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WVPB Reporters Share Favorite, Most Impactful Stories of 2018

John Raby
AP Photo
In this March 1, 2018 file photo, Parry Casto, a fifth grade teacher at the Explorer Academy in Huntington, W.Va., dressed in an Uncle Sam costume leads hundreds of teachers in chants outside the state Senate chambers at the Capitol in Charleston.

At the risk of stating the obvious, 2018 was an eventful year. The year started with a legislative session interrupted by a strike and didn’t let up from there. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s dedicated news team met the challenging onslaught of seemingly endless news head on.

The following is a list of stories our reporters chose as their favorites of the year, with a little insight into why they chose them.

-- Jesse Wright, News Director

Glynis Board, Assistant News Director:

West Virginia continued to capture the attention of national audiences throughout the year. In my first full year as assistant news director, I’ve had the pleasure of watching the skill and knowledge of my colleagues in the newsroom deepen and sharpen to serve not only our region, but anyone who would hope to understand the realities we face here. We continue to shape our newsroom’s mission within West Virginia Public Broadcasting and I believe our favorite selections reflect an unwavering commitment to that mission:

We tell West Virginia’s story with integrity, striving to hold the powerful accountable and to recognize and honor the shared humanity in the communities we serve.

How One Man Is Using Coal to Help Blast Rockets into Space

West Virginians are not showy, boastful or flamboyant, culturally speaking. As an indirect result, many accomplishments and innovations that have come from the state are either overlooked or understated. That’s something Brian Joseph, an entrepreneur and innovator in Wheeling, pointed out to me, and it’s something I continue to return to periodically. I found Joseph’s optimism and creativity refreshing and it was very fulfilling to be able to show off his accomplishments and philosophies to wrap up a series that focused on innovation.

Teachable Moment: What Teacher Protests Portend For Schools, Labor And Elections

I personally found the teachers’ wildcat strike of 2018 to be exceptionally moving, emotionally, because it was action driven by important questions that we face throughout the country. So it gave me a significant measure of satisfaction to be able to report that I was not the only one paying attention to their struggle to create change in bold, unorthodox ways. West Virginians have been a source of inspiration to the rest of the country time and time again, and this story was a chance to celebrate that with facts and a diversity of voices.

Shine A Light: Regional Effort To Aid Puerto Rico Caught In Trump’s Solar Tariffs

Credit Rebecca kiger

This story was a chance to highlight bridges being built between disparate communities that seem to have very little in common. What I found is what I always seem to find: we have more in common than not. Puerto Ricans and West Virginians are both incredibly loving, authentic, grounded people who are proud of homes, and incredibly vulnerable. I caught a tangible connection that allowed me to tie these communities together and tell a beautiful, sad story that I hope resonates and inspires.

Dave Mistich, Senior Reporter:

This year felt like a particularly busy year in news for West Virginia. Between the teacher strike, impeachments of state Supreme Court justices (that ultimately fizzled out), the murder of one of the country’s most notorious mobsters in a West Virginia federal prison and it being an election year -- national-level stories seemed to pop up everywhere in 2018.

NPR put me to work on a lot of those big stories, but I feel like the things I wrote about that weren’t necessarily of national interest were the ones that had the most resonance.

Seeing Through the Rhetoric of the Alt-Right: Spotting White Supremacist Propaganda in W.Va.

A few years ago, the term “alt-right” hadn’t really found its way into the American lexicon. I remember first hearing it on a story from NPR in 2016 -- but it was covering a white supremacist rally in Pikeville, Kentucky in April 2017 where I saw the real danger of these groups first hand. Then, in August 2017, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, while protesting members of the alt-right.

When flyers from some of these hate groups began appearing around Morgantown and Fairmont in early 2018, many people in the community immediately spotted them for what they were: a dangerous white supremacist group trying to recruit members.

But others may have been confused by their tactics. Racism, homophobia and bigotry can get shrouded in seemingly innocuous rhetoric. For me, this piece felt like a public service in helping people understand how the alt-right operates without giving these groups any reverence.

