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‘Untold stories’: Rural diversity series blends data, modern narratives and history

March 1, 2024

By Alana Rocha

A lithium mine under construction in northern Nevada would be a boon for manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles and the ‘green’ economy. For some regional Native tribes who have ties to the land, and environmental groups, it’s a source of concern about the long-term impacts of mining. 

Those tribes say the U.S. government has not properly consulted them or heard their concerns. 

The Sierra Nevada Ally amplified the voices of those tribes in stories that were part of “Speaking out: Rural communities of color changing the narrative,” a collaborative reporting project from INN’s Rural News Network

For nearly three months, 17 journalists at Energy News Network (ENN), Flatwater Free Press, Mississippi Free Press, New Mexico In Depth, Religion News Service and Sierra Nevada Ally delved into news stories about the unique challenges that some Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities face in rural America. Those challenges range from navigating racism in real estate, environmental regulation and the justice system to gaining access to healthcare and broadband. 

“These stories are important reminders of the ongoing efforts — and the work yet to be done — to close these gaps that make life harder for rural people of color,” said Dan Haugen, managing editor of the Energy News Network, who served as lead editor on the series. 

The series, made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation, also saw strong results in terms of reader engagement and overall impact.

The reporting, named one of the top journalism collaborations of the year, collectively reached hundreds of thousands of people on TV, radio, online and in print. All of the newsrooms noted a majority of their sources represented diverse ethnic and racial groups, that the reporting led to meaningful continuing coverage and the collaboration structure provided opportunities for professional development.

Journalists get travel funding and editorial support to cover environmental justice in Puerto Rico

ENN’s story took reporter Kari Lydersen to Puerto Rico’s rural south coast where toxic coal ash — or in Spanish, “cenizas” — is a symbol of environmental injustice that has long plagued the U.S. territory. Used on roads and in landfills, it has contaminated groundwater and could be responsible for high cancer rates.

Lydersen details the steps locals are taking to advocate for themselves, while they also acknowledged a law against storing coal ash on the island could complicate efforts to remove it from roads and fill sites, since it would need to be transported and stored somewhere. 

Lydersen has covered this issue for years. But the collaboration afforded her a longer than typical trip to Puerto Rico to reconnect with sources and develop new relationships with residents to humanize and explain a complicated topic. It’s travel, Haugen noted, ENN would not have been able to pay for otherwise. 

The journalists and editors involved in “Speaking Out” lauded Haugen for helping develop their stories through biweekly check-ins and thoughtful revisions that enhanced the overall product.

Collaboration boosts reach of stories about Indigenous tribes buying back land 

A tribal business leader told Flatwater Free Press investigative reporter Destiny Herbers that when children on the Winnebago reservation picture a farmer, they see “a white guy with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat on.”

The Winnebago and two other Nebraska tribes are attempting to change that perception — and their farmland reality. For more than a century, the U.S. government took direct and indirect actions that led to the loss and sale of Native lands. 

“Our goal coming in was to tell an untold story about Nebraska farmers/agriculture that no one had heard before,” said Matthew Hansen, executive editor for Flatwater Free Press. He noted several wins in a post-series survey, including how data analysis combined with historical context to inform what’s happening today. 

“And the number of eyeballs on the work far exceeded our wildest expectations,” he wrote. 

More than 240,000 people read the story after SmartNews featured it and another two dozen outlets republished it. The increased reach led to meaningful feedback, Hansen said, mostly people interested to learn that tribes were buying back land that was once theirs.”

Herber’s reporting laid the groundwork for a multi-part series, “Who’s Buying Nebraska?”, Flatwater Free Press published in the final weeks of 2023, examining the big players — including Bill Gates, Google, Ted Turner and the Mormon Church — accruing farmland in the state. 

Herbers is monitoring whether tribes continue to pay more than market rate to buy land and lawmakers will act to pass policies to ease Native land buybacks.

Nevada journalists amplify Indigenous leaders’ concerns about being shut out of mining project talks

To the West, Sierra Nevada Ally told the story of a different land challenge facing local Indigenous groups. Journalists there talked to members of Indigenous tribes in the region about their concerns with a lithium mining project that’s planned for northern Nevada.

