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Forum focuses on how a national news story can affect a small town

MABTON - Dec. 23, 2003 is a date that will always carry a certain amount of significance for the residents of Mabton, many of whom earn their living in the dairy and cattle industries.

Wednesday evening, representatives from the local media, along with several members of the Mabton community, gathered at the Silver Dollar restaurant in downtown Mabton to talk about how the discovery of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, at a dairy farm near Mabton affected the community and those members of the media who regularly cover the area. The forum, titled "Mad Cow: Not a Black and White Issue," was presented by the William O. Douglas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

Nathan Isaacs, president of the William O. Douglas chapter of SPJ, told the 22 people in attendance, which included a mix of area reporters, community members and representatives from the local dairy and cattle industries, that the focus of the forum was to discuss how a world-side story affects a local community after the satellite trucks have left town.

Panel members for the forum included Sarah Jenkins, editor of the Yakima Herald; Gary Darigol, news director for KNDO television, an NBC affiliate based in Yakima; Mabton Mayor David Conradt; Silver Dollar Manager Linda Chester; and LaDon Linde, vice president of the Washington State Dairy Federation.

Jenkins and Darigol both said the announcement that a suspected case of mad cow disease had been found in the Lower Yakima Valley came at a time when news is traditionally slow, and when many people in the industry take time off to be with family for the holidays. However, Jenkins said as soon as the announcement was made everyone at the newspaper knew they had a challenge in front of them.

"We just knew it was going to be a tough story to cover," Jenkins said.

Darigol said the same thoughts rippled through his newsroom.

"We realized immediately that this was a huge story and an important story," Darigol said.

But, before reporters could be sent out to gather information, both Jenkins and Darigol explained that there were some tough decisions that would have to be made.

"We tried to give to the viewer what we thought would be most important to them," Darigol said. "We wanted to present the facts as fast as we could find them."

Jenkins said the Yakima Herald staff knew that the barrage of media coverage on Mabton would be part of the story they told, but they also knew that it meant they would be competing with a variety of other news sources on the story. Jenkins said the newspaper knew it would have to keep its stories as local as possible.

"This was not a story about cows, it was a story about people," Jenkins said.

She said for 11 days following the Dec. 23 announcement the Yakima Herald ran locally written stories about the mad cow issue on the front page, then on day 12 the paper switched over to running a mix of locally written stories and stories written by members of the national media. Jenkins said the mad cow issue stayed on the front page for 26 days.

For Linde, a local dairyman, the announcement that a suspected case of mad cow disease had been found in Mabton brought with it an entirely different experience. He said he remembers getting a phone call from his brother in Oregon telling him about the discovery and what had been on the news. Linde said it wasn't more than an hour later that he began receiving calls from members of the media looking for comments on the discovery.

However, reporters weren't the only people calling Linde. He said other dairy and cattle farmers were calling, asking what they should do about the reporters and satellite trucks that were beginning to gather outside their farms.

Linde said one of the largest concerns the industry felt, was what all of the media coverage would mean for the cattle and dairy markets. In the end, Linde said he feels that it's a tribute to how the media handled the issue and how the United States Department of Agriculture worked to get information out that the discovery didn't become a disaster for the industry.

Conradt said when the announcement was made and the media began to descend on Mabton, many residents in the community turned to city hall and the mayor for information about what was happening.

Conradt said looking back on the events following the discovery, there was a definite difference between the national media attention and the way the local media covered the story.

"The local media focused on the effects of the national media," Conradt said.

Chester, manager of the Silver Dollar, also dealt with the media in Mabton. However, she dealt with them on a different level. She explained that the community restaurant ended up serving as a place for reporters to hang out between press conferences and national announcements.

Chester said when she heard news about the discovery of mad cow disease, she didn't think much of it. It wasn't until she was heading to work the next morning to start making breakfast at the restaurant that she figured out just what the announcement meant. She said as she turned the corner to go to the restaurant she was bombarded by a wall of light, even though it was still dark outside. The light was from the cameras of the different news trucks that had rolled in over night.

Chester said that first day her customers were made up mostly of members of the media. The dairymen who usually come in for breakfast were suspiciously missing, she added.

However, Chester explained that serving as the hub for members of the media meant that she got to know the men and women behind the questions in a different way.

"I got to make a connection with the media, a different connection," Chester said. "I got to know them."

Chester said in the months since the discovery things in Mabton and at the Silver Dollar have slowly returned to normal.

Despite the national media having left Mabton, both Darigol and Jenkins said it's important for the local media to continue to follow the story.

"We do want to keep following it," Darigol said.

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