Friday, September 25, 2020

Covering a pandemic: Don't let fatigue and friction stop you

Illustration from
By Al Cross

Director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Just as some people are tiring of taking precautions against the novel coronavirus, helping it spread, I'm sure some newsrooms are tiring of covering it. And that helps it spread, too, by making it seem less of a threat, and discouraging precautions.

And I fear that some newsrooms aren't just tired of covering the pandemic, but have scaled back their coverage because of objections from people who think the pandemic is overblown or even a hoax that will fade after the election.

Let me be quick to say that I haven't seen such a trend in the newspapers I read regularly, but I tend to read high-quality newspapers, so that's not probative evidence.

What I do know is that news organizations all over the country are getting pushback. 

"No matter how carefully we report . . . for the first time, our readers are questioning the credibility of our reporting on the virus, and that's dismaying," said Les Zaitz, editor-publisher of the weekly Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon.

Zaitz made the comment on a panel during the Society of Professional Journalists conference this month, and I followed up with him via email.

"We consistently have people telling us they don't believe the numbers we report about total coronavirus infections, and the positive testing rate," he wrote. "They accuse us of being in league with government officials to overstate the cases. Some say this is to effect more government control over people. We cite our sources, link to those government sources, and regularly explain the data in plain terms.

He added, "We also get pushback in reporting on when government imposes restrictions (limiting restaurants, for instance). We are accused of fear-mongering and trying to panic people. Again, we clearly cite our sources."

I got similar reports from some editors of Landmark Community Newspapers, with the help of Editorial Director John Nelson, who surveyed them at my request.

"The most intense feedback has been on social media, specifically Facebook," wrote Editor Hugh Willett of the Roane County News in East Tennessee. "We are posting the regular updates on positives cases, deaths, etc., that come from the county mayor’s office. These posts generate a large number of responses and quickly deteriorate into name calling over mask use, government overreach, etc."

In nearby Campbell County, LaFollette Press Editor Robby O'Daniel said "We’ve received basically no feedback on the stories in the paper," but on social media, "Routinely, a handful of commenters spam the thread with thoughts questioning the legitimacy of the pandemic and accusing us of bias and fear-mongering when simply relaying facts from the Tennessee Department of Health."

"We have gotten a lot negative feedback on Facebook," wrote Editor Travis Jenkins of The News & Reporter in Chester, S.C. "Lots of folks calling it the 'plandemic' and so forth. Lots of people arguing masks don’t work, it infringes on their rights, and such as that. Anytime we post anything about mask ordinances or covid, it goes berserk."

Ben Sheroan, who edits one of Landmark's two dailies, The News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown, Ky., wrote that the paper "sees a lot of rude remarks and argumentative interaction on posts about daily covid reports and other covid-related stories."

Sheroan said the paper has sometimes changed its coverage "by simply being responsive to questions raised. For example, adding the positivity rate in a subsequent daily report, or providing data about the number of people hospitalized in a neighboring county. We have found sources to do stories about people who have lost family members or suffered illness."

Editor Miranda Cantrell on the job in Morgan County, Kentucky
The stories of the sick are important, to impress upon skeptical readers that covid-19 is a real disease, and a tough one. Leads can come from social media. That's what the Licking Valley Courier, an independently owned weekly in West Liberty, Ky., did when a county official posted on Facebook, "For those who don’t think covid-19 is real, it is. I tested positive."

Editor Miranda Cantrell put a note at the end of her story about the official's post, asking other victims to tell their stories, because readers in her Eastern Kentucky county wonder "whether the effects are as severe as mainstream media outlets have reported."

Yes, they do, but they are more likely to trust a local news outlet than one based somewhere else, so local editors and reports have a responsibility to tell the story of the pandemic and not flinch from friction or fatigue.

"Our main obligation is to give information to the public that's authoritative, truthful and important," Stat Executive Editor Rick Berke said during another SPJ session. He said it's "urgent" to write more stories "about how bad this is and how it affects people."

Berke, who covered politics for The New York Times, recalled that covering the topic after the 2001 terrorist attacks "was really hard because everyone was so nice to each other," so he was shocked to see the pandemic "become so politicized."

Another editor in the session, Steve Riley of the Houston Chronicle, said some readers are suspicious of national newspapers. He said anytime his paper publishes a front-page story from the Times or The Washington Post, both of which President Trump has attacked, it gets "emails that seem scripted from Fox News . . . It's our job to cut through the crap and provided unfettered, straight, reliable news, no matter where it falls."

Times science correspondent Donald McNeil Jr. said, "Every organ of government has been corrupted in this pandemic . . . Our role in this pandemic has been more important in many more crises in this country because there has been such an effort to suppress the truth, and we're fighting that."

Riley advised, "Be engaged with your critics." He said he tries to "explain in a calming way the role that we have. . . . the folks will at least nod their head and appreciate the response."

