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.
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.