them do business with the administration."

Justice has denied that his business dealings present conflicts of interest because he has turned control over to his children, but his actions undercut that argument, Ward writes.

Daily asked 10 tiny towns in N.D. and Minn. to see how well they responded to information requests; only 6 complied

The Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota did an interesting test earlier this year: the paper wanted to see how well small towns keep public documents and how they respond to an open records request, so they audited 10 randomly-chosen area towns with fewer than 350 residents. The results? Six provided the requested records, two never responded, and two flat-out refused to comply with state law, Tess Williams reports.

The towns that complied were: Edinburg, Hoople, and Petersburg in North Dakota; and Beltrami, Grygla, and Lake Bronson in Minnesota. The towns that didn't respond to numerous phone calls, emails and messages from reporters were Forest River, N.D., and Middle River, Minn. And the towns that refused to comply were Aneta, N.D., and Brooks, Minn., Williams reports.  (The only town with a news outlet is Grygla, where the Grygla Eagle was consolidated several years ago with three other weeklies into the Tri-County Canary.)

"A city clerk in Brooks, Minn., declined to provide the records and said she did not have enough time. The City Council, she said, told her 'they would just as soon have me not do it,'" Williams reports. "A clerk in Aneta, N.D., said the City Council decided it would not 'be of any value for us to send them over' because the town is so small."

Stephanie Dassigner, deputy director of the North Dakota League of Cities, said the audit's findings were not surprising, since small-town governments are often short-staffed, which makes wait times longer.

"Another problem encountered by the Herald’s audit was finding accurate contact information for city leaders. Most counties list contact information for city and township officials on county webpages, but after the audit, Herald reporters aren’t sure all of the numbers were accurate or up to date," Williams reports. "Dassigner said it’s sometimes a challenge for small communities to publish or update contact information."

The Herald came up with the idea for the audit last year, after northern Minnesota town Roosevelt wouldn't provide city records to the paper and a city council member allegedly threatened the reporter covering the story. "It prompted the Herald to wonder: Is Roosevelt’s civic disorganization and lack of response to record requests unique? Or is it a widespread problem in towns of similar size?" Williams reports.

Herald publisher Korrie Wenzel said the results of the audit were "unsettling." He told Williams: "In this day and age, when we talk so much about open government and transparency, it’s unbelievable that we are unable to obtain even basic documents from 40 percent of the towns we asked."

The state attorney general's office encouraged the Herald to file a request for an opinion on Aneta and Brooks for not providing records; Wenzel says the paper plans to pursue such action, Williams reports.

Major drug companies settle Ohio counties' opioid suit for $260 million just as first federal trial was about to start

"The nation's three biggest drug distributors and a major drugmaker reached a $260 million settlement with two Ohio counties over the deadly havoc wreaked by opioids, just hours before the first federal trial over the crisis was about to begin Monday," Julie Carr Smyth and Geoff Mulvihill report for The Associated Press. The counties are Cuyahoga (Cleveland) and Summit (Akron).

The agreement requires distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson to pay a combined $215 million. Drug manufacturer Teva must pitch in $20 million in cash and $25 million worth of Suboxone, an opioid-addiction treatment drug. Five other drugmakers had settled earlier; after the new settlements, the only defendant left is Walgreens. The current plan is for Walgreens and other pharmacies to go to trial within six months if it doesn't settle first, Smyth and Mulvihill report.

The trial was closely watched as a test of how well drug companies' arguments would go over in similar cases; the drug industry is embroiled in more than 2,600 lawsuits from state, local and tribal governments. "A federal judge in Ohio has been pushing the parties toward a settlement of all the lawsuits for nearly two years," AP reports. "Industry CEOs and attorneys general from four states met Friday in a daylong session in Cleveland, where the offer in place was a deal worth potentially $48 billion in cash and drugs over time to settle cases nationally. But they couldn't close the deal, partly because of disagreements between state and local governments over how to allocate the settlement, which would have come from the three big distributors, Teva and Johnson & Johnson."

Attorneys general from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas, which are leading the talks, said that they're continuing the effort and that the Ohio settlement helps, AP reports.