Some parents deliberately sending coronavirus-infected kids to class, possibly because of a lack of child care

Though many school districts are doing distance learning this fall, some schools (more likely rural ones) are holding in-person classes. As those schools attempt to keep staff and students from spreading the coronavirus, they're running into an unexpected problem: some parents are deliberately sending their coronavirus-infected children to school. 

That's happened several times in suburban Washington and Ozaukee counties in Wisconsin, according to the counties' public health department officer, Kirsten Johnson, Alec Johnson reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I think for us, the biggest challenge for us that we’re experiencing right now is people are just being dishonest," Johnson said. "They don’t want their children to be quarantined from school. They don’t want to have to miss work. In doing that, they’re jeopardizing the ability to have school in person and other people’s health."

Part of the problem may be the lack of child care, especially in rural areas where child care is already scarce. And the problem may be getting worse. Researchers warn that nearly half of the nation's child-care centers could shutter because of the pandemic, Kavitha Cardoza reports for NPR

In the 11-county Appalachian region of Ohio, for example, the number of child-care centers has declined by more than 80 percent since 1999, and that was before the pandemic, which is rapidly accelerating closures, Rachel Dissell reports for Eye on Ohio., the nonprofit, nonpartisan partnership between the Ohio Center for Journalism and the nonprofit Fuller Project.

Ga. nursing-home scheme may cost taxpayers $76 million

A federal investigation said the owner of a Georgia nursing home chain improperly used a legal loophole to score $300 million in bonus payments for his chain. That could cost Georgia taxpayers $76 million, Max Blau reports for Georgia Health News, in partnership with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network

Twenty years ago, Ronnie Rollins, who owned a for-profit chain of nursing homes, thought of an unorthodox way to qualify for bonus Medicaid payments meant to go to non-profit nursing homes. By having non-profit partners apply for bonus payments, Rollins believed he could convince federal officials that the non-profits owned the agencies, Blau reports.

Because the idea pushed the limits of the law, Rollins asked the Georgia Department of Community Health for approval. The department agreed, as long Rollins gave the department a portion of the bonus payments; officials "hoped to use the money to help stabilize Medicaid reimbursement rates for providers across the state," Blau reports.

Over the next 20 years, Rollins built one of the state's largest non-profit health-care networks, today called Community Health Services of Georgia, and brought in about $300 million in bonus payments. In the 2017 fiscal year, CHSGa brought in over $650 million in total revenue, Blau reports.

Federal officials say Rollins' workaround threatens the state's ability to collect Medicaid funds. In 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ruled that some of Rollins' bonus payments were inappropriate; payments under the program have halted, and CMS is seeking $76 million in repayment from the state. The state has appealed, but if it fails, taxpayers will be on the hook for repaying the money.

Since Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to the chain halted six years ago, the nursing homes have reported below-average staffing levels, more than twice the average deficiencies as the average nursing home in Georgia, and the chain has been fined more than $1.2 million for violating patient-safety standards, according to the GHN and ProPublica investigation. The chain's 55 nursing homes also have a 4.9% covid-19 death rate, compared with the statewide average death rate of 3.3% for nursing homes.

Quick hits: fires spark conspiracy theories, threaten Oregon timber economy; lack of students hurts college towns

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

Small college towns feel the financial pain from the lack of students. Read more here.

Montana officials struggle to get rural residents counted in the census. Read more here.

The decision to shorten the census schedule came from outside the Census Bureau, according to the Commerce Department's inspector general. Read more here.

Conspiracy theories about Western wildfires, including claims that some were started by antifa arsonists, are making things harder for emergency responders. A Facebook official discusses the company's efforts to remove misinformation about the fires and their broader attempts to quell the spread of misinformation online. Read more here.

Oregon's timber economy faces an uncertain future after record wildfires. Read more here.

In slumping energy states, plugging abandoned wells could provide an economic boost. Read more here.

Rural queer communities connect via oral history project

Rae Garringer
(National Geographic photo by Annie Flanagan)
Rae Garringer grew up on a sheep farm in West Virginia, but felt isolated as a queer person in Appalachia. So Garringer, who uses nonbinary them/them pronouns, set off on a cross-country trip in the summer of 2014 to interview other rural LGBTQ+ rural residents, a la StoryCorps. They interviewed 30 people in 30 days, recording more than 45 hours of tape. That became the seed of an oral history project called Country Queers, which has recently begun a podcast sharing those interviews and more, Nicole Blackwood reports for National Geographic.

The new podcast, which includes a 2018 interview with author Silas House, seeks to amplify "often unheard stories of rural queer experiences across intersecting layers of identity including race, class, gender identity, age, religion, and occupation," according to the website. The website also includes written transcripts and photos from over a dozen more interviews. 

Garringer and other project collaborators want the project to help preserve rural queer histories, show the broader world that rural Americans are not all straight and white, push back against the popular narrative that queer people only thrive in cities, and help queer rural residents to feel connected and build community even though many are geographically isolated.