International Firm Hired to Help Off-Ballot GOP Senators with Messaging on W.Va. Teacher Strike

One of the things about working in news is that, sometimes, it is easy to forget that you are bearing witness to history. In the middle of the teacher strike -- as thousands of educators and service personnel roared and chanted throughout the Capitol -- it was kind of difficult to concentrate on anything but churning out and filing stories for multiple platforms. It felt like I was somersaulting from one deadline to the next — and things felt fluid and chaotic.

It was only later that I felt like I could look back and appreciate the magnitude and historical significance of what had happened. I also feel like this story helps put into perspective the impact public educators had on state politics.

While it’s not unusual for a politician to use a public relations firm, the particular group involved here, the subjects they were addressing, the looming election and the teacher strike lingering in the public conscience made this story rather newsworthy.

Fundamentally, though, this piece was about pulling back the curtain on the machinations of politics and it had it all: a subject still on the minds of the public, sussing out how this company was contracted through campaign finance reports and emails illustrating the work they were doing.

Morgantown’s Bad News Bears: Chico’s Bail Bonds More Social Club Than Softball Team

Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
WVPB senior reporter and Chico's first basemen Dave Mistich takes a swing at a pitch during some time away from work.

I don’t think I could put together a list of favorites without mentioning a story in which I was a character.

At some point over the summer, the producers of Inside Appalachia decided to do an episode on the cultural impact of baseball across the region. After a few conversations with our news director, we decided I would do a piece on Chico’s Bail Bonds, a rather infamous softball team around Morgantown.

There’s a lot of reasons to love this story: the sound, the underdog mentality of the team and the fact that I got to wear a t-shirt and not a suit and tie. But for me, really, it’s the people whose voices you hear in the piece.

As a softball team, Chico’s is pretty pathetic. But I truly feel there is a lot of humility and humanity among the group of guys who play. A sense of community and belonging is a beautiful thing -- especially in fast-paced, politically charged and overwhelming times -- and I just hope all of that comes through.

Molly Born, Southern Coalfields Reporter:

In my 2018 transition from print to radio, I opened a one-woman bureau in one of the most remote parts of the country where I didn't know a soul. As a Report for America fellow covering West Virginia's southern coalfields, I set out to put more voices from this part of the state on our airwaves and help to illuminate a place long misunderstood. This year I helped to cover the historic teacher strike, made radio for NPR, represented RFA at a conference and worked on a team that produced a series of stories on water infrastructure issues in my part of the state. I learned more about my home state and myself along the way.

A Traveling Needle Exchange Makes Progress in Wyoming County

Credit Molly Born / WVPB
Crystal Simpson, Fred Cox and Gena Carter load up the Wyoming County mobile harm reduction unit van after providing services in Allen Junction, Wyoming County.

Wyoming County quickly became one of my favorite places in southern West Virginia, and I spent a lot of time here in 2018. In the months after Charleston closed its needle exchange program, I wanted to profile one just emerging in one of the state’s most rural counties.

Wyoming is among the Appalachian counties the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found to be most at risk of an HIV outbreak among people who inject drugs -- like what happened in Scott County, Indiana, in 2014. With a state-funded van full of supplies, health department officials in Wyoming sought to bring a harm reduction program out to the places where they knew people who use drugs live -- instead of waiting for them to come to the department for services.

This story has a lot of good sound, and I think it puts the listener in the scene. I was especially grateful to the couple who visited one of the van’s locations and agreed to talk candidly with me about their experience using the needle exchange. It provided a prospective we desperately need when we talk about harm reduction.

Inside Appalachia: LGBT Issues In Our Region

I felt honored that my colleagues trusted me to work as lead producer on this episode I pitched about queer folks in Appalachia. Shortly after this story ran, one of the kids I profiled, Steve Sartin, told me he got called to the principal's office at his Mingo County high school, a visit that would make any kid nervous.

But Steve said the principal told him he'd heard about his story on Inside Appalachia and wanted to address Steve's concerns that he was being bullied because he was gay. Further, Steve told me some LGBT middle-schoolers had come out to him after the episode ran.

