Al Cross on the importance of rural journalism
By Al Cross
Has any rural journalist has won one of the major journalism-ethics awards? I don’t think so, and if that’s right, such honor is greatly overdue. It is generally more difficult – and can be a lot more difficult – to do hard-nosed, ethical journalism in rural areas and small towns than in metropolitan areas, partly because of the constant conflict that rural journalists must deal with, between their professional responsibilities and their personal interests: family, friends, business relationships and so on.
That’s what I said on The Rural Blog last month in announcing the Jan. 15 deadline for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics, given by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. It has the earliest deadline of the annual ethics awards; details are at bit.ly/2DuyrKH.
In the last few months The Rural Blog has featured work of three great rural editors, all women, who displayed the professionalism, gumption and common sense that it takes to do good, ethical journalism in rural areas.
After she heard rumors of sexual assaults involving a middle-school football team in Edina, Mo., Edina Sentinel Editor Echo Menges was told that seventh- and eighth-grade players had sodomized up to five fifth- and sixth-grade players with metal objects while other students watched. The school superintendent and sheriff wouldn't confirm details, and the school board wouldn't let parents talk about it at a meeting, so Menges began talking to children and parents and published a story.
The parents insisted on anonymity. If Menges were asked in court to reveal those sources and refuses, she would face jail time since Missouri doesn't have a shield law protecting journalists from having to reveal anonymous sources. "This is an important enough story that I would be willing to go to jail for it," she told Anna Brett of The Missourian. Our Rural Blog item on her work is at bit.ly/2DNn7KL.
Editor-Publisher Stevie Lowery of The Lebanon (Ky.) Enterprise was instrumental in passing a school-tax increase, did a five-part series on drug use and published stories on a transgender teenager and the county’s first same-sex marriage. For this and more, she won the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian, given each year by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Lowery said in accepting the award that rural journalists have to educate audiences, take stands, be watchdogs and be willing to lose friends. “We write these stories to educate people – to help them understand, to open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts,” she said. “Often times, newspapers have to take a stand . . . In small towns, that can cost the newspaper staff a friend or two. But, at the end of the day, newspapers have a responsibility to be the watchdogs for their communities, for their country." Our report on her work and her speech is at bit.ly/2BdHZs0.
A recent winner of the Smith award, Sharon Burton of the Adair County Community Voice, wrote an unusual editorial about National Newspaper Week, saying she had seen no editorials on it that acknowledged journalism that has “problems with bias and misinformation.” But she concluded, "Journalism may not be done perfectly, but this nation would be ill served were journalism not allowed, encouraged, and supported by our citizens." We noted it on The Rural Blog at bit.ly/2QUsiLC.
Election shows rural-urban divide: Democrats took control of the U.S. House but Republicans gained seats in the Senate, which is more rurally oriented because each state has two senators. The Rural Blog picked up several good analyses of the results, including from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Hill and Axios, at bit.ly/2zi2diP. The WSJ’s Reid Epstein and Janet Hook had an excellent second-day take, saying “The midterm elections brought to a head a decade-long realignment of the U.S.’s major political parties, with Democrats winning contests in and around major cities while Republicans carried rural and small-town America. Just as rural white voters fled the Democratic Party after Mr. Obama took office, educated suburbanites abandoned the GOP after President Trump’s election.” Our blog item, with charts, is at bit.ly/2QNGdCZ.
The election also highlighted the rural-urban economic gap. In October, Bill Bishop and The Daily Yonder produced an interactive map that showed job growth in rural America continues to lag the rest of the nation. You can get to it via bit.ly/2PFw0Mv.
Rural economy: Decisions by Amazon.com and Google to put big facilities in New York and the Washington area showed that "Smaller cities are also pulling in educated workers, but are having trouble competing for the nation’s most prized jobs and biggest projects, while rural areas are falling behind,” The WSJ reported.
We noted that many rural economic developers hoped that the internet would allow people to work from anywhere, and the Journal said experts thought "tech workers would scatter across the country as firms sought cheap office space. Instead, places like Silicon Valley and Seattle proved that clusters of highly skilled workers fueled innovation at a faster pace." We added that the lack of high-speed broadband in many places has limited the ability of some small towns to capitalize on the internet economy. Our Rural Blog item is at bit.ly/2S0NaRn.
Despite all that, most rural Americans say they value rural life and are optimistic about the future, according to the 'Life in Rural America' survey by NPR, Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They do economic issues and drugs as the biggest problems facing rural areas. We reported on it at bit.ly/2qSeNAA.
If you report or see news that should be on The Rural Blog, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.