But, "Even as the project grows, the goal remains the same: figuring out what the future can look like," Blackwood reports.

"As much as this project has been about amplifying people’s stories and raising our visibility, there is such a personal piece for me ... like, how do we do this?" Garringer told Blackwood. "How do we thrive in these places?"

Thursday, September 24, 2020

USDA creates unusual new channel to get pandemic stimulus money into tobacco farmers' pockets

"U.S. government aid payments to tobacco farmers will be channeled through a new account within the office of the agriculture secretary, an unusual move that bypasses the normal mechanism for distributing farm aid and stokes concerns about how the government is using covid-19 stimulus," P.J. Huffstutter and Tom Polansek report for Reuters: "The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday said it will pay up to $100 million to tobacco farmers from Congress’ coronavirus economic stimulus package, as part of a $14 billion assistance program for farmers hurt by the pandemic."

The new account had not previously been reported, but a USDA official told Reuters that "the agency opened the new account because of how Congress apportioned money from the CARES Act passed in March. and to simplify the process of paying farmers," Huffstutter and Polansek report. "Lawmakers typically apportion emergency funds to an agency and existing accounts set up at the division that would handle a program, according to agricultural and government analysts."

Most federal crop subsidies are paid through the Commodity Credit Corp., a federal agency, but the 2004 tobacco buyout barred tobacco farmers from receiving CCC funds, Huffstutter and Polansek report. Instead, Congress specifically allocated the non-CCC aid to the USDA secretary's office. The USDA representative said Congress would have specifically excluded tobacco farmers from receiving funding if it didn't want them to receive any money.

However, "Some economic and legal experts said the 2004 law eliminated the government’s role in funding tobacco price supports and worry the Trump administration is not being transparent," Huffstutter and Polansek report. "The reality is that Congress would have to explicitly authorize paying tobacco farmers," said former Obama administration official Jonathan Coppess, currently the director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program at the University of Illinois.

Tobacco growers were excluded from the first round of pandemic aid announced in April. Graham Boyd, executive vice president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, told Reuters that tobacco farmers in his state lost about $200 million in potential sales to China because of export shutdowns during the pandemic.

The new payments would benefit farmers in swing-state North Carolina, the nation's top tobacco producer, where President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are neck and neck in the polls. However, the USDA representative told Reuters there was nothing improper about the account.

NPR graphics show covid-19 deaths' shift to rural America

Weekly percentage of covid-19 deaths by county urbanization level (NPR graph)

The covid-19 pandemic's toll of deaths has surpassed 200,000, and an increasing share of those are rural, Sean McMinn, Ruth Talbot and Jess Eng report for NPR. The article has a series of maps and charts that can help readers visualize the trend. Read more here.

New report details pandemic's impact on rural households

Five new reports detail the coronavirus's impact on U.S. households, including in rural areas. NPR, Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation collaborated on the project, which gathered data through interviews with more than 3,400 adults across the nation (543 were rural).

The first report details the pandemic's impact on households in major cities, the second examines its impact on households by race and ethnicity, and the third focuses on the general impact to U.S. households. The fourth and fifth reports have not been released yet. The fourth will focus on households with children and the fifth will focus solely on rural households.

Though none of the first three reports focus on rural households, the third report has some interesting data on rural households. Among its findings:

  • 42% report facing serious financial problems during the pandemic.
  • 31% say they've used up all or most of their savings.
  • 21% report serious problems paying credit cards, loans or other debt.
  • 10% report not having any household savings prior to the pandemic.
  • 43% say that at least one adult in the household has lost their job, lost their business, been furloughed, or had their wages or hours reduced. 
  • Among rural households with job or wage losses during the pandemic, 66% report facing serious financial problems.
  • 34% report having either no high-speed internet connection at home or problems with their internet connection that interfere with their ability to do their jobs or schoolwork.
  • 24% say that someone in their household has been unable to get medical care for a serious problem when they needed it during the pandemic, and 56% of those respondents who were unable to get care report negative health consequences as a result.

New online course aimed at making mental-health care more accessible to farmers and other rural residents

A new online course, Rural Resilience, aims to make mental-health care more accessible to farmers and other rural Americans. The program, created by the Michigan State University and Illinois State University Extension programs, "helps participants learn to recognize signs of stress, identify effective coping strategies, respond to suicidal behavior, and connect with appropriate resources," Foodtank reports. "The course also offers specialized mental health crisis training for employees of institutions with direct contact with farmers, such as unions, insurance companies, and credit servicers."

The majority of rural counties, home to 273,000 small farms, don't have enough mental-health care practictioners, according to a 2018 report from the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. "Compounding the problem, some farmers lack health insurance coverage for mental health care. Instead, these services can require out of pocket payments, which 87 percent of farmers agree is a barrier to treatment, according to a survey from the American Farm Bureau Federation," Foodtank reports.