In West Virginia, SNAP Benefits Out of Reach for Drug Felons

This story wasn’t focused on southern West Virginia, but I thought it was important to include here.

Only West Virginia and two other states still enforce a full lifetime ban on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, for people who commit drug-related felonies. It’s a rule few know about, but more than 2,100 drug felons were denied SNAP benefits in West Virginia in 2016. Research shows the ban disproportionately affects poor people and also sets up drug offenders to be rearrested.

Advocates say they plan to push lawmakers to remove the ban in the upcoming 2019 state Legislative session.

Brittany Patterson, Energy & Environment reporter for the Ohio Valley ReSource:

It’s been about nine months since I came to West Virginia Public Broadcasting and began the transition from print to radio. It’s been a wild, but incredibly rewarding ride. As the energy and environment reporter here at WVPB, but also for the regional collaborative, the Ohio Valley ReSource, I have the unique opportunity to take a wider view of important environmental and energy stories.

I’ve learned a lot about the region’s history with coal, it’s growing relationship with natural gas and seen first-hand West Virginia’s unique and wonderful rivers, streams and ecosystems. Also, kudos on the pepperoni rolls: they rock!

Coal Ash Uncovered: Largest Ash Dump A “Cautionary Tale” As Trump Changes Regulations

In this three-part, investigative series, the Ohio Valley ReSource and WFPL dug into newly available data that sheds light on what is in groundwater near coal ash waste pits. There are more than 1,000 coal ash sites across the country and many dozens here in the region, including the country’s largest, Little Blue Run, which straddles the West Virginia and Pennsylvania border.

Our analysis of the data found most coal ash sites across the region are leaking contaminants like arsenic, lead and radium. At several sites, hazardous compounds are found in groundwater at levels that far exceed federal drinking water standards

In this series, we heard from community members who live next to the waste and considered the Trump administration’s proposal that is set to change how the sites are regulated and by whom.

Trump Power: Industry Analysts Say New Rule Will Not Fuel Coal Comeback

Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
President Donald Trump addresses a crowd at the Charleston Civic Center on Aug. 21, 2018.

From their perch in Washington, D.C. federal officials and agencies often offer promises to Appalachia about the impact new policies or programs will have on the coal industry.

I think it is important to constantly ask people who are smarter than me to evaluate those claims. In the case of many of the deregulatory efforts undertaken by the Trump administration aimed at helping boost coal mining or help struggling coal-fired power plants, there is little evidence that unwinding EPA regulations can help.

Coal cannot compete with low-cost natural gas, wind and solar. In this story, industry experts unpack the impacts, or lack thereof, of the Affordable Clean Energy rule, the Trump administration's replacement regulation for President Obama’s signature climate change initiative, the Clean Power Plan.

From Polluted to Playground: It's Taken 25 Years to Clean Up the Cheat River

This story has everything: music, rafting, chemistry and perhaps most surprisingly, good news!

Like many waterways in West Virginia, the Cheat River is impacted by the telltale bright orange runoff from abandoned coal mines, called acid mine drainage. For decades, the Cheat was plagued by a reputation for being especially polluted.  

More than two decades later, a partnership between conservation group Friends of the Cheat, local residents and businesses and state and federal regulators have succeeded in cleaning up the bulk of the river.

Liz McCormick, Eastern Panhandle Reporter/Producer:

My role at West Virginia Public Broadcasting is to cover the issues and voices of the Eastern Panhandle – though, my work isn’t always exclusive to the EP – sometimes, it’s producing stories or doing technical work for “The Legislature Today,” “Inside Appalachia,” or “West Virginia Morning,” helping a colleague with anything and everything… from a script edit, troubleshooting a computer or audio issue, or just providing backup when someone’s out in the field… I feel like my role doesn’t always fit into one box at WVPB… And I love that about my job.

