By Al Cross
Last month I shared the story of a community newspaper editor who showed an effective way to respond to concerns of readers, often not politely expressed, that his newspaper was liberally biased. Brian Hunt of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin is an experienced editor, but an intern at a Kentucky weekly newspaper took a very similar approach in a manner that was just as professional. Here’s an adapted version of our report on The Rural Blog:
Josh Qualls was having difficulty finding a source to help him explain how the House health-insurance bill might affect seniors on Medicaid in Lincoln County, Kentucky, where he recently completed a summer internship with The Interior Journal in Stanford. So he went to the Boone Newspapers weekly’s Facebook page.
“The very first response echoed some of the most disheartening, gut-wrenching rhetoric we’ve seen directed toward journalists in recent months. Its author offered a scathing indictment of the news media and accused us of being liberally biased,” Qualls wrote in his intern report to the Kentucky Press Association, relying on memory because the poster had deleted the post. “She talked about how much ‘Obamacare’ didn’t help her health-hindered family, so I saw a way to connect with her.”
Qualls wrote, “We appreciate your feedback … and we’re sorry to learn about your health problems and your family’s health-care situation. Our hearts go out to you.” He said no one at the newspaper “was happy with the Affordable Care Act allowing premiums to increase at an alarming rate,” but said journalists must “seek the truth and report it,” as the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says.
“The truth, based on what we know about the American Health Care Act so far, is that these proposals may have long-term effects that are even more damaging than Obamacare,” Qualls posted. “The Congressional Budget Office reported last Wednesday that while premiums would likely decrease for younger Americans, older Americans would likely see a substantial increase and lose many of their benefits.”
Then he wrote this, which KPA highlighted in its report to members: “In this newsroom, we all have different political beliefs but respect each other. What we all have in common is that we’re biased against the things that harm the community we serve, and by community we mean people like you.” That is a thoughtful, engaging statement of which any editor could be proud.
Qualls reported to KPA, “The author quickly wrote back. She said that she never really thought about it that way and would consider what we wrote, that she appreciated our effort to connect with her and to explain what we were trying to accomplish.” He and Editor Abigail Whitehouse, who had approved his message, “were ecstatic,” yelling “We got through to someone!”
Though the reader soon deleted her post and the comments, Qualls said the episode showed the value of engaging with readers through social media: “People may think now that they have carte blanche to denigrate journalists, but Abigail taught me that we don’t have to cower in fear of what they might say or do — we must respectfully stand our ground. It simply comes down to this: People hate what they don’t understand, and some people unfortunately don’t understand journalists.”
Qualls is a May graduate of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media, which includes the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. As you might guess, we’re pretty proud of him.
National criticism of the news media continues to filter down to community newspapers, and James Warren reported on it for The Poynter Institute. Our blog item on it is at http://bit.ly/2vbqPGh.
Issues: Your local water system may have run a public-notice ad recently about its performance in the past year, but the numbers may not be easy to understand. The Society of Environmental Journalists worked up a primer on the subject, and we did a blog item about it. It’s at http://bit.ly/2vc8UPF.
The opioid epidemic is trending toward illegal drugs, so the national opioid-prescription rate declined from 2010 to 2015, but it rose in most counties, illustrating the rural nature of the epidemic. We ran county-level maps showing ranges of prescription rates and whether they had increased, stayed the same or decreased. They’re at http://bit.ly/2tzP0MF.
The epidemic has driven up costs for local jails, but in states that expanded Medicaid, inmates’ medical bills have been paid. A local jailer in Kentucky warned that the Senate health-insurance bill could leave counties holding the bag, The Anderson News reported it, and we picked it up at http://bit.ly/2vw7wqG.
One of the best stories we’ve read lately was by Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post, who profiled of a Muslim doctor in rural Minnesota dealing with religious prejudice after the presidential election. It put you inside his head and his heart, and we excerpted it at http://bit.ly/2utgckz.
Our business: The phenomenon of newspapers in small, rural counties merging across county lines to stay alive has crossed the Mississippi River, and we reported on it at http://bit.ly/2tzD0ec.
The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors had a successful meeting at the University of Maryland and in Washington, D.C. We reported on it at http://bit.ly/2vc8KIc, and highlighted the contest-winning editorials at http://bit.ly/2tkHGJG.
If you do or see stories that belong on The Rural Blog, email me at email@example.com.
Al Cross edited and managed rural weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. See http://www.RuralJournalism.org.