A digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. Links may expire, require subscription or go behind pay walls. Please send news and knowledge you think would be useful to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @RuralJournalism
Friday, October 23, 2020
Trump and Biden touched on rural concerns like fracking and pandemic in last debate; prompted lots of fact-checking
Meatpacking workers say company policies force them to work or risk being fired when they have covid-19 symptoms
Some meatpacking workers say company attendance policies have forced them to go to work or risk being fired for absenteeism when they have covid-19 symptoms. Meatpacking plants are a major source of outbreaks in rural counties, Heather Schlitz reports in a collaboration between the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA Today, funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Most major meatpackers use a point system in which workers receive a points for missing work. After a certain number, they get fired. "For a few months earlier this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods suspended its point system, and Smithfield Foods said it has halted its version for the time being," Schlitz reports. "However, the point system has endured at Tyson and JBS plants throughout the pandemic, and it has continued to coerce people with potential covid-19 symptoms into showing up to work, said plant employees, their family members, activists and researchers."
As one worker told Schlitz: "If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep working . . . If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home." Spokespeople for Tyson and JBS, the nation's two largest meatpackers, told Schlitz that they encourage employees to stay home while sick. A JBS spokesperson said the company has never taken points from a worker for a documented illness during the pandemic.
However, a worker may display symptoms long before receiving a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis, due to testing delays. The point system has likely contributed to the spread of the virus, Jose Oliva, co-founder of HEAL Food Alliance, a non-profit that organizes food industry workers, told Schlitz.
Why are rural areas seeing worst coronavirus outbreaks? N.Y. Times has answers in story with maps, county rankings
|New York Times chart|
'Covering the Pandemic' program available for viewing
Reporters and news managers who are covering the pandemic discussed their work and the challenges they face Thursday night in an online program sponsored by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. All the panelists were from Kentucky, but the discussion was not Kentucky-specific and could be useful to journalists regardless of location. A recording of the Zoom meeting is at https://uky.zoom.us/rec/share/chTNZye3PtOIdkkL6ciHAKzZ4RmbImfsyjiiKIyDEuI_fcJv5w9-f5mks5Uk-quP.5pTtnA2XcYchaNHQ
Quick hits: Photo book follows Mississippi R.: coal-ash ponds reprieved; USDA rural opportunity agency proposed
How the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may have spread coronavirus. Read more here.The Trump administration will let some leaking or otherwise dangerous coal-ash storage ponds stay in operation longer, and some unlined ponds stay open indefinitely, under a rule change. Read more here.
Telehealth program at public library in rural northeast Texas could serve as a nationwide blueprint to bridge digital gap
|Pottsboro, Texas (Wikipedia map)|
Pottsboro Public Library director Dianne Connerly told Settles that the library is about "internet access" and "innovation," not "storytimes or even books, really." About 10 years ago, the library was poorly funded and on the verge of closing. So Connerly and volunteers began pursuing innovative grant proposals that they figured would make them more likely to get funding."Early on these innovations took a healthy turn," Settles reports. "Grant money funded a community garden because Pottsboro is a 'health desert.' Many residents don’t have transportation, so the library got cargo bicycles that enable people to reach the nearest grocery store and bring home food. They also started 100 individual garden beds so homes can grow their own organic produce and fruits."
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Internal Postal Service watchdog says changes under new postmaster general slowed mail delivery nationwide
Bullock sued the service and DeJoy on Sept. 9, arguing that changes made in June decreased access to mail services in Montana. That not only made it harder for Montanans to vote by mail, he alleged, but also delayed delivery of job applications, payments, medical prescriptions, and more.
Judge invalidates ousted Bureau of Land Management chief's decisions in Montana; could set precedent elsewhere
The ruling is another coup for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, whose lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service forced the agency to reverse recent changes that slowed mail delivery nationwide. Bullock filed suit against the BLM in July, Streater writes.
AppHarvest opens high-tech greenhouse in Eastern Kentucky, breaks ground on second location nearby
AppHarvest, a start-up that aims to bring more high-tech agriculture jobs and fresh produce to Eastern Kentucky, opened its first greenhouse on Wednesday in Morehead.The 2.76-million-square-foot building in Rowan County is considered one of the world’s largest high-tech greenhouses. It will employee more than 300 Eastern Kentuckians to produce 45 million pounds of tomatoes annually," Liz Moomey reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The first harvest of non-GMO, chemical pesticide-free produce is expected to be available in early 2021 at grocers and restaurants."
The opening came a day after the company broke ground on its second greenhouse in Richmond, just a few counties away, Moomey reports.
AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb told Moomey that the pandemic has shown how fragile food supply chains are, and that projects like this can make it easier for people to access food locally. Webb first announced the project in early 2017, but has faced obstacles in finding the right land and funding. But AppHarvest has attracted considerable attention, venture capital, and government funding over the past two years, with prominent backers including Martha Stewart, J.D. Vance, and AOL co-founder Steve Case.
Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual festival Oct. 26-30
Oct. 28 Society of Environmental Journalists webinar to cover climate, pandemic, and the election
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Purdue Pharma settles opioid probes for $8.34 billion, but lacks assets to pay it all; claims by states totaled $2 trillion
Surge in covid patients swamps rural hospitals
Democrats miss the mark on fossil fuels stances in Appalachia, writes rural Ohio newspaper editor
"Democrats are missing the mark in Appalachia, which in recent years has become more politically potent because of its impact in key swing states. 'Renewable energy' is the darling catch phrase, and energy solutions that center around renewables are at the heart of the Democratic platform," Greene writes. "Their problem is every time people in many parts of Appalachia hear that language, they also hear an unspoken assault on the coal industry and fossil fuel industries that are a strong part of the region’s economic health. Therefore, the solution — from either party — cannot be that climate goals are to be achieved at the expense of the livelihoods of the people of Appalachia and the fossil fuel industries."
Weekly fact check: Trump's long history with conspiracy theories, and Biden's misleading union endorsement claim
With just a few weeks to go before Election Day and both presidential campaigns turning up the heat, fact-checking is more important than ever. Here's some of the latest:
During his Oct. 15 town hall, President Trump defended retweeting a conspiracy theory that accused Joe Biden of murder. "The theory, which has no basis in fact, specifically claimed Biden had members of SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up a purportedly failed assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Trump retweeted a post spreading the theory, therefore amplifying the message to his 87 million followers," Angela Fichera and Saranac Hale Spencer report for FactCheck.org. "At the same event, Trump also declined to condemn QAnon — the widespread conspiracy theory movement that baselessly suggests Trump is dismantling an elite child sex trafficking ring involving high-profile Democrats. He claimed he knows 'nothing about' it."During a campaign rally, President Donald Trump said that once he came down with covid-19, people for partisan reasons shifted from saying immunity was lifelong to saying it lasted only a few months," Jessica McDonald reports for FactCheck. "Experts, however, haven’t changed their estimates for immunity duration, which remains unknown — but unlikely to be lifelong."
New study shows widening mortality rate gap between rural and metro working-age residents
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Two years after nationwide legalization, hemp industry slumping because of patchwork regulations, oversupply
"It’s been nearly two years since the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, legalizing industrial hemp production nationwide and fueling hopes of a hemp farming boom. But that hasn’t panned out yet, with growers around the country still struggling to reap the benefits of the burgeoning crop sector," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "After millions of acres of hemp were planted in 2019, production is way down this year; many growers gave up because of a steep drop in prices and the lack of a market for their crops."
Another big problem is inconsistent state regulations. "The Agriculture Department has approved hemp programs for 29 states and is negotiating with another 12," McCrimmon reports. "Some state agricultural officials were so unsatisfied with the regulatory framework that USDA proposed last year that they decided not to move forward with hemp initiatives. (Among the biggest complaints are the strict limits on THC that can be present in hemp crops and the stringent testing requirements to certify those levels of the psychoactive chemical.)"
Unclear federal oversight has also hurt the fledgling industry. The Food and Drug Administration "has yet to put forth regulations on cannabidiol, the widely popular compound derived from hemp that’s increasingly found in products from pills to pet foods. The agency’s CBD guidance has been awaiting approval from the White House since July," McCrimmon reports.
One thing hemp farmers have going for them: though they were excluded from an earlier round of federal aid for farmers hurt by the pandemic, the USDA announced in late September that hemp growers could apply for a slice of $14 billion in new relief.
Over 1/3 of rural bankers in 10 mid-America states report recession conditions, but overall economic confidence rising
|Creighton University chart compares current month to month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.|
A Creighton University survey of rural Midwestern bankers in October found a cautiously optimistic outlook, with the overall Rural Mainstreet Index climbing slightly above growth-neutral, its highest reading since January. The index ranges between 0 and 100 with a reading of 50 representing growth-neutral. In September the overall index was 46.9, but this month's was 53.2.
- Overall index advanced for a sixth straight month to its highest level since January of this year.
- More than eight of 10 bank CEOs identified restaurants/bars as experiencing the greatest negative impact from covid-19.
- Only 3% of bankers named farmers as experiencing the greatest negative covid-19 impacts.
- For only the third time in the past 82 months, the farmland price index advanced above growth neutral.
- Bank CEOs estimated that farm equipment sales will fall by an additional 3.1% over the next 12 months.
- More than one-third, or 35.5%, of bank CEOs reported that their local economies were experiencing recessionary economic conditions.
Total rural coronavirus cases top 1 million as new rural infections break record for fourth week straight
|New coronavirus infections from Oct. 11 through 17|
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version with county-level data.
"Covid-19 spread in rural America at a record-breaking pace again last week, adding 160 counties to the red-zone list and bringing the total number of rural Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus to more than 1 million," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Rural America had 82,188 new infections last week, a 16 percent increase and the fourth consecutive week of record-breaking levels of new cases. With last week’s cases, the total number of rural residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus broke 1 million (1,068,949), according to data compiled by the nonprofit USA Facts."