In 2018, I got to learn a whole new system; a machine called 3-Play, and we used it to record, play back and cut video and audio streaming live into our Charleston studio from the state Capitol during the legislative session. In 2018, I also got to guest host an episode of “Inside Appalachia,” which taught me a new way to talk to listeners. I wrote a few stories on a new, popular video game that takes place in the hills of West Virginia. I spent most of a school day with elementary school kids who were eager to get outside and garden. I spent an entire day with a family who make old-fashioned corn brooms together. I rode the MARC train to meet Eastern Panhandle residents who commuted to work or school in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

And I met some amazing, inspiring people in 2018, too.

Two of my favorite stories from this year have to do with an issue we’ve committed to keeping at the forefront of our organization – and that’s the state’s fight against the opioid epidemic and road to recovery. Berkeley County, West Virginia has some of the highest numbers of overdose deaths in the state…and yet, has some of the most optimistic people who say giving up and accepting “what is” is not an option.

Three W.Va. Moms Deal Hope Amid Opioid Epidemic

Lisa, Tina, and Tara are three West Virginia mothers from Martinsburg who started a program out of their homes to transport people suffering from substance use disorder to various in-patient detox centers all over the state. Each of these women have experienced loss and heartache, and yet, they continue to help people get clean regardless of the pain and the exhaustion. Their spirits are fierce.

W.Va. Nurse Fights Opioid Epidemic Through Harm Reduction

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Angie Gray, Nurse Director for the Berkeley-Morgan County Health Department, shows a box of sealed, sterile syringes given to participants in her harm reduction program.

Angie Gray has done wonders for the image of harm reduction with syringe access, and she helps people all over the Eastern Panhandle. While the issue is controversial, and a facility in Charleston was closed due to an abundance of needles found in public places, Angie has been able to keep her program going strong with a lot of local and national support. The way she talks to those who come in for her program is so understanding, thoughtful, yet very honest.

Jefferson County Residents in Uproar Over New Insulation Plant

This is another favorite story, because it was a challenge – and still is. The concern and pushback from residents regarding Rockwool erupted in Jefferson County in August. Lots of folks in my area are terrified of this plant, while those who aren’t have told me they are tired of the pushback and protests.

The story I link to here is the first of my Rockwool stories when the concern was just beginning to come to light. I also liked this story because I was proud of the web-friendliness of it. I included links, pictures, audio, data and tweets.

Rockwool is still an issue as we close on 2018, and the controversy caused many upsets in the local government after the recent election. It’s an issue that continues to make itself heard -- many Jefferson County Development Authority staff resigned, a couple Jefferson County seats in the House of Delegates changed from Red to Blue.

Roxy Todd, Inside Appalachia Producer:

I didn’t seek these stories out. They found me. Sometimes the best stories are like that -- you don’t expect to be reporting on an issue, but people and circumstances give you little choice. And thankfully I listened! Also, reporting in some unique locations was especially special to me this year because I was pregnant, and I can’t wait to one day tell my daughter about all the adventures we had together. From trekking up on top of former strip mine sites, to a locker room filled with pro wrestlers. It certainly was a year filled with new experiences.

From Hero to Villain: Wrestler Rocky Rage Reveals Man Behind the Mask

Inside Appalachia producer Roxy Todd gathers sound while working on an episode about wresting and its cultural impact in the region.

I didn’t expect to be reporting on indie pro-wrestling in 2018. When we decided to do an episode of Inside Appalachia about wrestling, I expected to assist Adam Harris and Jessica Lilly in the production, but not to actually do the reporting myself. But as Adam got further along in his reporting, we discovered there was another side to the story -- we needed to learn more about one of the wrestlers when he wasn’t in the ring. Who was Rocky Rage during the day? At work? At home with his little daughter? Scheduling a time to record these scenes with both Adam and Rocky when they had time proved difficult, and also to be honest by this point I’d become really curious about this part of the story. That’s how I found myself at the home of Rocky Hardin (AKA Rocky Rage), spending an afternoon with his family. I also confessed to him that I had never been to a pro-wrestling match, so Rocky insisted I attend his next match. I did. And what a story I found!

