As Hurricane Idalia tore through Madison County, just south of the Georgia-Florida border, residents flocked to the local “Madison Fl Word of Mouth” Facebook page.
Anybody know where to get diesel? Anyone at the Madison school shelter? Who do we tell about down power lines?
The questions, along with updates about blocked roads and photos of downed trees, kept pouring in as the storm passed overhead and into Georgia. In a small town like Madison — the seat of Madison County — the Facebook page has helped fill in gaps in local news coverage, said creator Jill King Spicer.
Madison County, population 18,000, has two newspapers, The Madison County Carrier and The Enterprise-Recorder, which publish twice a week. For breaking news events like storm coverage, residents often turn to WCTV — a CBS affiliate based more than 50 miles away in Tallahassee — or the Word of Mouth Facebook page, Spicer said. She started the page five years ago to help the community access information they might not have otherwise been able to find.
“Most people, especially people new to the community, have expressed gratitude for the page as they were able to find stuff they otherwise didn’t know how to get,” Spicer told Poynter in an interview over Facebook Messenger.
Idalia is one of the biggest storms the area has ever seen. The National Weather Service in Tallahassee called it an “unprecedented event” because no major hurricane has been recorded going through the nearby Apalachee Bay and into Florida’s Big Bend region. On Wednesday, Tri-County Electric announced that 100% of its systems had been impacted, leaving 20,000 meters without power.
Spicer is one of those affected and said she also has very little service. Downed trees blocked roads into town, and one fell on her carport.
In regions where there isn’t a robust news presence, local residents often turn to social media. While places like Facebook pages can help people find up-to-date information quickly, they can also perpetuate unverified rumors and misinformation. The information found on those pages may also not be as comprehensive as that found in a traditional newspaper.
Spicer and the page’s two other moderators are not professional journalists and work in careers unrelated to media. Though people occasionally post inaccurate information to the Word of Mouth page, Spicer said that they are able to monitor it pretty well. She estimated that between the three of them, they usually have the page covered 20 hours a day.
Pinned to the top of the Facebook page Wednesday were posts from the local sheriff’s office, the electric company, and the county’s emergency management department. Residents have also been sharing information about store openings and businesses that are offering storm-related repairs.
“Madison is a small town, a close community, and everyone knows everyone, so by having my page, the majority of the people are able to find resources … by mostly word of mouth,” Spicer said. “It takes me and two other ladies a lot of volunteer time to make it successful, but we do it for our community.”
By Angela Fu, media business reporter
Reporter files federal lawsuit over Kansas newspaper raid
The police raid of the Marion County Record, which garnered national outrage and support for the small town Kansas newspaper, has spurred a federal lawsuit filed against the city’s police chief by a reporter.
As reported by The Kansas City Star, Record reporter Deb Gruver filed suit this week against police chief Gideon Cody, claiming Cody caused “emotional distress, mental anguish and physical injury.”
Gruver is seeking damages for the deprivation of her constitutionally protected First Amendment rights as a reporter and the violation of her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
She contends that as she reached for her cellphone to call the paper’s publisher, Cody snatched the phone from her hands, injuring her finger in the process.
The lawsuit also claims that under the search warrant, there was no factual basis for seizing Gruver’s cellphone, as she was not the reporter whose work was being investigated.
Gruver is seeking a minimum of $75,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages from Cody.
By Annie Aguiar, audience engagement producer
Los Angeles Times opinion: Vague computer crimes laws give police license to raid newspapers
Speaking of the raid on the Marion County Record, an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times takes issue with the definition of “computer crimes” used to justify the search warrant.
The search warrant for the raid listed violations including “unlawful acts concerning computers,” a statute typically used for charges related to malware or bank account fraud.
“But these laws are so vague that they can be deployed to penalize reporters for using computers to find information online as part of routine journalism,” write Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press executive director Bruce D. Brown and Technology and Press Freedom Project director Gabe Rottman.
Brown and Rottman point to other cases in which “computer crimes” were used to target news publishing: the St. Louis-Dispatch reporter targeted in 2021 as a “hacker” by the governor of Missouri under computer crime laws for discovering a flaw in a state website, and a 2019 lawsuit against a California blog for reviewing information on a city Dropbox page.