Stigma can also prevent many farmers from seeking help, but leaving mental-health problems untreated can be deadly: farmers have a higher suicide rate than the general population, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Foodtank reports.

Many rural hospitals on the financial brink as pandemic loans come due; stopgap funding bill has some relief

Federal loans in the form of advance payments from Medicare kept many struggling hospitals afloat during the earlier days of the pandemic, but the loans must be repaid this month, unless hospitals get a reprieve in a stopgap funding bill moving through Congress.

Officially, full repayment of the loan is due this month, and many hospitals say they still can't afford to pay up. If they don't, federal regulators are supposed to "stop reimbursing the hospitals for Medicare patients’ treatments until the loan is repaid in full," Sarah Jane Tribble reports for Kaiser Health News

The stopgap apprpriations measure passed by the House on Monday includes partial relief for all hospitals. It "would extend the start of the repayment period for hospitals and the amount of time they are allowed to take to repay," Tribble reports. "The continuing resolution that includes this language about relief for hospitals (among many, many other things) is still being hammered out, though it does face its own deadline: It must be approved by the House and the Senate within the next nine days or the federal government faces a shutdown."

Some rural hospitals are afraid to spend the loan money because losing Medicare reimbursements would be crippling; at many such hospitals, Medicare payments make up 40 percent or more of their revenue, Tribble reports.

"The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has not yet begun trying to recoup its money, with the coronavirus still affecting communities nationwide, but hospital leaders fear it may come calling for repayment any day now." Hospital leaders across the country told Tribble that CMS has not communicated with them about when or whether they'll adjust the payment deadline, and a CMS spokesperson didn't respond to questions by press time. 

More than 65 percent of the nation's small, rural hospitals, many of which were already struggling before the pandemic, took out loans from Medicare's Accelerated and Advance Payments Program because they were the first funds available, Tribble reports. CMS cut off new loan applications for the program in April.

"The program, which existed long before the pandemic, was generally used sparingly by hospitals faced with emergencies such as hurricanes or tornadoes. It was expanded for use during the coronavirus pandemic — part of billions approved in federal relief funds for health care providers this spring," Tribble reports. "A full repayment of a hospital’s loan is technically due 120 days after it was received. If it is not paid, Medicare will stop reimbursing claims until it recoups the money it is owed — a point spelled out in the program’s rules. Medicare reimburses nearly $60 billion in payments to health care providers nationwide under Medicare’s Part A program, which makes payments to hospitals.

Health officials and researchers fear the pandemic could accelerate the closure of rural hospitals, which would reduce rural health-care access, rural economies, and trigger a rise in local death rates. Another pressure many are facing: a federal appeals court recently ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services can continue to cut certain drug reimbursements for safety-net hospitals by nearly 30%.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Rural coronavirus infections jump 30% over the past week; see the latest county-level data

New coronavirus infection rates from Sept. 13-19. Daily Yonder map;
click the image to enlarge it or or click here for the interactive version.

"The number of new Covid-19 infections in rural America jumped by 30 percent last week last week, reversing a short-lived decline in new cases  Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. ""New deaths from covid-19 also grew last week, increasing by 20% and bringing the total number of rural Americans who have died as a result of the pandemic to 18,128." The Daily Yonder's analysis of new coronavirus infections and deaths covers Sept. 13-19. 

The jump put a record number of rural counties on the red-zone list."The number of rural counties on the red-zone list climbed to 909 last week. The previous record was set the first week of September, when 806 rural counties were on the list," Murphy and Marema report. The White House Coronavirus Task Force defines red zones as counties with 100 or more new cases per 100,000 in population. 

Click here for the latest county-level data on new coronavirus infections and deaths as well as more data breakdowns from the Yonder.

House passes bipartisan bill to fund government through Dec. 11; deal includes expanded farm aid, food assistance

In a 359-57 vote on Tuesday night, the House passed a bill to keep the government funded through Dec. 11, following a compromise on farm aid and food assistance.

"The bipartisan agreement between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, reached just hours before the vote, is expected to smooth the bill’s passage in the GOP-controlled Senate and avert a partial shutdown when the government’s funding expires next Thursday," Kristina Peterson and Lindsay Wise report for The Wall Street Journal. The Senate is expected to vote on it this week.

The bill "would add to the spending bill $21 billion sought by the White House for the Commodity Credit Corp., or CCC, a Depression-era program designed to stabilize farm incomes that permits borrowing as much as $30 billion from the Treasury to finance its activities. The agreement prohibits any payments from going to fossil fuel refiners and importers, a concern of Democrats, and includes roughly $8 billion in additional nutrition funding," Peterson and Wise report. "President Trump has tapped the CCC program to finance both trade relief and coronavirus-related aid for farmers, a second round of which he announced at a campaign rally in Wisconsin last week. But the program has traditionally been used to send out payments established under bipartisan farm bills, some of which the Agriculture Department had said could be subject to delays as soon as October."