New telehealth program aims to help rural patients with chest pain figure out whether they're facing a heart attack
A new health care program in North Carolina—which could be replicated elsewhere—aims to help rural patients with chest pain avoid a potentially unnecessary and expensive trip to the emergency department."The $1.2 million program, slated to begin in mountainous Wilkes County early next year, will bring doctors and nurses to the scene of medical emergencies through telehealth," Liora Engel-Smith reports for North Carolina Health News. "The doctors and nurses — most of them experts in emergency medicine — will help first responders evaluate patients with chest pain to decide the most appropriate next step, be it a hospital visit or a trip to a county health department for further tests."
New database shows coronavirus infection clusters in a dozen rural jails in the Mountain West
Monday, October 19, 2020
Domestic violence up in rural America during pandemic
That's especially true for women in rural areas, who are more isolated and have less access to medical services. Also, one shelter worker noted, many rural women in her area tended not to seek help even before the pandemic. She speculated that their more conservative culture and religious norms might discourage them from reaching out, Carey reports.
Network of conservative websites masquerade as unbiased local news; see interactive map for local examples
|Brian Timpone's network of "news" websites from 2010 to 2020|
New York Times graphic; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
A fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites aims "to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country," Davey Alba and Jack Nicas report for The New York Times. "Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found."
The websites masquerade as local-news outlets, employing simple layouts and providing enough wire stories and community event content along with its political coverage to lull readers into thinking they're legitimate news sites. "But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate PR firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals," Alba and Nicas report. "The network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality."
Timpone is involved with or oversees a network of interconnected media companies with nebulous ownership such as Locality Labs LLC, Metric Media, Newsinator, Franklin Archer, and Interactive Content Services, Alba and Nicas report.Some liberal operatives are trying the same scheme, but lately it's been mostly conservatives—and not just Timpone. "The Free Telegraph' states nowhere on its homepage that it’s published by the Republican Governors Association," Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's NiemanLab. "Politico and Snopes uncovered a network of sites in key 2020 states (The Ohio Star, The Minnesota Sun, The Tennessee Star) created by Republican consultants and mislabeling people paid to elect a GOP candidate as 'investigative journalists' who were now covering them."
Health reporters, editors, news director to discuss 'Covering the Pandemic' in online program at 7 p.m. ET Thursday
To help journalists with this story, the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will hold an online panel discussion, “Covering the Pandemic,” at 7 p.m. ET Thursday, Oct. 22. The panelists will all be from Kentucky, but the discussion should be helpful anywhere in the country:
• Alex Acquisto, health reporter, Lexington Herald-Leader
• Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, who recovered from Covid-19 and wrote about it in her online newspaper, Hoptown Chronicle
• Ben Sheroan, editor, The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown, who will speak to the pushback newspapers receive from their coverage of the pandemic
• Brian Neal, news director at Lexington’s WLEX-TV, who will address the fatigue factor experienced by journalists
The discussion will be moderated by Melissa Patrick, reporter for Kentucky Health News.
There is no charge to attend the program, which will be held via Zoom, but registration to receive the Zoom link is required. To register, send an email to email@example.com.
Federal judge blocks plan to cut food stamps for jobless
"A federal judge on Sunday formally struck down a Trump administration attempt to end food-stamp benefits for nearly 700,000 unemployed people, blocking as 'arbitrary and capricious' the first of three such planned measures to restrict the federal food safety net," reports The Washington Post.
"In a scathing 67-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of D.C. condemned the Agriculture Department for failing to justify or even address the impact of the sweeping change on states, saying its shortcomings had been placed in stark relief amid the coronavirus pandemic, during which unemployment has quadrupled and rosters of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have grown by more than 17 percent, with more than 6 million new enrollees," Spencer Hsu reports.
The administration's proposed change would likely disproportionately affect rural residents, who are more likely to rely on benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. In 2018, 85 of the 100 counties that relied most on SNAP were rural. It's not an exact metric for hunger, but suggests that need for food assistance is disproportionately rural.
Farmers remain loyal to Trump despite pain from trade wars and pandemic, thanks in part to hefty taxpayer subsidies
|Some states (dark purple) received more in net farm subsidies than they lost from the trade war, but most states lost out. Map from The Conversation; click here for the interactive version.|
Farmers overwhelmingly supported President Trump in 2016, and most plan to do so again, despite the economic pain caused by the trade war with China and the pandemic. One big reason for that is record-high government subsidies, which have made up the highest single source of farmer income for the past two years running, Wendong Zhang and Minghao Li write for The Conversation. Both are assistant professors of economics, Zhang at Iowa State University and Li at New Mexico State University."Just as some states were hurt more by the trade war than others, not all states benefited equally from the payments. The subsidies heavily targeted the Midwest, reflecting the political influence of rural constituents in these states. Most of the states that came out ahead – such as Iowa and Nebraska – tend to vote Republican and have relatively large agricultural sectors."