MIP Editor’s Note: Journalism can and does spur real change. The following two stories by our MIP guest blogger outlines how two reporters spotlighted serious problems in government agencies and helped initiate improvements. The first is a heartbreaking story involving the overwrought Child Protective Services in Rochester, New York, and looks at coverage that persevered for almost two years. The second piece hails from the TCPalm in Stuart, Florida following Hurricane Irma. It looks at how one reporter’s coverage of inefficient bureaucracies inspired an overnight environmental clean-up. One long-term, one short, but both stories proving the power of local journalism to change lives.
Institutional Change in Rochester
Reporter Meaghan McDermott was covering the general assignment beat one day in November 2016 when she got a tip that police were looking into the death of a little girl at a local hospital. McDermott is a watchdog reporter who typically covers taxes and property for the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., but like many reporters these days sometimes she fills in on breaking news.
For the next year and a half, McDermott stayed on the story as investigators declared 3-year-old Brook Stagles’ death a homicide, her little body bruised and broken inside and out; as Brooke’s grandfather pointed a finger at Child Protective Services; and then as the child’s father and his girlfriend, Erica Bell, were charged. She sat through Bell’s entire trial. She investigated CPS. Within days of Bell’s criminal conviction in October 2017 — almost a year after McDermott picked up that general assignment shift — Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo announced sweeping changes to the county's Child Protective Services agency.
Institutional impact such as this — a change in how an entire agency or organization operates — commonly takes longer to occur than individual action. It often means lengthy and costly reporting (staff time, public records fees, etc.), deliberation, agreement and adoption or legislation, all of which are more involved than single hirings, firings or resignations. Policy change, too, takes time. McDermott’s story and the one I’ll tell next sit on opposite ends of the timeline, yet both led to important change in their local communities. McDermott credits the impact of this story to two primary factors:
“Brook’s grandfather blamed CPS early,” McDermott said. “He started putting up billboards, websites, trying to get candidate (Donald) Trump’s attention.” He spent nearly $100,000 on billboards in cities across the U.S. carrying messages such as "Don't let children die from child abuse … like Brook Stagles" and “Child abuse crisis: Help CPS save lives. How many have to suffer or die? Brook did both!”
“His story from the beginning was much more focused on failings with CPS,” McDermott said. “My reporting later determined it probably didn’t have a direct impact on her death. Erica Bell (did). But it did make me interested in whether the system working as it should, and my reporting found it wasn’t.” McDermott collected data on CPS cases and deaths, including documents showing caseloads in Monroe County were some of the largest in New York.
“Usually you’d want caseworkers to have 12-15 cases a month, but some workers here had in excess of 50 a month,” McDermott found. Monroe was 54th worst of 60 counties in overdue investigations, 40th worst in number of workers with more than 15 investigations.
Yet as it does in the best investigative reporting, the human drama proved more powerful than numbers. For McDermott, that was her coverage of Bell’s trial. She was there reporting every day. The local TV station covered the trial, too, but it was McDermott who did the digging. (Immediately after the trial ended she published “Little Girl Lost: The questions left behind by Brook Stagles' death,” a look at the “litany of failures and missed opportunities” in Brook’s case.) “I’d like to think that the coverage generated enough outrage that it moved the needle,” she said. “Over time, the horrific detail of this girl’s death and what happened was so shocking to the community that I think the county felt they had to do something.”
In all, the county:
A mess in Hurricane Irma’s wake
About a month before Bell’s conviction up in Rochester, Hurricane Irma barreled through south Florida and rattled the windows in the TCPalm newsroom in Stuart, Fla. By Sept. 18 it was gone, and Miguel Gonzales Sr. was on the phone to report a bunch of dead fish in the canal behind his house. Tyler Treadway, a reporter on the newsroom’s Indian River Lagoon team, had been on the lookout for fish kills and other storm damage. He asked for proof, and Gonzales sent photographs. Treadway’s story explained what had happened after Irma — the science of it:
“Rain from the storm flushes large amounts of nutrients into the water, causing bacteria to have a feeding frenzy that sucks oxygen out of the water. Low oxygen levels cause the fish to suffocate. Oxygen levels in the C-24 ‘took a nosedive following the hurricane,’ said Edith ‘Edie’ Widder, founder and lead scientist at the Ocean Research & Conservation Association in Fort Pierce. ‘I'm not at all surprised there was a fish die-off in the canal.’”