Lavender Hopes and Realities: Farming Project Doesn’t Go as Planned

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is reporting on projects that appear to be working to bring about real change for Appalachia. As exciting as that is, our responsibility as journalists is also to follow up on these projects, to discover and report on whether progress is being made. Earlier this year, I reported about a project to grow lavender on former strip mines. After the story aired, I heard from a number of people who’d been involved in the project, saying things had not turned out as they’d been promised. They urged me to look back at the story and dig deeper. What I found was a complicated story about big dreams, and the challenges of fulfilling promises after grant funding runs out. I still have hopes that one day I will be able to report on a lavender growing project that is growing dozens of good paying jobs for Appalachians. At this time, this is the story I found instead.

One of W.Va's Last Historic Gristmills Is Still Producing, But Future Is Unclear

My third favorite story was about a man and a mill. I’ve reported on Reed’s Mill several times in the past, first when I was still an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Traveling 219 project. Larry Mustain owns the mill, and he is still one of my favorite people I’ve interviewed, and I returned to this story this year to make a short film and to update his story about threats he faces to keeping the mill running.

I worked with videographer Daniel Walker, who got to experiment with our new drone to get some cool shots outside the mill and of the headwaters of Second Creek, the stream that runs by the mill. Probably the best part of this experience was getting to show it in Beckley at our first Inside Appalachia live event. Larry Mustain was able to attend, along with over a dozen of his family members. Mustain has had a difficult year -- his wife passed away not long ago. It was an honor to see him enjoying the company of his family with something to celebrate, a story that resonated with many at the live event. One of the highlights of the evening was when a park ranger from Twin Falls State Park offered to help assist Mustain in cleaning up his mill pond, in exchange for Mustain’s expert advice in helping them restore a historic mill in Wyoming County. It was one of those perfect moments that seems to happen more often in West Virginia than in other places.

Kara Lofton, Appalachia Health News Coordinator:

These stories, like the majority of my work, revolve around the opioid epidemic and related issues. So in some ways I struggle to call them my “favorite” because they’re so heavy. For me, they are the most important of 2018, though. The opioid epidemic doesn’t just impact people who are struggling with addiction but all of the people around them -- their children, their parents, their communities, their state. In these stories, we examined sex trafficking, stigma, politics and perception. In each case, reporting took weeks, sometimes months, before the story aired.

West Virginia Sees Increase in Family Sex Trafficking Related to the Opioid Epidemic

A couple of months before this story aired, I was working on another story when the interviewee mentioned that many of the teens she was working with had been sex trafficked by family members seeking drugs. I was shocked. And shortly thereafter I began to dig into the story. I found out that one of the little-known side effects of the opioid epidemic is adults selling children in their family for sex so they could obtain money to buy drugs or drug themselves.

‘Not in my Neighborhood’: Community Clashes with New Clinic Wanting to Provide Addiction Treatment

Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The site of a new internal medicine / psychiatry clinic in Beckley.

The most common way I find out about a story is when I’m working on another story and I hear something in an interview that I end up turning into a feature. The second most common way is someone pitching me the story. In this case, Dr. Jawad Zafar, featured in the story, told me that he and his brother were meeting a lot of resistance from neighborhood in which they’d just opened a new psychiatry clinic. Basically, the neighborhood didn’t want them providing medication-assisted treatment as part of their practice. Even though Zafar pitched me, writing a story like this one well means telling both sides and really teasing out perception, fears and truth that led to a conflict.

Diving Deep into Harm Reduction Part 1: Why W.Va.’s Largest Needle Exchange Closed

On some level no one, myself included, wanted another story about harm reduction. Much less five of them. But when the Charleston harm reduction program closed, the closure became a political campaign item that was more about pushing mayoral votes one way or another than public health. So in this series, my goal was to figure out what exactly happened leading up to the closure of the Charleston harm reduction program and how that closure might impact other public health initiatives around harm reduction in West Virginia. It took me about four months, hundreds of pages of FOIA’d documents, underlining program manuals and talking to everyone who would talk to me to put the series together, but in the end, I feel like I put together a balanced series of stories, and I’m proud of them.

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