community issues Localizing the news

Stories to localize: mental illness and drug addiction

The stigma that still surround mental illness and drug addiction, especially in rural areas, are major obstacles to addressing those issues. Rural news media can play an important role in reducing stigma and helping individuals and communities face up to their problems and deal with them.

The Paducah Sun saw that opportunity when a 13-year-old eighth grader with a long list of mental-health issues told nearly 100 attendees at the West Kentucky Health and Wellness Summit about her condition and its stigma.

Julia Burkhart has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but “When she walks down the hall, you wouldn’t know her from any other student,” David B. Snow reported for the Sun: “There are no identifying marks or signs on her to indicate she has mental illness. The problem is the signs placed on her by other people.

“At the meeting in Paducah, Julia said her problems began with bullying in kindergarten, which became so bad in fifth grade, with social-media attacks and rumors that something was “wrong” with her, that she started cutting herself. She changed schools and got better, but recently relapsed into eating disorders and taking pills “to escape,” she said. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and went back into the outpatient program at the beginning of this school year, Snow reports.

“I graduated in February from outpatient, and I’ve been continuing to better myself,” Julia told the crowd. “And here I am now, speaking about my problems. I take pride in my recovery every day, and I am proud to have gone through this. It’s made me realize what’s really important.” And she spoke because she wanted to; her mother was originally invited to share the family’s story.

Snow wrote that Julia’s experience is common among people with mental illness. Dr. Laurie Ballew, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Lourdes Hospital, told him, “People have this negative thought process about mental health, not realizing that our brain is the organ that controls our body.”

Snow’s story is a remarkable example of how news media can reduce or eliminate the stigma that surround issues of behavioral health. We excerpted it on The Rural Blog at

Rural resentment reverberates

A resentment of coastal elites is a key to the support that President Trump still enjoys in parts of the country that abandoned their usual Democratic allegiances for him in 2016. That’s a thread that runs through three recent in-depth reports: one by a Democratic pollster, one by The Washington Post’s chief political reporter, and the other by a conservative journalist who was one of the leaders in defining the who and why of Trump voters before the election. We boiled them down on The Rural Blog at

The reports came from pollster Stan Greenberg, on voters in suburban Macomb County, Michigan; the Post’s Dan Balz, who reported from rural counties along and near the upper Mississippi River; and Salena Zito, who with Republican operative Brad Todd wrote The Great Revolt, a new book based on “10 counties they studied across the five states that tipped the election to Trump, as the Post’s James Hohman describes it in the paper’s “Daily 202.”

Here’s what Michael Martin of Erie, Pa., told the book authors: “Live in a small or medium-sized town, and you would think we were dragging the country down. We aren’t a country just made up of large metropolitan areas. Our politics and our culture up until now has dictated that we are less than in the scale of importance and value.” That is reflected in much of the national news media, based mainly on the East Coast, and resentment of media portrayals is a big part of the attitudes of rural voters, who gave at least 62 percent of their votes to Trump, a record.

Zito and Todd note “a polarization between those who live in dense cosmopolitan communities with higher-than-average education levels and those who live in rural, exurban and industrial locales that, as a rule, have . . . lower-than-average education levels and less transience.” Four of the 10 counties where they did interviews are rural; evangelical voters are represented largely by rural Howard County, Iowa, where Obama got 62 and 59 percent of the vote and Trump got 58.

Greenberg has long studied “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County, which went for Barack Obama twice and then for Trump. “Trump voters complain that there is no respect for President Trump or for people like them who voted for him,” Greenberg wrote in a memo with Nancy Zdunkewicz of Democracy Corps. “A healthy diet of Fox News is feeding the white working-class men fending off the challenges of Trump’s opponents,” they write. “They continue to appreciate how he speaks his mind.”

Balz’s report, in a special section of the Post, was illustrated by a map that also showed how reliably Republican the rural vote has become. Balz interviewed some of the same people for more than a year, tracking how attitudes about Trump shifted gradually.”

You can read Balz’s piece or our Rural Blog item for details. I mention these stories because anyone can do them; it’s just a matter of going out and talking to people. The more you talk with, the better your questions will be, and the better your stories will be. If you so such stories, or report or see news that should be on The Rural Blog, email me at [email protected].

community issues Ethics

Publisher tells why she decided to run for school board

Editor’s note: Stamford publisher Callie Metler-Smith recently ran for and won a local school board position — an unconventional move in a profession that has long held that journalists should stay out of politics.  We asked her to explain why she did it.

As small town newspaper publishers, editors, and reporters we all know the rule. We are ethically bound by our position to remain impartial and unbiased in our reporting. When I opened my small town community newspaper almost 10 years ago, there was a rule set forth in my newspaper’s style book. It read, “As an employee of Clear Fork Media Group you should at all times appear impartial and never hold an elected position.” After all, how can you report on a board if you are also serving on that board?

So how do I, a newspaper owner and publisher with newspaper ink going back four generations find myself running and winning a spot on my local school board?

I would like to say there is a simple answer, but there isn’t. My main reason for running was that I wanted to be more involved in the community I love. At the beginning of 2018, I set one simple goal for myself, to be more involved and serve in my community.

Over the last few years, I have covered fewer meetings, letting my editor take the reins in those areas, but have attended more community-minded meetings, such as Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and local Lions Club. I realized as both a small business owner and a woman, that it was my job to become more connected to my community, and that this was where my passion lies, especially since the community my newspaper covered was the same one where I had grown up and the school was the one I had attended K-12.

I also noticed that my job as mom to three of the kids attending our local school district was enough to show interest in the direction the school was going. Since two of my kids are special education and require more hands-on attention, I often see a side of the school others don’t. It is the side of hardworking people who often don’t get the credit for the work they do. One day an incident at the school showed me an interesting perspective.

When I mentioned the incident to an administrator and offered some insight on how I felt about it, I got an interesting response: “I’ve never thought of that before. You should really run for school board, you have a very unique perspective.” The seed of running was planted.

I asked a few other people what they thought and got basically the same reaction from every single one. Not only did I know a lot about the school district and offer a unique perspective, I had also been sitting in the audience of the local school board meetings for more than 10 years.

So I did it. I signed up.

I had already discussed with one of my employees that they would be responsible for covering all school board meetings and had to remain unbiased in their accounts. I also got the opinion of other newspaper people I knew.

When election day came, I was elected and I had done it. I broke my own rule. I also had not heard from any of my subscribers concerned about my running — in fact many of them said they were excited about the prospect.

The truth is that we as community newspapers are in our own little category. We may report on what is going on in our town, but we are also part of that town. We may write about a fight that broke out in a City Council meeting on Monday, but chances are on Friday we will find ourselves sitting next to the mayor at lunch. In a town of 3,000 people, it is impossible for it to be any other way. We have a leadership position in our community. We are the town crier, the town cheerleader, and the local fact-checker for our town. We also are a local business owner, reside in the town, seek medical care at our local hospital, and have kids who attend the local school district. It is impossible to be impartial when you have a personal stake in the decisions your local elected officials are making.

As for my new hat of school board member, is it an odd hat for a newspaper owner to wear? Yes. Did I ever think I would wear it 10 years ago? No. But I am very excited about what adventures this new hat will bring.