The bill also adds $8 billion for food assistance. "That includes a one-year extension of a program expiring at month’s end that would provide funding to families of school-age children to buy groceries, replacing the free or reduced-price meals they would have received at school, "Peterson and Wise report. "They also expanded the program to include children at child-care centers affected by the pandemic."

Thursday webinar to provide overview of Rural Community Paramedicine Toolkit

A webinar at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 24, will provide an overview of a new toolkit designed to help small towns build community paramedicine and mobile integrated health programs. The webinar is presented by the Rural Health Information Hub and the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis and will last about an hour.

From the webinar website: "This webinar will provide an overview of how the community paramedicine model of care functions and benefits rural communities. It will feature existing programs that have successfully provided rural community paramedicine services and discusses lessons learned related to establishing and sustaining rural programs."

Click here for more information on the Rural Community Paramedicine Toolkit or to register for the webinar.

Four panelists from tomorrow's Radically Rural summit featured in article about community journalism

A recent article about the issues facing community journalism features four of the panelists from the Community Journalism track at the Radically Rural virtual summit on Thursday, Sept. 24. Tickets are still available.

Liz White, publisher of the Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn., says her paper was doing well before the pandemic, and thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program and grants from Facebook and Google, has been able to avoid staff layoffs, Susan Geier reports for the Granite State News Collaborative in New Hampshire. 

"All newspapers are challenged, but if you have an innovative culture and mindset, you can see a lot of opportunity for growth. I think what it has done, in general, is spark us to act even faster," White told Geier. Because the Record-Journal has little debt and no corporate bureaucracy to deal with, they can make decisions quickly, White said. Though they've embraced digital content, she said it's still a challenge converting viewers into paying subscribers.

Kristen Hare, who reports on the state of the newspaper industry for the Poynter Institute, told Geier that local journalism must pivot to new revenue models to survive. Cash-strapped small papers are increasingly snapped up by newspaper chains, which are increasingly controlled by hedge funds that don't have an incentive to innovate and ensure the long-term survival of journalism. 

Meanwhile, newspaper advertising revenue has dropped nearly 70 percent since 2004 because of social media. When the pandemic hit, newsrooms that diversified their revenue streams fared better, Hare said. Some promising new revenue models include seeking sponsors to fund different kinds of coverage (for example, a sporting goods store might sponsor high school sports coverage). Newspapers could also directly appeal to the community in a fundraising effort, she said.

Many small local newspapers are also at the mercy of disasters, just like other small businesses. The News Reporter, a twice-weekly paper in Columbus County, N.C., has suffered damage from three hurricanes in the past five years, and on top of that is dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic, according to publisher Les High. 

He told Geier that the paper has been able to stave off layoffs by aggressively seeking grants, adding an online newsroom with help from an innovative partnership with the University of North Carolina. "We’ve learned a lot about change," High said. "We’ve moved a lot more to a digital model. If it goes online, you pay for that. We’ve also made key hires with a director of marketing and a super young editor. They are both digitally savvy and understand what it takes to make this model work."

Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon, said that his paper is very rural and relies disproportionately on ads from local businesses. When the pandemic hit, "traditional advertising vaporized for about a month," Zaitz told Geier. He was worried the paper would have to shutter, but it helped to focus on increasing digital subscriptions and remain clear in communicating with the town. The paper put out a call for financial aid and says readers responded immediately. 

After the paper stabilized, Zaitz shifted his attention to helping local businesses with advertising deals, saying that he believes the newspaper is a community partner. "The community needs essential information about the pandemic, and the newspapers can provide it for free with the community’s support," Zaitz told Geier. "It’s not just 'here’s our tin cup.' That just won’t work, nor should it."

National survey finds rural-urban differences in health depts.

Chart from NACCHO report; a similar chart in the report shows services and programs more prevalent in rural areas.

Local health departments serving rural jurisdictions are less likely to provide regulation, inspection, and licensing services, as well as environmental health services, with the exception of regulating public drinking-water supplies, according to a report from the National Association of City and County Health Officials.

The report, based on a survey of local health departments, found several other disparities. Rural health departments are less likely to be involved in preventing sale of tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, to minors; are half as likely as their urban counterparts to recruit employees from academic institutions; and are three to four times less likely to use social media, other than Facebook, which more than 80 percent of both types reported using.

On the other hand, "Local health departments serving rural jurisdictions are more likely to provide certain clinical services, including childhood and adult immunizations, maternal and child health services, and screening/treatment for various conditions," and they get more funding per person than their urban counterparts, the report says.

"The difference in clinical revenues among rural and urban LHDs is particularly striking (mean of $21 per capita for rural jurisdictions versus $6 per capita for urban jurisdictions)," the report says. That likely reflects a shortage of health-care providers in many rural areas and a higher reliance on local health departments. One funding source is the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, in which 76 percent of rural health departments responding to the survey participate, compared to 59 percent of urban departments responding.

