Dig Deep: Locally Grown Investigations

This week's installment in our series in which we regularly point you to some of the best investigative reporting you might otherwise miss.

Dig Deep: Locally Grown Investigations

Stacked Newspapers (Photo by Binuri Ranasinghe / Flickr CC 2.0)

This month’s Pulitzer Prizes proved that local journalists have some fight left. Regional and local newspapers have been decimated by declining ad revenues and, over the past 15 years, the entire industry has lost jobs — from 412,000 down to 174,000, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. Swimming against this tide, are the investigative journalists at three local papers who earned their Pulitzers close to home: Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail won for his series on the opioid crisis in West Virginia; The Salt Lake Tribune for exposing how Brigham Young school officials mistreated victims of sexual assault; and Sara Ryley, reporting for the New York Daily News, teamed up with ProPublica to reveal how the New York City police department abused its legal authority to evict hundreds of people from homes and businesses. We pay homage to investigative news locavores this week, as well as highlighting some recent investigations. Read on.



No Conviction Home
New York Daily News and ProPublica
This interactive feature is just one of a series of more than 10 reports by the New York Daily News and ProPublica that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service — perhaps the highest honor in American journalism. Led by then-Daily News reporter Sarah Ryley, the team reviewed 1,162 New York City police department lawsuits that allowed officers to forgo due process to evict people from their businesses and homes if they were suspected of harboring illegal activity. “Perhaps most fundamentally,” wrote Ryley, “residents can be permanently barred from their homes without being convicted or even charged with a crime.” This “nuisance abatement law” was created in the 1970s to combat the sex industry in Times Square. But enforcement expanded over time to include households, almost exclusively in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, where individuals often faced drug charges.

The series prompted immediate reform efforts and 13 new laws were passed. Ryley told Poynter that it underscores the power of metro dailies, “which have such an impact with the mayor and city council. We forced them to account for what the city had done,” she said. It was also an achievement to stick with the investigation for more than 18 months along with her other responsibilities at a paper stretched thin for resources. A year into her reporting she reached out to ProPublica to initiate a partnership. “They provided resources that helped bring the project to the next level.”
(Feb. 5, 2016)

Drug firms poured 780M painkillers into WV amid rise of overdoses
Charleston Gazette-Mail
“Follow the pills and you’ll find the overdose deaths,” writes Eric Eyre, at the beginning of his two-part story for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting. For three years, in addition to holding down his statehouse beat, Eyre did just that — he followed a trail of highly addictive opioid pain medications from wholesalers to drug stores in southern West Virginia. He gained access to previously unreleased drug sales and shipping records to every pharmacy in the state, then crunched the numbers. “In six years, drug wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers,” he wrote. “That’s more than 400 pills for every person living there.” Even more striking, Eyre told NPR, was the concentrated number of pills that went to the small counties in the southern part of the state that “had five, six times more pills than a county that was eight times larger in northern West Virginia,” he said. Part 2 of the report found that the same distributors, for more than a decade, ignored state rules to report all suspiciously high orders. Eyre told NPR he was upholding the Gazette-Mail’s history of hammering away at injustice until it is righted — calling it, in the words of their late publisher Ned Chilton, “sustained outrage.”
(Dec. 17-18, 2016)

Confronting Campus Sexual Assault
The Salt Lake Tribune
The Pulitzer committee awarded the local reporting prize to a team of reporters at The Salt Lake Tribune for their series exposing “the perverse, punitive and cruel treatment given to sexual assault victims at Brigham Young University, one of Utah’s most powerful institutions.” The yearlong investigation was sparked by a student at the private university, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who came forward publicly to denounce the school’s honor code for discouraging victims from reporting sexual assaults. The code “forbids alcohol and coffee, restricts contact between male and female students, imposes a strict dress code and bans expressions of romantic affection between people of the same gender,” according to the report. Consequently, if a victim of sexual assault went to the university for help, he or she might end up under investigation and even punished for “breaking curfew, violating the dress code, using drugs or alcohol or engaging in consensual sexual contact — all banned by the code of conduct — before an attack,” wrote The Tribune. Over the year, reporters spoke to dozens of victims and confirmed a chilling pattern on campuses across the state and within law enforcement operations. By year’s end the school began changing its policies — including an amnesty clause for anyone who may have broken school rules at the time of the reported assault.
(April 13-Nov. 19, 2016)

Georgia special election: one local penny for every $10 in national cash
Center for Public Integrity
When Rep. Tom Price, the longtime Republican from Georgia, stepped down to join President Trump’s Cabinet, he left a vacant congressional seat in Atlanta’s wealthy conservative suburbs. A flood of dollars, mostly from outside the state, deluged this week’s special election and turned it into a proxy battle for national interests according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. Rachel Wilson, a reporting intern and junior at UCLA, combed through federal campaign finance disclosures and learned that of all the super PACs, nonprofits and other groups — not including any candidate’s individual campaign — only one is headquartered inside state lines. Further analysis found that the special election attracted “about one Georgia penny for every $10 in national cash.” Many conservative stalwarts from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the 45 Committee and the National Rifle Association to progressive organizations like Planned Parenthood are “spending money in the district for the first time this century,” according to Wilson. Thirty-year-old Jon Ossoff, the Democrat frontrunner who ran against 11 Republican opponents, raised more than all of them put together writes Wilson, “But outside organizations have rushed in to make up the difference: about 65 percent of all non-candidate money spent so far — $5.8 million—has gone toward opposing Ossoff.” Ossoff fell just short of winning the 50 percent of the vote he needed on Tuesday, so a runoff against the top Republican candidate, Karen Handel, will take place in June.
(April 17, 2017)

Even in easy wins, congressional incumbents spend big money
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Never mind the flood of spending in hotly contested House races. According to a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shoe-in candidates spend big as well. Adam Aton and Chuck Raasch published an investigation this week that shows how $12.7 million in campaign dollars were spent by St. Louis-area representatives who faced weak opponents. Despite their easy races in 2016, “all spent heavily on their way to re-election,” they write. The analysis of the primary campaign spending of seven house members found that money was frequently spent to raise more money, “with some spending roughly 30 cents on the dollar to pay professional fundraisers, travel around the country or rent space, sometimes from corporations or associations with business before Congress.” Aton and Raasch wrote that “all of the money collected by the candidates came from private donors hoping to influence or advance the people who do the public’s business.”
(April 16, 2017)

Gail Ablow


Gail Ablow is a producer for Moyers & Company and a Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy.