It’s time for a community journalist to win a major ethics award

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

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

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

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

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 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

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

Rural economy: Decisions by 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

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

If you 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.

Ethics media criticism

Fake news: Nothing new in the history of journalism

Fake news is nothing new.  When people talk about it on the internet and social media, they treat it like it’s society’s newest trend.  But that’s far from the truth. Fake news is as old as … wait for it … the story of the birth of Jesus.

But let’s start with the definition of fake news:  It’s reporting stuff that never happened and treating it as true.

Like saying Hillary Clinton ran a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington.

And while the internet spreads fake news faster than ever before, it’s nothing new – fake news goes all the way back to the beginning of American journalism.

Some early news stories were probably fake just because there was no way to verify them.  Newspapers did the best they could, but if someone told the editor that the royal governor was stealing from the treasury, there was no way that could be checked out.

In 1782, no less a journalistic icon than Ben Franklin published a fake news story that Native Americans seeking an alliance with Britain had sent the king a “bag of scalps.” It never happened.

In 1835, the New York Sun ran a series that purported to report on an astronomer who had built a telescope powerful enough to observe life on the moon.  Not a story, mind you – a whole series of articles that described the moon inhabitants and their civilization in great detail.  And the end, the paper told its readers that they had just been kidding.

That’s only the tip of the fake news iceberg.  The stories about the new phenomenon of fake news are – you guessed it – fake news.  It’s been around as long as there has been news.

This week we celebrate the best news mankind has ever heard.  The news was so significant that God entrusted it to angels – the word “angel” is a Greek word for messenger.  According to scripture, God often entrusted news to “messengers” — you could say that angels were God’s journalists.

But as soon as the Good News about the birth of Christ was written down, the fake news started showing up.  And today, much of what we believe a bout the nativity story is fake news.

For instance:

•Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas. The early church set the day of Christ’s birth in December as a way to help replace a pagan festival that was held on Dec. 25.

•The angels did not sing to the shepherds. An angel spoke to the shepherds, then a lot of angels began praising God, but we have added the “singing” part.

•The wise men probably did not visit Jesus right after his birth in Bethlehem. They look cool in nativity scenes, but they really came a year or so later. And we’re not even sure there were three of them — we only infer that from the number of gifts.

But despite all the fake news about the good news we celebrate at Christmas, that good news is not diminished by the fake news and legends that have grown up around the birth of Christ.

And no less a philosopher than John Stuart Mill reminded us that truth is dynamic – so we should not ban false utterances because truth only becomes stronger when it grapples with a lie.  How do you know, Mill asked, whether what you believe is true, unless you have to defend it against non-truth?

Fake news is reprehensible, and digital media certainly give it more reach and power than ever before. So it’s important that newspapers report the truth and expose the lies.

The journalism “family tree” is a lot like your own.  There are saints and sinners, martyrs and scoundrels. But after more than two centuries that include lies and hoaxes and fake news, journalism has never been freer.  Or more responsible.

And that’s something we can all celebrate on a holiday dedicated to the original “good news.”

Ethics Social media

How to use social media responsibly

Leah Betancourt of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has some advice on Mashable for journalists on how to best use social media. Her piece summarizes several policies that have been set by major metros, but also offers some practical tips that might be useful for to community journalists.

Ethics Social media

Advice on ethics and social media

With all the discussion over ethics on Twitter and other social networks this week, I thought I’d post this entry from a few months ago by Steve Buttry, TCU alumnus and information content conductor at Gazette Communications. He offers some guidance journalists who participate in social networks.

Ethics Personnel issues Social media

WSJ releases policy for journalists on social networks

The Wall Street Journal has released rules for professional conduct on social networks. The WSJ policy addresses an interesting area that many news organizations have been grappling with for a long time — what is considered appropriate conduct for journalists on new mediums like Twitter and Facebook? The first link is an Editor & Publisher story about the issue, which includes the policy. The second link is social-media blog Mashable’s commentary on the policy.