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.