The smell was awful, but that was only part of the problem. As fish die they release nutrients into the water that can feed algae blooms. Photographer Leah Voss took pictures of the thousands of dead carp, bass and striped perch, a sea turtle and a six-foot alligator stinking and rotting in the sun on the banks of the canal. The next day, Treadway started asking who would clean up the mess and a “reverse turf war,” as he calls it, broke out. Three different agencies — South Florida Water District, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the City of Port St. Lucie — denied responsibility.
So he wrote about that next. Publishing the second story “kind of shamed them,” Treadway said. Impact was swift. The next day, the Water District agreed to take the lead and all three agencies came together to get rid of the fish. Just two days after Gonzales called to complain, the fish were gone.
“What I love about this story is it’s not the biggest story we’ve ever run but it’s what we do,” said Treadway’s editor, Adam Neal. “We got a call from a reader, and then we took it a step further to ask who’s going to clean this up. If Tyler hadn’t made those phone calls, I can almost guarantee it never would’ve happened.” Eve Samples, TCPalm’s opinion editor, also credits Voss’ photographs — pictures of piles of rotting fish — with inspiring impact.
“The photos were so horrifying they really helped tell this story,” Samples said. “I think because of those photos it was very widely shared on social (media) -- because of the yuck factor.”
Read more about the local impact TCPalm has had in its “12 Days of Christmas” campaign benefiting nonprofits who help the lagoon.
Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. The Democrat & Chronicle and TCPalm are also part of the USA Today Network. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @anjdelgado.
by Laurie Trotta Valenti
A year ago, MIP Senior Fellow Jessica Clark unveiled a hands-on tool for helping media makers and funders map outcomes of a project: the Media Engagement Strategy Deck.
The cards work along the lines of a tarot. Different suits help users puzzle through key concepts for engagement, such as the who, what, why and how of a project, represented by symbols and colors. Connector cards allow users to construct a layout almost like a math equation: “You can begin with the factors that you already know (either your desired outcome or your starting platform) and then build an impact story from left to right, or right to left,” Clark says. “The language around media impact planning can be intimidating,” she explains. “The cards are designed to be friendly and intuitive, a way to plan and evaluate an engagement campaign.”
Clark designed the cards to help producers and funders conceptualize the trajectory of an engagement campaign, and then use the decks to talk to their teams about project goals, shared outlooks, and differences between the two that might exist. The cards are meant to be flexible and reflect the many different creative approaches that media makers are taking to draw communities into issues.
MIP checked in with Clark during this anniversary season to learn about the deck's reception among her colleagues in nonfiction storytelling, academia, funding and beyond. We wanted to learn about the different contexts in which the cards are being employed and whether they are proving useful.
“We’ve had enthusiastic response from people in newsrooms and documentarians,” Clark reports. The cards are being used in different ways. One Sacramento journalist used the deck on a documentary project, A View From Here, which looks at a range of social issues over time, such as food insecurity, immigration and housing. The editor used the cards to help journalists embrace more community engagement inside the newsroom. “We were trying to move the journalists toward a mindshift,” Clark says. “We’ve been in dialogue about the theory of change for the organization, the line between advocacy and journalism, and the cards help illustrate the concepts.”
The range of places and organizations employing the Media Engagement Strategy Deck include: among media makers at AFI Docs and Double Exposure; at funder gatherings such as ComNet and Philanthropy Workshop; in classrooms around the globe, including Central European University, the University of North Texas and SUNY Purchase; by journalism outlets and conferences such as Capitol Public Radio and the Online Newsroom Association; in media venues overseas, such as the Jakarta Global Forum for Media Development; with PhillyCam, a media literacy training program, and in one-on-one sessions with funders, researchers and media makers. The cards are also being adopted more rigorously by some groups: The Solutions Journalism Network has worked them into their training curriculum, and Greenpeace International’s digital trainers have ordered several decks.
Last summer, Clark issued an updated version of the deck that includes two new cards: trust and collaboration. The “trust” card is based on “the many conversations we’ve been having around the country on lack of trust in the media,” and falls into the “outcomes” category of the deck, Clark says. The collaboration card grew out of a need to add partnerships as an option in the connectors category, she adds. One of the more unusual suits reflects the growth of experiential media, such as virtual and mixed reality. “The cards are for the senses, the experience of the user; they chart the eventualities of an engagement campaign. They are a living expression of the world.”
Want to try the cards for yourself? Purchase decks here.