I was in Los Angeles a week ago, still on a high after winning the Institute of Nonprofit News Media’s (INN) Emerging Leader award for 2022. Donna and I spent five days in L.A. connecting with members of the Online News Association (ONA) and INN, which included potential funders and possible collaborators. We’d introduce ourselves as the co-founders of the Mississippi Free Press and immediately people asked us about our water situation and if we were OK. The next words were usually filled with gratitude for our journalism and our journalists. It was gratifying and lifted my spirits.
I returned on Sunday to find the team being attacked on social media because somehow, some way, the internet trolls determined that we had hijacked the welfare-fraud coverage because Ashton Pittman and his husband William Pittman did a TANF story about it that got lots of national attention. By the way, Ashton and Liam just dropped a welfare fraud timeline that’s pure fire. Go read it. Mississippi College English professor Steve Price tweeted today that there are no excuses not to understand Mississippi’s TANF crisis “with this detailed, evidence-based timeline.” And Tupelo Daily Journal Executive Editor Sam Hall tweeted this praise for it: “Unbelievably comprehensive timeline of the TANF scandal in Mississippi put together by @ashtonpittman—including links to coverage by multiple news outlets. Great work here.”
So what’s up with the trolls? There’s a lot to unpack here, but as the Black church says, “I’ll be brief.” First, not one person on our team is fixated on being first. Getting it right is our goal. That often requires more time, more documents, more interviews and more reflection. There’s nothing wrong with being first because it provides Mississippians initial information; it’s just not our main thing. Second, this is a critical public investigation with devastating repercussions for our state. A lot of people have covered it, and a lot of people will continue covering it because the theft of welfare funds hurts every Mississippian. We need a lot of eyes on this one.
Much of Mississippi is a local news desert. We’ve lost most of our local print media, and many radio and TV stations are now part of national chains. We need numerous good news outlets giving accurate reporting with high standards and strong journalistic ethics filling the gap. Neither the MFP or any outlet can do it alone, and that wouldn’t serve Mississippi. Nick Judin and Kayode Crown provide the most in-depth coverage of the systemic and current-day context of the Jackson water crisis. We aren’t sitting around decrying other journalists covering the story. That’s not helpful. It’s harmful because Mississippians deserve as much good information they can get because, Lord knows, power brokers are hiding it from us.
It’s easy to see why we’re targets; we’re women-run with more writers and editorial staff of color than most state outlets, and we didn’t come into this fixated on power or with deep pockets. In fact, we started this thing in March 2020 with Ashton and Donna and one $50,000 donor. Some would say the odds are stacked against us, and that’s one way of looking at it, but we thrive because of our deep network, focus on systems and our combined decades of experience doing impactful journalism in Mississippi. Our true inclusion and diversity offer a great deal of strength, and that scares people.
Spoiler alert: We don’t scare easily.
We’re here because of folks like you from all walks of life who believe in deep and complex journalism. Thank you for supporting this work with your gifts, kind words or silent well wishes.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.