Departments were coded as urban or rural based on whether the majority of people they serve live in from urban or rural census tracts. Many rural census tracts are in metropolitan areas.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Free Friday Poynter webinar discusses how to better cover incarceration and criminal justice ahead of the election

At 2 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 25, Poynter will host a one-hour webinar meant to help journalists better understand and cover incarceration, justice, and criminal justice reform leading up to the 2020 election. Poyner senior faculty Al Tompkins and Jamiles Lartey of The Marshall Project will lead the webinar. The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.

According to the webinar website, Tompkins and Lartey "will examine the Democratic and Republican platforms for justice reform, empowering journalists with the knowledge they’ll need to ask direct questions to candidates, including U.S. House of Representatives and Senate candidates."

The webinar, which received funding from the MacArthur Foundation, is free for those unable to pay, but those with the means to do so are encouraged to make a small donation. Click here for more information or to register.

In Wed. webinar, Report for America cofounder to discuss idea for how to save local papers squeezed by hedge funds

Rural newspapers are at a crisis point, one accelerated by the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic, Steven Waldman writes for Journalism & Liberty. But Waldman, the cofounder of Report for America, has an idea for how to help, which he will discuss in a free webinar at 3:30 p.m. ET. on Wed., Sept. 23. Click here to register.

Many rural papers are treading water, financially speaking, because the lack of broadband access makes print a more accessible source of news for locals. But that won't always be the case. Also, many rural newspaper owners want to retire but have no clear successor. Many of these papers will end up getting sold to private equity funds or struggling newspaper chains. "Among those likely to go underwater are family-owned weeklies, including many ethnic newspapers. The local news system will manage to get even less competent, less inclusive, and less diverse," Waldman writes.

But many of the nation's 6,700 privately-owned papers have "significant civic value – built up over decades, and of the sort that would take considerable time and money to replicate via a new venture, if that were possible at all," Waldman writes. "Until now, we have assumed that our options were: allow ghost newspapers to proliferate, accept news deserts, or build brand new media organizations. 

A better option, he writes, would be to transform for-profit newspapers into local nonprofit organizations and Public Benefit Corporations. Waldman likens the notion to repotting a sickly plant in healthier soil and watering it. 

The strategy requires two parts: a new, private nonprofit "replanting fund" that would identify likely candidates and help them make the transition, and public policy changes to ease such transitions and discourage news consolidation, Waldman writes. 

EPA allows pesticide atrazine and related chemicals to stay on the market — with some new caveats

Widely used herbicide atrazine, along with its cousins propozine and simizine, can stay on the market, but with new restrictions on its use. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the interim decision Friday at a farmer roundtable in Niangua, Missouri, Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. Atrazine is the second-most widely used herbicide in the U.S., and is mainly used on corn, sugarcane, sorghum, and landscaping.

The new restrictions are intended to reduce potential harm to human health and the environment; the EPA has found in recent years that atrazine exposure can pose developmental risks to children and reproductive risks to wildlife. The new measures include reducing atrazine and simazine use on residential lawns to protect children who play on them, requiring irrigation immediately after applying simazine to residential turf, and requiring workers who spray the herbicides to wear additional personal protective equipment.

"The agency is finalizing label requirements for all three triazines to include mandatory spray drift control measures, to minimize pesticide drift into non-target areas including water bodies, as well as updating label directions to reduce weed resistance to atrazine," Neeley reports.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a left-leaning nonprofit, plans to file suit against the EPA over the decision. The organization argues that allowing use of triazines at all endangers human health and wildlife, and notes that more than 35 countries have banned or are phasing out use of atrazine. The Center also argues that the EPA essentially modified lab test benchmarks to make atrazine seem safer for humans, and that the old benchmarks would have found atrazine unsafe for use on lawns and turf.

OPINION: Let's build agriculture back better together, say former ag aides from opposite parties, endorsing Biden

The Rural Blog welcomes short opinion pieces on current issues of interest to rural Americans.

By Larry Elworth and Dawn R. Riley

Throughout our careers in farming and public service, having worked in Republican and Democratic administrations, we have seen that when it comes to doing what’s best for agriculture, one’s political affiliation does not matter as much as a steady and serious commitment to farmers and their communities. We know that the well-being of the farm community depends on stable leadership that takes responsibility for its actions, gives credit to all who have contributed, and shares benefits with those who have need. We believe that Vice President Biden can best provide that leadership for America.

The past six months have shown more clearly than ever that farmers and farm communities are critical to America’s well-being. Unfortunately, the impacts of the pandemic, as well as failures in national leadership, have exacerbated problems farmers have faced for some time: low prices, high debt, record bankruptcies, and suicide rates. Even as farmers have been called upon as essential workers, the mishandling of the crisis at the national level has increased risk to farm families, crippled supply chains, and resulted in lost jobs and access to health care in their communities.