“With more newsgathering now taking place online, the endlessly elastic nature of computer fraud laws is a special problem for the press,” Brown and Rottman write. “The temptation for public officials to employ these laws against reporters — especially those uncovering news they would prefer hidden — will be difficult to resist.”
By Annie Aguiar, audience engagement producer
The Daily Tar Heel’s front page: ‘I felt panic’
Like many others on Wednesday, I saw the tweet from Caitlyn Yaede, the Tar Heel’s print managing editor. The Daily Tar Heel’s front page was spreading far and wide.
“I shed many tears while typing up these heart-wrenching text messages sent and received by UNC students yesterday,” Yaede wrote of the accompanying image of the front page filled with bolded, all caps messages from students who were on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus Monday, during a shooting. “… Beyond proud of this cover and the team behind it.”
I read the first few lines of the front page and launched into work mode — reaching out to a few people at the independent student newspaper in hopes that they’d give me a few minutes of their time. As I waited to hear back, I studied the front page. I felt panic in my body as I took in the entirety of the text. I quickly corrected myself: What I felt could not compare to what Yaede and her peers felt that day. But I could imagine the anguish behind those text messages.
After we published the story behind the front page, many people shared their reaction and commented on the editorial decisions made by these student journalists. The Daily Tar Heel staff was showered with praise by many people, including professional journalists.
The front page even drew the attention of the Biden administration. On Thursday, I was surprised to see President Joe Biden’s official X account tweet a photo of Biden’s hand holding a phone with a photo of the front page. “This was the front page of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel,” the tweet read. “No student, no parent, and no American should have to send texts like these to their loved ones as they hide from a shooter. I’ll continue to do all I can to reduce gun violence and call on Congress to do the same.”
It was a pretty striking thing to see the president of the United States give what appeared to be a nod to student journalism.
By Amaris Castillo, contributor
Media tidbits and links for your weekend review
- Pennsylvania’s Times-Shamrock Communications will sell its four daily papers — The (Scranton) Times-Tribune, The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens’ Voice, The (Pottsville) Republican Herald and The (Hazleton) Standard-Speaker — to MediaNews Group, which is owned by investment firm Alden Global Capital. MediaNews Group already operates a number of publications in eastern Pennsylvania, including Allentown’s The Morning Call. The sale was initiated by shareholders. The family that founded Times-Shamrock issued a scathing statement, which partially read, “This was a transaction that we do not support or endorse. Alden does not reflect the business principles we feel are consistent with the stewardship of any newspaper.” WNEP-TV has more.
- Dana Afana, a reporter at the Detroit Free Press, posted a callout on X: “What advice do you have for younger reporters who are trying to build their career but might be struggling in this environment?” The advice from journalists poured in. It’s worth taking a look if you need some motivation or want to add your own to the thread.
- The Washington Post has gone all in on regional pizza preferences with a multiprong package, including a reported overview of pizza varietals and an interactive searchable database of the best spot for each type of pizza in your state.
- Keri Blakinger reports on “The Dungeons & Dragons Players of Death Row” in the newest issue of The New York Times Magazine, profiling men in a Texas prison who found the game to be a lifeline.
- The New York Times’ Katherine Rosman (with photos by Lanna Apisukh) with “After Fox News, Geraldo Rivera Boats Into the Sunset (via Cleveland).”
- After 17 years, anchor Wendi Nix is leaving ESPN. The New York Post’s Ryan Glasspiegel has more.
More resources for journalists
- Bring Poynter to Your Newsroom, Classroom or Workplace
- Poynter will honor Anderson Cooper at the Bowtie Ball in Tampa, Florida, on Nov. 18. Learn how to get first dibs on tickets during a donor pre-sale event Sept. 5-10.
- Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Media (Mar., May & Sept. 2024) — Apply by Sept. 8, 2023.
- Power of Diverse Voices: Writing Workshop for Journalists of Color (Nov. 15-18) (Seminar) — Apply by Sept. 15.
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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