Madison County Record receives award for “courage, integrity and tenacity” for Huntsville coverage
Ellen Kreth Publisher, The Madison County Record
An Arkansas weekly newspaper, its publisher and staff are winners of the 2022 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
The Madison County Record, publisher Ellen Kreth, general manager Shannon Hahn and Celia Kreth, the publisher’s younger daughter and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, won for their steady coverage of school officials’ cover-up of sexual-abuse allegations despite facing court challenges and harsh criticism by the officials.
The Gish Award marks the second major honor Kreth and her newspaper have received for their coverage of the Huntsville School District’s handling of the sexual-abuse accusations and the district’s failure to act. The Madison County Record received the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard earlier this year.
“It’s been the craziest story I’ve ever covered,” describing a roller-coaster year of emotions.
“At times I felt defeated and attacked. Our credibility was attacked,” she said.
After a school board executive session in May, board members spent 20 minutes “annihilating our coverage.” Board members excoriated the for not supporting the school system and the board, directing their ire at the paper’s general manager, who was the only reporter in the room, Kreth said.
Five days later, the three board members most critical of the coverage lost their reelection bids.
“For the first time people in the community came together and spoke loud,” the publisher said. “I felt such a sense of justification.”
“Parents trusted their newspaper to find the truth,” she said.
Kreth, a former chair of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Task Force, has long fought for freedom of information in Arkansas. Her FOIA experience helped in her paper’s battle with the school district, which tried to conceal sexual abuse by members of the Huntsville High School Junior High boys’ basketball team against some of their teammates over two basketball seasons.
The Record learned of the case from victims’ parents, who approached the newspaper to make sure the allegations weren’t swept under the rug and school officials were held accountable. The paper didn’t name any students involved, but did report that the school board reduced or rejected the recommended punishment for the violators.
The newspaper’s reporting focused on how officials handled the allegations, reporting the district’s failure to immediately report the accusations, as required by law. The paper also reported multiple open-meeting violations of the Arkansas FOIA.
The county sheriff opened an investigation based on the paper’s reporting. School board members had to undergo special open-meetings training but didn’t complete it in the required time frame.
A parent filed a lawsuit alleging violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that bans sex-based discrimination in any school that gets federal funding; the board’s admitted liability in that suit.
“The school district fought us at each step,” Kreth told the Institute for Rural Journalism. “The school board claimed ignorance for never having previously handled a Title IX investigation. It failed to provide notice of meetings, claiming a newspaper should not cover student discipline.”
The newspaper also successfully fought a gag order the school district sought in the parent’s lawsuit, which allowed it to continue its reporting and allowed other parents to continue to speak to the paper.
The work that the Gish Award honors is available at https://www.mcrecordonline.com/Content/Default/Title-IX/-3/111).
Kreth said the 4,000-circulation paper with a staff of five turned down help from larger news organizations because they had promised anonymity to several victims and families.
“At a time when newspapers need to remind the public of their value to local democracy, Ellen Kreth and the Madison County Record are an example to the nation,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky.
The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., weekly for more than 50 years and repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office by a local policeman whom state police believe was paid by coal companies.
The Gish Award will be presented Nov. 3 at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner at the Embassy Suites Lexington on Newtown Pike near Interstate 64/75. The keynote speaker will be Renee Shaw, public-affairs director for Kentucky Educational Television.
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