Farm families and communities have always been resilient and enterprising. They have invested their own money in conserving natural resources and growing crops that produce renewable fuels to create economic opportunities and meet our nation’s energy needs. They have invested their resources in cooperatives that bring economic benefits to rural communities across the country and market value-added products around the world. For many decades, agricultural exports have been the bright spot in our country’s balance of trade, thanks to the hard work and dollars that farmers and their communities have invested in developing reliable markets and trading relationships.

Farm communities have a legitimate reason to expect that their work and that of everyone involved in the food production chain will be valued. They have reason to expect that the nation will recognize how important a vital farm economy is to our society and reason to expect that markets will be expanded, not decimated. Farmers also have every reason to expect leadership at the national level that does not jeopardize years of investment in production capacity and critical markets by acting recklessly, heedless of the consequences and costs borne by our country.

Just as importantly, they have reason to expect leadership that values civility, human decency, and mutual respect; leadership with a record of personal commitment to working across the political spectrum in the best interests of agriculture and farm communities. Leadership, in other words, that values the work of those who have made our agricultural bounty possible.

Vice President Biden clearly embodies these values. No one is better suited to further the interests of American agriculture and preserve the immense value that farmers and ranchers provide to our country as a whole.

Dawn R. Riley of Louisville served in the office of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the George W. Bush administration. Larry Elworth of Burnsville, N.C., served at USDA and the White House in the Clinton administration and EPA in the Obama administration. They both continue to work on agricultural, food and sustainability issues.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Covid-19 deaths shift rural attitudes about pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the U.S. at the beginning of the year, it mainly affected urban areas, and rural residents tended to take it less seriously. But as federal efforts to limit the spread of the disease often faltered, the United States' "extraordinarily high case load — more than 6.5 million so far — and death count have translated into steadily growing acceptance of the preventive steps scientists recommend," The Washington Post reports.

In rural Vermont, for example, twin brothers Cleon and Leon Boyd died within days of each other, and 11 immediate relatives were infected. "The Boyd family’s harrowing experience rippled through the towns where they lived and worked, sharply altering attitudes toward the coronavirus and spreading adoption of social distancing and face coverings," the Post reports.

The Post story also notes the death of Pamela Sue Rush in rural Lowndes County, in Alabama's Black Belt, where a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line. Many live in small mobile homes that make social distancing difficult, and they also often lack a functioning septic system, which can encourage the spread of disease. Rush, 50, has two children. 

Tyler Childers drops a surprise album meant to raise money for Appalachia and raise awareness about racial injustice

Screenshot of Childers' album website

Eastern Kentucky-born country singer and songwriter Tyler Childers released a surprise album on Friday meant to raise money for Appalachian philanthropic efforts and raise awareness about racial injustice to rural white listeners, Joseph Hudak reports for Rolling Stone.

Long Violent History is mostly instrumental fiddle music but includes a track with the same name of the album, in which Childers "sings about the Appalachian upbringing of a 'white boy from Hickman' and how he and his kin have been sometimes labeled 'belligerent' and 'ignorant.' But, he points out, they’ve never had to fear for their lives," Hudak reports. "Could you imagine just constantly worryin'/Kickin' and fightin', beggin' to breathe?" he sings.

"The album arrives with a six-minute video message from the Kentucky songwriter, in which he directly challenges his fans, including his 'white rural listeners,' to empathize with black victims of police brutality," Hudak writes. "It’s a stunning speech, with Childers touching on his six-month sobriety, the covid pandemic, and the South’s misguided allegiance to the Confederate flag. But the focus of his address is on police brutality."

In the speech, Childers encourages rural, white listeners to empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement with a thought exercise: He asks them to imagine how they would feel if they constantly saw news headlines such as "East Kentucky man shot seven times on a fishing trip" for a story about a white man rummaging through his tackle box, shot by a game warden who thought he was reaching for a knife, Hudak reports. "If we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it?" Childers asks.

All net proceeds from the album benefit the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund, which Childers and his wife established earlier this year to help fund philanthropic efforts in Appalachia. 

The new album isn't the first time Childers has waded into politics and philanthropy. The Martin County native began writing songs partly as a reaction to the negative portrayal of his home town an episode of ABC News' "20/20". And in 2018, after the Martin County Water District gained nationwide attention for failing to provide clean, reliable drinking water to residents, Childers donated—and helped distribute—500 cases of water to his home county.

Supreme Court vacancy spotlights America's red-blue, rural-urban, political-cultural divide, and rural voters' greater heft

The issues swirling in the battle over a vacant Supreme Court seat “encompass the broader culture war that divides red and blue America, from abortion to marriage equality to health care to the very structure of government,” writes Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post. “The battle could easily expand to an even more charged debate over whether the high court speaks for and represents the views of a majority of Americans, or even whether the democratic system of government more broadly has become undemocratic,” through Republican gerrymandering and the Senate’s built-in bias in favor of rural states, at a time when rural voters are more Republican than ever.

