By Rose Hoban

On Friday afternoon, October 21, 2016, officials from the state Department of Health and Human Services held a telephone press conference to alert the media that they had received federal approval to issue “disaster SNAP,” food benefits for the survivors of devastating floods that had ravaged Eastern North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s epic rains.

The media advisory was sent out at 4:35 p.m. for a call to begin at 5 p.m.

That late on a Friday afternoon, I was one of only four or five reporters on the call. Only one other person asked any questions. Hanging up, I knew that NC Health News would be one of the only outlets getting the word out.

Time was of the essence: The assistance would only be available for five days, starting the following morning.

I canceled my evening plans, wrote up the information and got it posted online by 6:01 that evening. I included a box showing where people could sign up for the assistance in all of the affected counties and another box outlining criteria.

Then I started calling longtime contacts from eastern North Carolina, asking them to share the story on Facebook and Twitter, I posted the story on the accounts of numerous institutions in that part of the state they suggested. I created automated tweets to go out every 20-30 minutes so that people who were relying on their phones for news might see the story and tweeted at social service organizations in eastern counties.

By the end of the weekend, our story had more than 500 Facebook shares and had been seen 9,000 times (unheard of for our site, which is usually published only Monday through Friday). Other outlets only reported the news a full 24 hours after we had it. Some only carried it on Sunday, two days into the five day sign-up period.

NC Health News tells stories that are important – often vital – to the people in our communities. We inform about arcane and complicated programs that affect people’s health care. We travel the state’s highways and rural roads to report when our health care system is failing patients and we highlight programs that are working well. We explain complicated policy and insurance issues. We delve into the science of how our environment affects our health. We aim to inform the public, and often, state officials. Over the years, I’ve lost count of those – both Republican and Democratic – who have pulled me aside to say, “I’ve used your website to understand what’s happening in this state.”

When we make a mistake, you’ll see corrections on our site. We’re not perfect; we’re simply looking for answers, same as you.

We all were horrified by the deaths of five of our colleagues in an Annapolis newsroom and, personally, I was spooked by this article in Columbia Journalism Review that detailed how a Durham freelance journalist was stalked by a reader. We have journalist friends who have received not just criticism, but have had their tires slashed, have received death threats, have been yelled at in public, and had their personal information and photos (and those of their spouses and children) published on the web.

I know I’m making some changes; among other things, the message on our home phone line now doesn’t mention that a “Rose” lives there.

shows a group of people brandishing their fists with wrist cuffs bearing the First Amendment.
Showing off our power cuffs at this winter’s NC Press Association dinner, where NC Health News brought home 12 awards. Photo credit: Paul Specht

Our reporters have had public officials snipe at them at press conferences, I’ve had my reputation smeared because I uncovered damning state documents, we’ve been told that we’d “ruined [someone’s] reputation” because we wrote about what he’d done, that we “took things out of context,” when we recounted how a public official lied, and been told that we were “lazy,” “wrong,” “biased,” and more.

We’re simply holding our public officials and some of our institutions to account – on your behalf – because if we don’t, who will? And we’re not quitting. That’s because we all share the belief that journalism is essential to the functioning of our democracy.

For the past couple years, my bedside reading has featured biographies of our Founding Fathers (and Mothers). Alexander Hamilton was excoriated in the media for his efforts to create our financial system and was brought down by a sex scandal widely reported in contemporaneous papers. John Adams was vilified for his supposed “love” of Britain and his handling of a diplomatic crisis with France. None of the founders I’ve read about particularly loved the media, but they understood its importance. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in a letter to a Virginia colleague, Edward Carrington, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

The founders put press freedom in the First Amendment for a reason.

But when the leader of the country repeatedly calls reporters and news outlets the “enemy of the people,” when our state’s leaders attempt to smear the personal reputations of journalists because they don’t like what was written about happenings at the statehouse, when departmental press officers, whose salaries are paid for with our tax dollars, refuse to answer questions for months at a time, this creates a climate of disregard for truth and becomes a threat on our democracy..

It’s time for good people of every political persuasion to reject this rhetoric.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

7 replies on “First For a Reason”

  1. Yes! Well said, Rose. Thank you — and all journalists — for doing your job! It is indeed crucial to our democracy.

  2. Rose, I appreciate your reporting, however I do have one important correction to what you are saying: President Trump has never characterized all members of the press as the “enemy of the people”…..That is an egregious error of fact on your part. He has labeled specific news organizations and specific journalists as such because they do not report the news….they try to “invent the news”….
    These are my own personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

    1. I’m afraid we’ll have to disagree on this, Thomas.

      Just this morning, the president made a sweeping comment that did not specify particular outlets (and he has used sweeping generalizations in the past as well) when he tweeted: “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY. It is very bad for our Great Country….BUT WE ARE WINNING!” And a few minutes later: “There is nothing that I would want more for our Country than true FREEDOM OF THE PRESS. The fact is that the Press is FREE to write and say anything it wants, but much of what it says is FAKE NEWS, pushing a political agenda or just plain trying to hurt people. HONESTY WINS!”

      I need to ask, when does news become “fake”? When it makes a public official look bad? When it holds that person’s feet to the fire? When we in the media call out a lie?

      The point I made in this editorial is that use of this type of rhetoric degrades discourse and undermines democracy. No correction needed.

  3. This is exactly why I continue to read and support NC health news- -journalists with intelligence to know what is an important story and the drive to get that story out.

  4. Rose, this rocks. Not only on the #freepress topic, but on how you explained throughout what you do and why you do it. We are grateful that you do — thank you.

  5. I love that you continue to share what is actually going on in our state. You keep me connected on issues that are important to me, such as the Opioid Epidemic and state funding.
    Thank you all for what you do despite the personal attacks!

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