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 Localizing the news political coverage

National politics generate local story ideas

As newspaper publishers worried about tariffs on newsprint, farmers and others in rural America worried about tariffs on other products that could spark a trade war. The Rural Blog is keeping its readers current on trade and many other issues; here’s a sampling of stories from the last couple of months.

One-third of U.S. soybeans go to China. The president of the American Soybean Association called President Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum “a disastrous course of action,” and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said farmers have “legitimate anxiety,” not just about retaliatory tariffs on products, but on the steel tariffs’ effect on farm-equipment costs. See our report at

In mid-March, the last U.S. maker of steel beer kegs, in Pottstown, Pa., laid off one-third of its workers. We reported that at The Brookings Institution calculated the impact of the tariffs on each state and produced a good chart, which we ran at The Washington Post produced a chart showing how Republican opinions on trade have shifted to match Trump’s; we ran it at with a Politico report saying agriculture is “particularly vulnerable” to retaliatory tariffs.

Double whammy

In February, Perdue told Congress that the rural economy is fragile, and as he was speaking, the American Farm Bureau Federation was publishing a warning from a Tennessee farmer about another big issue facing rural America: the opioid epidemic. “Our focus on national regulations and global trade are real issues that need to be addressed, but the future of farming and ranching may be just as dependent on our awareness of curbing the opioid dependency in our grassroots communities where individuals influence national changes,” he wrote. See

New research from the University of Kentucky shows that the opioid epidemic isn’t disproportionately rural, but rural areas have a tougher time dealing with it because of limited access to treatment. We reported it at Research by Penn State and Texas A&M concluded that the crisis may be exacerbated by declining farm income, extreme weather and other natural disasters. Read about it at

One challenge to dealing with the opioid epidemic is the stigma still attached to addiction in many rural areas, but that can be countered with reporting of success stories about people who overcome addiction, according to recent research we reported at Stigma is also an obstacle to mental-health treatment in rural areas, we reported at

Your local health

The annual County Health Rankings, released March 14, are a snapshot of each county’s health factors and outcomes, compared to other counties in the same state. They are something of a blunt instrument, but sometimes that’s what it takes to get people’s attention. Our research in Kentucky shows that newspapers are increasingly reporting their county’s rankings. Read our story, with a link to them, at

When it comes to health care, the Medicaid program is the main linchpin for rural areas, partly because of the support it provides for hospitals and clinics. It pays for more than half of rural births, Kaiser Health News noted in its “Medicaid Nation” series, which we gave a glimpse at The rural benefits of Medicaid are not widely known; rural residents tend to vote Republican even as GOP lawmakers vote to reverse Medicaid’s expansion.

Maps with local data

If you read The Rural Blog regularly, you know that we love maps with local data, usually at the county level. There’s enough interesting data out there for every newspaper in America to publish a significant data point in every edition, but not enough of them do it. Here are some maps we’ve run lately.

An interactive map with local data showed the level of economic distress in every county, and some may surprise you:

Politico did an interesting story about financial guru Dave Ramsey, in which he said he sees more people worrying about their finances. It included a map showing, in ranges, the percentage of people in each county who are the targets of debt collectors. We shared it at

A national study with an interactive map found that, in 99 percent of U.S. counties, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food-stamp) benefits are not enough to cover the full cost of an inexpensive meal, even for those who have no net income. See

Also on the food front, a study found that independent grocery stores in rural areas were hit harder by the Great Recession than those in urban areas. It included a county-level map showing the number of independent groceries for every 10,000 people. See

The lack of healthy grocery supplies in some rural areas may be less about supply than demand, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. We reported it, with a county-level map, at

A study of deaths due to alcohol, drugs, suicide, and interpersonal violence included a county-level map: Your county’s number of drug-overdose deaths may surprise you, because most don’t make the news, but the number shouldn’t be a surprise of you are keeping up through your local coroner or medical examiner.

Something else that often goes unreported, but your coroner can tell you about, is suicide. The more rural a place, the higher its suicide rate is likely to be. An interactive map from Governing magazine tells the story, and we shared it at

If you see stories, maps or anything else with rural resonance that belong on The Rural Blog, let me know at [email protected].

Localizing the news

Localizing the bathroom bill: Don’t cede talk-topics to Facebook

A Texas editor called to ask for help with localizing the bathroom bill now in the Legislature.  Localization is an issue for all newspapers, so let’s review the technique.

Localization opens a whole new world of content for any community newspaper. It means you are not limited to what’s happening in your community – you can look at how state, national and international events affect your readers.

And they do, you know.  Look at Facebook pages in your town.  Is there more discussion of your mayor or school superintendent … or Donald Trump?  Unless your local pols are involved in a big scandal, more people are probably talking about Trump.

So why cede that topic to Facebook just because it happens outside your city limits?  People care about what’s happening.  They read about it and they talk about it – and it affects them.

So how do you localize an outside-your-community story?

Let’s begin with an issue facing Texas right now – the “bathroom bill” now in the Legislature.  Here’s now to localize that issue, or any other.  Begin with these questions:

What exactly is the issue?  Before you begin reporting or writing, do an internet search.  Read some articles about the bill and what people on all sides have said.  Be sure you fully understand what the bill is calling for. Start by searching for “Texas bathroom bill.” We recommend you search both in Google and in Google News (Google News aggregates news stories on a topic). Also, check out the Texas Legislature Online, where you can track bills.  It’s very user-friendly – find the search box in the middle of the page and type in “bathroom bill.”

The more time you spend reading about issues, the better the questions you can ask.  And often you will see stories that have already done exactly what you are seeking to do – localize the topic.  When you take “Texas bathroom bill” to Google News, for instance, you will see a story about how the bill could cost Austin tourism $109 million.  That’s an example of localization.

How does this affect my community?  If you research the bill, you will probably already have some ideas. An immediate impact will be on schools, public buildings and public universities. Check out the Texas Tribune’s explanation and annotation of the bill to get a better idea of how it may affect your community. Make a list of places that will be affected and begin making calls.

Who can help my readers understand this issue? Look for local experts and activists.  Professors are good explainers – and even if there is no college in your community, there’s one nearby.  In this case, you may call a political science professor.  If you don’t know where to start, call the college’s news service and tell them what you’re working on and ask them to find you a source.  That’s their job and they are happy to get their faculty in the news.

After the explainers, look for the activists – people who have a position on the issue.  Local pastors and religious leaders, members of LGBT organizations, parents of any transgendered students, Democratic or Republican leaders, and the like.

What are the long-term local implications?  On the bathroom bill, we know that there have been threats to remove NCAA and NFL events in the future if the bill passes.  But a Super Bowl or March Madness is probably not coming to your town, so what are the lasting implications for your readers?  Check with schools.  Check with a local convention center or the Chamber of Commerce to see if they think business may be affected. Ask religious leaders how they think the moral fiber of the community will be affected – and don’t just talk with evangelicals about why they condemn the bill.  More liberal mainline churches may say that discriminating against transgendered people may itself ruin the moral fiber of the community.

And of course, don’t forget to talk with local legislators about their position on the bill.

Once you’ve done your localization, keep following the issue.  The fight over the bill may bring up follow stories for future localizations.

When you get into the habit of looking for stories to localize, you will discover that readers really do want to see how the major stories they see on TV affect your local community.