Polls, data can serve readers

Polls have long been common devices at metropolitan daily newspapers, but are rare at community weeklies – and I’m not counting those unscientific, self-selected surveys on papers’ websites, which ought to carry disclaimers saying they’re not good barometers of public opinion.

The weekly Rappahannock News in rural Northern Virginia got a marvelous opportunity to see what the people of Rappahannock County think about important issues this year, when a local nonprofit funded a professional survey and hired top-notch journalists to write it up, edit the stories and illustrate them.

The survey by the nonprofit Foothills Forum was mailed to every address in the county of 7,400 people, and got responses from 42 percent, more than double expectations and enough to make it as reliable as a random-sample poll.

“The Foothills survey offers a statistically accurate snapshot about the issues our community cares about most,” the News said in an editorial. “We feel this is valuable information — unbiased, non-agenda-driven data. . . . In the weeks and months ahead, we will explore some of the top issues highlighted in the survey by featuring in-depth stories, with the help of resources provided by Foothills Forum. This partnership allows us to deliver coverage that a small community newspaper could not afford to do otherwise.”

The Foothills Forum was created in response to comments at a coffee chat hosted by the News, “urging broader deeper coverage,” Larry “Bud” Meyer, chair of the group, wrote for the paper. “All manner of interests now have real numbers to back their causes. Not speculation. Not assumption.”

The nonprofit raised $43,000 for the survey and worked with the paper “because the Rappahannock News remains the best source of reported, vetted and edited news,” Meyer wrote. “More important, the survey finds folks are roughly twice as likely to rely on the weekly for their news as all local internet sources.”

The nonprofit gave the News $5,000 for enhanced design, news graphic/data reporting, and the paper made additional investments in design and printing multiple open pages for the series, which also increased its postage costs. “Everyone’s desire has been to deliver in-depth reporting that is beyond the capacity of a very small community news organization,” Publisher Dennis Brack told me. “The survey stories proved the value of this partnership.”

As we reported this project on the Rural Blog, we said the poll showed that Rappahannock County “may be a classic case of a rural place that wants to maintain its environmental qualities while having more urban conveniences,” then quoted from the stories of former Associated Press reporter and editor Chris Connell.

Polls are just one form of data, and we’re big on localized data as a way to help illustrate and explain local issues. A key part of using data is presenting it visually, and a recent Rural Blog item highlighted Data USA, which calls itself “the most comprehensive visualization of U.S. public data.” The same item drew from our friends at Journalist’s Resource to list several sources of help for using data.

Regular readers of this column know we’re also big on national maps that show county-level data, and we’ve had several examples in the blog recently. The Washington Post created a map that shows how home values changed, by ZIP code, from 2004 to 2015, in most counties (those that had enough data to be reliable).

Buried in a New York Times story about employers having trouble finding workers who could pass a drug test was a tragic set of maps, showing county by county the growth in drug-overdose deaths from 2003 to 2014 – a trend so fatal that it is now resembles the HIV-AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said an official of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The crisis in Flint, Michigan, over lead in water supplies has caused concern in other places, but the risk of lead exposure “is surprisingly difficult to estimate, due to a variety of state-by-state differences in reporting standards,” Sarah Frostenson and Sarah Kliff reported for Vox. They worked with epidemiologists in the Washington state health department to add housing and poverty data to the mix to create a county-level map of the estimated risk.

Because some health-insurance companies are reducing their participation in health-insurance exchanges, more than 650 mostly rural counties will have only one Obamacare option in 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported.

There have been doubts about the quality of care at some rural hospitals, and that has hurt them financially. But a recent study found that surgeries are safer and cheaper at critical-access hospitals, which by definition are rural.

The financial problems are rural hospitals are getting little attention from Congress and the Obama administration, Shannon Muchmore reported for Modern Healthcare.

The Rural Blog has started excerpting the “Thinking About Health” columns of Trudy Lieberman, distributed by the Rural Health News Service, which use specific examples to illustrate issues in health care from a consumer viewpoint. Her latest piece reported that consumers get little help resolving their complaints.

A pair of studies concluded that abstinence pledges don’t keep young people from having sex, contracting sexually transmitted diseases or avoiding pregnancy.

If you do or see good work that deserves national notice or could help other rural journalists, by appearing on The Rural Blog, email me at [email protected] so we can publish it at