Don't miss out on the Rural Women's Summit, Oct. 27-29

Chavez speaks at the 2018 National Rural
Assembly (DY photo by Shawn Poynter)
Don't miss out on the first-ever Rural Women's Summit in Greenville, South Carolina, on Oct. 27-29. The event aims to bring together a diverse group of rural officials, business and nonprofit leaders, funders and advocates to discuss and encourage policy and public-interest efforts that benefit women in rural America. It's run by the Rural Assembly, a group that seeks to build a "smarter, greener, more inclusive rural America," according to its website.

The Daily Yonder will present highlights from the convention, along with interviews with speakers and panelists. Today they ran an interview with one such speaker, immigrant-rights advocate Marlene Guerrero Plua Chavez. Chavez is the director of community outreach and engagement for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which gives free civil legal services to 68 counties in the state.

Chavez told the Yonder that she's seeing growing animosity towards migrant farmworkers in rural areas. "We know that there’s always been a divide in our rural areas and I know that many groups and many, many people have worked together with rural leaders to unify us. But at this particular time and moment, under this [federal] administration, it has prompted more hate in our communities. And I think this is overall, encompassing our entire society, our entire nation, where we have so much hate in our communities right now. And because of that, particularly in rural areas, I see how that has manifested and how that has made more hostile environments for our communities."

Some states consider ways to fund local news, but critics worry it could undermine the news media's watchdog role

U.S. news deserts (University of North Carolina map; click it to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)
As newspaper numbers decline, rural areas have been and are more likely to lose local coverage than their suburban and urban counterparts, April Simpson reports for Stateline, a publication of The Pew Charitable Trusts. "More than 500 of the 1,800 newspapers that have closed or merged since 2004 were in rural communities," she writes, citing the 2018 report, "The Expanding News Desert," by Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media."

The loss of local coverage often makes it difficult for rural residents to find out about local news or relevant state issues. It also means less accountability for local officials and less-informed voters, Abernathy said in her report. On top of that, for more than a decade rural areas have been losing coverage by metropolitan media, as newspapers close their regional news bureaus.

Some states are considering funding efforts to support local news, but critics worry that doing so might undermine the press’s role as a government watchdog. Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and publisher of The Rural Blog, told Simpson: "There’s this adversarial relationship that exists and needs to exist."

In Massachusetts, one proposal "would establish a commission to study journalism in under-served communities and make public policy recommendations. Similar conversations are happening among advocates and legislators across the country, including in New Jersey, New York and Ohio," Simpson reports. "Potential solutions include more money for public broadcasting, providing tax incentives to persuade media outlets to close local news gaps and following the path of New Jersey, which in 2018 created a fund to bring news and information to under-served communities."

At the federal level, one proposal would amend the federal tax code to make it easier for news organizations to achieve nonprofit status, which could be important to smaller news outlets, and another (more important for large companies) would allow them to collectively negotiate content distribution with news aggregators like Google and Facebook, Simpson reports.

Some caution against allowing the government to have so much input in the news. New Jersey established an independent nonprofit in 2017 meant to strengthen local news coverage, but has barely funded it since then. The fact that the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium's "ruling body is top-heavy with government leaders and employees should give us pause," media writer Jack Shafer writes for Politico. "How can a nonprofit news organization directed by people in the government even pretend to be independent?"

"Nevertheless," Simpson writes, "the Colorado Media Project earlier this month pointed to New Jersey as a model in a report that proposes four strategies to close local news gaps: increasing government transparency, increasing support for libraries and higher education, empowering communities to raise taxes to pay for local news, and helping commercial media outlets convert to a nonprofit model."

Though Cross said the CMP report had good ideas, it goes too far, he told Simpson: "It’s highly unlikely that the public policymakers in Colorado or any other states are going to adopt these types of recommendations because they’re too far-reaching for a lot of policymakers to swallow." (Cross believes that any news organization getting taxpayer money needs a strong structure to gather taxpayers' opinions about how their money is being used; he also thinks preservation of public-notice advertising laws has become as important to small newspapers as it was in their early days.)

Other possible solutions for rural news deserts include expanding public broadcasting or leaning more on philanthropic funding of nonprofit news organizations, Simpson reports.

UPDATE: New York legislators are pushing a bill that would require cable TV companies in the state to provide independently produced news and public-affairs programming, The New York Times reports.