By Anjanette Delgado
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:
McDermott’s not finished reporting; she’s checking to make sure those in government deliver on their promises. “It’s up to us to make sure that they’re following through and hold them accountable,” she said. “The only way to make sure that government follows through is to keep asking them, keep demanding proof.”
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.
Tracking the impact: At what point do the benefits of a journalism series eclipse the effort of its investigation?
A team of journalists learned the value of tracking the impact of their research on cashless tolls on New York thruways; their findings are shared in this second piece by guest blogger Anjanette Delgado. In the first blog, Delgado described a deep dive into the inner workings of the cashless toll system, where they gauged effort versus value to their readers. The team utilized crowdsourcing to collect “horror stories” of drivers charged with fees for trips they hadn’t made and even had their cars repossessed and organized a panel to help drivers facing steep bills.
By Anjanette Delgado
We typically record impact in our media tracker after we’ve completed an investigation or project, but this time we wanted to track it in real time to see what we could learn from correlation, and whether we could prove cause. (This could be useful in further investigative work.) Impact appears to be tied most to these things:
Don’t let up. Unlike a lot of our investigative work in which multiple stories publish on one day, here we’ve published relentlessly as we learn more and more about this incredibly secretive system.
Offer solutions to those looking for a win. We wrote an editorial identifying three things the state could do to improve the system. The state implemented all three right away and credited us for the suggestion.
Focus on the human drama. The horror stories are easily the most-read pieces in the investigation, most likely because they are compelling narrative dramas that make you feel something (outrage, sympathy). Those victims are part of a federal class-action lawsuit against the state Thruway Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Conduent; and debt collectors.
Make sure the people, agencies and companies you’re investigating know you’re doing it. Digging into Conduent, the private company that handles the “back office” billing for the Thruway Authority and controls nearly half of the U.S. electronic-tolling market, continued alongside the human stories. When we asked state officials questions, especially questions that proved we knew a lot about the system already, they responded in commentary, a letter to Conduent and a visit there. When we invited state officials to our panel event with drivers, they started an amnesty program that eventually cleared 281,000 violations, for a total of over $1.4 million. Conduent still has not gone on the record but has been reading our coverage. In June, two U.S. senators — Bill Nelson of Florida and Gary Peters of Michigan — called for a Federal Trade Commission probe of Conduent.
Identify the people who are most likely to champion the cause and have the power to make change. Early on in our reporting we identified two local politicians — state Sen. David Carlucci and Assemblyman Tom Abinanti — who had started making noise about the problem. We quoted them many times and checked in often to see what they’d learned about the system. They’re behind the Toll Payer Protection Act, which passed both houses in July and sits on Gov. Cuomo’s desk awaiting his signature. “As we were proving points, that this system is bad and has been bad for awhile … we definitely said this is fixable,” Esposito said. In July they called for New York to end its deal with Conduent.
When possible, connect people on both sides of the story in a safe space. The panel event brought together drivers drowning in bills with lawyers offering advice and with representatives from the Thruway Authority who could help. Those representatives, who originally said their billing company is “the best in the country,” traded phone numbers with drivers and offered one-on-one help.
While the community has seen some positive change in the billing system for cashless tolls, we’re not done investigating. We still don’t know:
The exact cause of the billing errors. Fully fleshed out networks and connections for the key players involved with cashless tolling. A complete accounting of the fines Conduent/Xerox paid for failing to meet performance standards. (The Thruway has charged Conduent $477,272 for failing to meet performance standards.) How much money changed hands through lobbyists and PAC's in relation to the bridge and cashless tolling. What role the federal government is playing in this, both legislative and executive. Whether it was a single part or a systemic problem that caused the errors. Cuomo’s office also won’t go on the record. And not every driver wronged by the system has found relief.
Still, New York state continues building out its cashless tolls system. In June the Thruway announced five plazas in the Lower Hudson Valley would go cashless by the end of the year, as the entire system switches by 2020.
Executives at Conduent — which operates in every state and specifically works in cashless tolling in New York, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, Florida, California and Texas — are earning millions.
And the cashless tolling technology, especially the equipment that reads and tracks license plates, is part of a much larger system of public surveillance for private profit that’s spreading rapidly on promises of convenience and increased safety.
“This is one of those investigations with long legs, capable of stretching across not only all of New York but likely most of the U.S.,” Scandale said. “It will impact every motorist (not only) financially but also cyber security-wise. Surveillance on you will grow as cameras proliferate and your whereabouts are logged on databases.”
Change, while beginning in New York and Florida, needs to spread to other states as well. "We may solve it here if Cuomo signs the legislation, but what about Texas?” Esposito said.
Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. She worked at lohud.com during most of this investigation. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @anjdelgado.
By Anjanette Delgado
Editor's note: What is the “worth” of investigative journalism to readers? In this new piece by guest blogger Anjanette Delgado, a New York team reports on how they measured potential interest in an investigative series on cashless highway tolls. First of a two-part series.
A deep investigation into cashless tolling on a new bridge in New York began by floating this trial balloon: "Tappan Zee, Mario drivers hit with thousands in fees”
At lohud.com, we had been hearing about local drivers getting bills, sometimes for thousands of dollars in fees, to cover their $5 trips across the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. The story included a callout asking more drivers to come forward.
We used the impact and effort matrix to determine whether a full investigation would worth the time and resources we’d be investing because we choose to apply our resources where we can do the most good. That first low-effort story, done in less than two hours, tested both audience interest and opportunity for impact.
A flood of responses followed, showing the opportunity to right a wrong for a significant number of people and make a real difference in our community. (A similar story borne of other complaints around the same time drew little response and ended up being a much smaller story for us. We just didn’t see proof that the issue represented a job our community wanted us to do.)
Now, nearly a year in, we include this impact statement with toll stories:
Reporters at lohud and The Journal News have spent months investigating cashless tolls to find out why drivers are getting fees and escalating fines for tolls for which many say they were never billed, who's running the system and where the system is breaking down.
The reporting so far has prompted changes, including: an amnesty program forgiving $1.4 million in individual bills; a bill introduced in Albany to help toll payers; a new web page for the amnesty program instead of using the faulty Tolls By Mail site; more distinct envelopes so drivers know they've received a bill; new toll signs on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge; more responsiveness from Thruway officials, two of whom attended a lohud forum on cashless tolling and personally helped drivers with their individual cases. legislation drafting a tollpayer’s bill of rights; and an apology from the lieutenant governor.
“So many of the people we talk to felt helpless and that’s where we come in,” said Frank Scandale, the project’s editor and head of investigations at lohud.com. “We have been able to get to the bottom of some things, get help for our readers, and put some of these bureaucrats on the defensive.”
This investigation is largely running on two parallel tracks:
1). A deep dig into how the system works, who’s managing it, where the breakdown is happening and how this technology is being used for surveillance. Frank Esposito is investigating this, and he’s using a network mapping technique to connect seemingly unrelated individuals into networks with clearly defined goals.
2). Crowdsourcing and horror stories. These are the drivers getting pulled over and left beside a road in the Bronx at night after their car is impounded for a suspended registration for unpaid tolls. These are the drivers taking taxis to work now because their cars have been repossessed after fees got out of hand. These are also the drivers helping us fact-check some of the statements coming from the players in the first track. Chris Eberhart has been working on this track.
We also quickly assembled a panel event offering help to drivers struggling with steep bills (two lawyers, a state senator and a representative from AAA). We invited the state Thruway Authority, which is responsible for the toll system, to take part.
Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. She worked at lohud.com during most of this investigation. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @anjdelgado. Look for the second part in this series next Tuesday.
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