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Sharpen rural coverage

By Doug Haddix, IRE training director

Plenty of watchdog stories are waiting to be told in small towns and rural areas across America, says Daniel Gilbert of The Wall Street Journal. “There aren’t enough of us (reporters) in rural areas, so there are lots of opportunities to plow new ground,” he told participants at an IRE Better Watchdog Workshop earlier this month in Charleston, W. Va. The workshop was hosted by The Charleston Gazette. Geographic challenges, such as long distances between county courthouses, can be an obstacle but shouldn’t deter journalists from doing a deep dig on an important story. Gilbert discussed several of his favorite resources for watchdogging stories in rural areas, including:

  • www.Footnoted.com, for leads on juicy items buried in corporate filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • Government Accountability Office reports, which can offer a blueprint for an investigation.
  • Accident and safety data maintained by the Mine Safety Health Administration.
  • Wastewater discharges and other data in the Envirofacts Data Warehouse.
  • Howard Berkes, rural affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, encouraged reporters to explore story ideas with particular resonance in small communities: the disproportionate enlistment in the U.S. military and heavy death toll from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; job layoffs and plant relocations; dangerous roads; and the lack of dental and medical care. Census data can be especially useful, he said, in spotting trends. Instead of pulling data for metropolitan areas, look at stats for non-metropolitan areas and rural counties in your coverage area or state. Berkes also shared links to sites whose coverage of rural affairs can spark story ideas:

  • The Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky sends out The Rural Blog, an e-mail compilation of rural news.
  • The Center for Rural Strategies produces The Daily Yonder for rural news and opinion.
  • The Council of State Governments publishes a weekly collection of stories on rural communities and agriculture called AgClips.
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