Republicans control the Senate, but "their members represent fewer than half the nation’s population," Balz notes. "Republicans in the House have routinely won more seats than their share of the vote, thanks to the makeup of congressional districts." He notes The Economist magazine's cover story of July 2018, "American democracy's built-in bias toward rural Republicans," which spotlighted "the consequences of a nation with an expanding urban-rural split as wide as it is now in the United States."

The Economist said, "The electoral system the Founders devised, and which their successors elaborated, gives rural voters more clout than urban ones. When the parties stood for both city and country that bias affected them both. But the Republican Party has become disproportionately rural and the Democratic Party disproportionately urban. That means a red vote is worth more than a blue one. . . . The 13 states where people live closest together have 121 Democratic House members and 73 Republican ones, whereas the rest have 163 Republicans and just 72 Democrats. America has one party built on territory and another built on people. . . . Rancorous political disputes—over guns, abortion and climate change—split so neatly along urban-rural lines that parties and voters increasingly sort themselves into urban-rural tribes. Gerrymandering and party primaries reward extremists, and ensure that, once elected, they seldom need fear for their jobs. The incentives to take extreme positions are very powerful." Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has a more detailed examination of "The Senate's Rural Skew."

Balz notes, "Former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said in August that if Trump were reelected a second time without winning the popular vote, it could force an examination 'of what’s become of our democratic system.' In recent years, ideas that have been put forth by those who believe it is time for such an examination. They include adding more justices to the high court (as Buttigieg recommended during his presidential campaign) and amending the Constitution to eliminate the electoral college and elect presidents by popular vote. More provocative have been suggestions that Democrats should push to bring D.C. and Puerto Rico into the union to affect the balance of power in the Senate. Up to now, this has been a discussion that animates many on the left, but it’s not one that has gained a wider audience. Nor is it in the current capability of Democrats to effect such changes. But if Republicans exercise their power brazenly in an attempt to install a new justice in the face of a Biden victory in November, who can say where this fight could go?"

Heads up: National Voter Registration Day is Tuesday

National Voter Registration Day is Tuesday. Click here for examples of social media coverage, webinars, press materials, helpful links, and other resources that can be helpful in planning your coverage.

Facebook (including its subsidiaries Instagram and Messenger) is trying to bring in more voters through a campaign with information on how and when to register and vote. The campaign will go beyond social media, with ads on nationwide cable TV channels, radio, and other websites.

Some things that may be of interest to rural journalists:

  • As city dwellers have fled for the countryside to escape the pandemic, some rural areas are seeing an uptick in voter registration from Democrats, Karen Rothmyer writes for The Nation.
  • Overall new voter registration is down because of the pandemic as motor-vehicle departments and other government service centers have closed or limited access, Business Insider reports
  • Voter registration is much lower than it was in 2016 in states like Texas that do not allow voters to register online, Alex Samuels reports for The Texas Tribune. At least 39 states allow residents to easily register online. In the others, registration is by mail or in person.
  • Democrats lead new voter registrations in four battleground states, Max Greenwood reports for The Hill.

Biden was sometimes off base in drive-in town hall on CNN

Joe Biden held a socially distanced, drive-in town hall on CNN Thursday night. "Biden tends to stick close to the facts but occasionally gets carried away with some over-exuberance," Fact Checker Glenn Kessler and Salvador Rizzo report for The Washington Post. Biden didn't make nearly as many false claims as President Trump did at his own town hall, he told a few "whoppers," they report.

Biden claimed that if Trump had "had done his job from the beginning, all the people would still be alive. All the people — I'm not making this up. Just look at the data." But there is no data to support this. Even if Trump had moved rapidly to contain the spread of the pandemic in January, some people would likely have died, as has happened even in countries that have been praised for their handling of the pandemic, Kessler and Rizzo report. In South Korea, which has a population of 51.2 million, there were 377 deaths. The U.S. has about 331 million people, nearly 6.5 times more than South Korea, but its death toll of around 200,000 is over 530 times higher than South Korea's. 

Biden said he wrote an article for USA Today in January saying "We've got a pandemic. We've got a real problem," but that overstates what he said in the Jan. 27 piece. Kessler and Rizzo say he should be commended for focusing early on an issue most Americans weren't concerned about, but didn't say a pandemic was coming. He said it was a possibility and would "get worse before it gets better." 

During the town hall in Moosic, Pa., Biden said the U.S. should expect another 215,000 to die from the coronavirus by January, and said that 100,000 of those would live if people simply wore masks. Those numbers are accurate, according to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, Kessler and Rizzo report.

Biden noted that the Trump administration is trying to nullify the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and said 100 million people with pre-existing conditions would see their insurance premiums go up if that happens. About 102 million people had pre-existing conditions in 2018, Kessler and Rizzo report. but premiums would not necessarily go up for all if Trump wins in court. 

Biden alleged that television journalists said that he would be the first person without an Ivy League degree to be elected president. "No reporter said that," Kessler and Rizzo report. "Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was the last president who did not go to an Ivy League university."