Lithium is a mineral that’s in high demand for use in electric vehicle batteries and electronics, but the tribes say there has been insufficient communication about the mining project, which affects lands to which they all are tied. While the company had done its own outreach, regional tribes told the Ally’s executive editor Noah Glick, they weren’t properly consulted by the government.

“[We are] hoping to see this story as evidence of a larger problem that other tribes can look to and strategize about when it comes to government-to-government consultation,” Glick said.

Glick noted that audience data shows readers spent time engaging with the story on its site and the number of national news outlets that republished it including Barn Raiser, ENN, ICT — formerly Indian Country Today — and The Daily Yonder. Further, he said the collaboration enabled them to hire Alejandra Rubio, an Indigenous photographer, without whom they would not have gained access to the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation and its tribal government.

The Ally is pursuing stories about environmental concerns surrounding the mine, divisions among other communities, and who’s enjoying the economic benefits.  

Data analysis support helps journalists hold government accountable through reporting

New Mexico In Depth also built a reporting plan off their collaborative coverage, focusing on rural health.

“We have wanted to expand our reporting in rural northern New Mexico and our public health reporting, and [this] helped us do that,” Managing Editor Marjorie Childress said.

Childress zeroed in on the state’s severe shortage of healthcare workers, particularly in its rural and frontier areas where a third of the state’s 2.1 million people live, the majority of whom are Hispanic or Native American.

She delivered strong accountability journalism, describing how earlier this year New Mexico lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham invested millions to close the gap in healthcare worker staffing, but advocates say they didn’t go far enough. And Grisham, a Democrat, struck a provision meant to help retain healthcare workers in rural areas in omnibus tax legislation that she gutted with line-item vetoes — decisions that have come against a backdrop of historic state surpluses.

Like the other newsrooms in “Speaking Out,” Childress worked with Big Local News — RNN’s official data journalism partner — to include key context and data visualizations.

In early January, New Mexico In Depth also published a story on maternal care deserts and is working on a report about growing the Indigenous midwifery field. Now, with the legislature back in session, Childress is following an expected Medicaid rate increase and expansion to new categories of workers, as well as growth of the rural health care delivery fund and new tax incentives for health care workers.

For Religion News Service (RNS), collaborations fulfill part of its mission to work with other newsrooms, “partly to increase religious literacy,” Editor-in-Chief Paul O’Donnell said. “We felt that our being a part of the project increased awareness of religion being an integral part of many stories.”

Adelle M. Banks, projects editor and national reporter for RNS, and her team highlighted the work Black clergy and faith leaders in the rural South have been doing for years to bridge the digital divide in their communities and congregations, and how a pandemic-era federal program gave those efforts a boost by offering discounted internet access.

But RNS uncovered that fewer than half of the estimated 49 million Americans who are eligible have enrolled, and now questions loom about the program’s long-term funding by Congress. 

“Hopefully, the conclusion of our work will be that our readers have a greater understanding of parts of our country that tend to receive less news coverage,” Banks said.

News stories spotlight concerns that law enforcement and media don’t care when Black people are killed

The story in the South from Mississippi Free Press focused on Lafayette County’s history of race violence. Reporter Christian Middleton wrote about how the county saw “multiple lynchings in the 20th century with the help of law enforcement and elected officials, with no justice following.” That led to the long history of Black families receiving dismissive treatment from authorities and media outlets when a loved one is killed. The articles addressed how minimal attention from media and police seeds fear and distrust of law enforcement and even fuels rumors about coverups.

One family, while not without trepidation, decided to go public with their story in hopes of finally seeing justice for the loss of their patriarch in a brutal decades-old murder. They also wanted to raise awareness about how Black families are treated and ignored during their most difficult moments.

The Free Press published stories about the investigation into the 1991 murder of Harry Mitchell, the life he lived and perspective from its founding editor, Donna Ladd, who worked on the story alongside Middleton. 

Less than two months after publication, the Center for Cooperative Media named “Speaking Out” one of the year’s top 10 collaborations globally.

Editorial collaborations conducted through INN’s Rural News Network — a consortium of more than 75 locally-sourced newsrooms reporting from and for rural America — elevate important stories and connect geographically dispersed newsrooms to collectively tell their stories. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism. 

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