The Center’s guiding values: Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Seek solutions to problems.
Here are some ways our work is having real impact:
Failure at the Faucet
Since April of 2016, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has made numerous contributions to its ongoing “Failure at the Faucet” series, which addresses issues of drinking water safety in Wisconsin. Since the series began in 2015, numerous investigations have shown that hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin are at risk of drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrate, bacteria, arsenic, lead and other contaminants. In the last year, articles in the project reached 1.25 million individuals, with about 157,000 of those through online stories and over 1 million in print.
In August 2016, the Center published a report, “Water woes emerge as major issue in Wisconsin elections,” which examined the impact the political implications of ignoring issues relating to water quality and quantity problems in the state in the lead-up to the 2016 elections. The investigation was released in the midst of several debates regarding water issues in the state, including an ongoing debate about the use of high-impact wells and their effect on drinking water throughout Wisconsin.
This report, along with other reports published as part of the series, have contributed heavily to discussions of water quality in the state and across the country. In April 2016, John Oliver, a comedian and television personality, mentioned the Center’s investigation into lead pipes on his show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” in a segment discussing issues of lead poisoning in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Investigations in the series have also been referenced by politicians acting on issues of water quality, at a local, state and national level. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin cited our ‘Failure at the Faucet’ investigations in a newsletter to her constituents, urging supporters to demand that “Congress prioritize the safety of our drinking water.” Also in response to our investigations, Wisconsin State Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison), introduced a bill calling for tap water testing when a child is lead poisoned. Wisconsin Senator Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) introduced the Leading on Lead Act, which relates to the replacement of lead service lines that deliver drinking water to Wisconsinites following our reporting on contaminated drinking water and called on his colleagues to co-sponsor the bill. In addition, the League of Women Voters used the phrase ‘our drinking water quality’ in a brief to the Seventh Court of Appeals, a reference to the “Failure at the Faucet” project.
The series has also made an impact on other journalistic organizations in Wisconsin. Three stories from the Center prompted other news organizations to customize reports based on our work, including the Stoughton Courier Hub, which investigated their city’s efforts to examine lead in school water, and the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, which did a similar investigation into lead in water in that city. In addition, the series received two of the Center’s eight Milwaukee Press Club awards in 2016, including Best Investigative Story or Series and Best Investigative Report.
Finally, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources updated water sampling protocols for operators of thousands of public water systems after a December 2016 report by the Center revealed a nine-month delay in the wake of the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Despite a call for corrections to our story from the DNR, the Center stood by the story and published a blog post that explained our extensive reporting process on the story.
Cruel and Unusual?
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism identified 40 allegations of physical or psychological abuse by correctional officers against inmates in Waupun Correctional Institution’s segregation unit since 2011.
The Center faced enormous obstacles in documenting these allegations at the state prison. The series by reporter Bill Lueders drew on the skills of four additional colleagues at the Center, including our legal counsel. It was based on copies of letters and internal complaints sent to public officials, a state prisoner rights advocate and a private attorney, as well as letters from prisoners and interviews with former inmates. Additional material came from filings in federal lawsuits and state court proceedings. The investigation took five months and cost $40,000 — a tenth of the Center’s entire budget and resources that few Wisconsin news organizations would be able to muster.
And it is having an impact. The series prompted an interfaith advocacy group to ask Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to investigate the abuse allegations. Saying that the series proved the state Department of Corrections “routinely engages in torture,” the group requested an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice because the DOC “cannot be asked to investigate itself.” Six Democratic legislators wrote to Walker to demand action. We reported in December that the DOC is revising its disciplinary rules, including the use of segregation. We continue to investigate the DOC’s use of solitary confinement and treatment of prisoners. In early 2015, we sued the agency after it failed to respond to requests for public records. In April, the DOC turned over some of the records and we reported that a prison guard had been fired for harassing inmates. The suit has been settled, the DOC has turned over records, and our coverage is continuing.
Wisconsin’s sand rush
Our reporting on frac sand mining in Wisconsin has created a rush of its own. Other news organizations locally and nationally jumped in to begin telling the story of this side effect of the controversial practice of “fracking.” We continue to receive inquiries from governmental agency officials, mining companies and others using the comprehensive spreadsheet and map of existing and potential mining areas that we produced. The state DNR also has begun to study the effects of sand mining on Wisconsin residents. And the state Department of Transportation has consulted our reporting in its effort to quantify the effects of the burgeoning sand rush on Wisconsin’s highways and railroads. Our frac sand project page remains a trusted source of information and in April 2015, we produced an innovative, entertaining video that uses grains of sand to summarize key issues in the nation’s No. 1 frac sand mining state.
Lost signals, disconnected lives
In response to our report on Wisconsin’s GPS tracking of offenders, the head of the Assembly Committee on Corrections called a legislative hearing to question the Department of Corrections. At the hearing, another legislator read aloud portions of the Center’s story when questioning the DOC’s director of sex offender programs. Citing the Center’s reporting as a factor, the state Legislature’s budget committee scaled back a planned expansion of the GPS monitoring program for offenders — and called for a study of the system’s reliability.
Suffering in Silence
Even before it was published, the Center’s story on campus sexual assaults prompted the University of Wisconsin-Madison dean of students to vow to improve the treatment of students who report abuse. University officials also created a webpage to improve public access to sexual assault data that previously were available only through public records requests.
A group of University of Madison-Wisconsin students, led by Center intern Amy Karon, exposed misleading nutritional claims by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s $30 million a year pro-dairy campaign. The state milk board removed misleading dairy weight loss claims from its website the day our story was published.
A Tribal Tragedy
Our story on the tragedy of high suicide rates among Native Americans in Wisconsin brought nationwide attention to the issue, and a former Menominee Reservation resident donated $5,000 to a local Boys & Girls Club.
A computer-aided analysis of a sample of 50,000 e-mails sent to Gov. Scott Walker found Walker accurately said most were supportive – but a third of supporters were from other states. We discovered one came from an Indiana GOP activist and prosecutor who urged a “false flag” operation to fake a physical attack on the governor and discredit pro-union protesters.The analysis of Walker emails was circulated worldwide. And the follow-up led to the immediate resignation of the Indiana prosecutor.
Supreme Court altercation
A collaborative investigation revealed allegations of a physical altercation between two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices in a nationally significant collective bargaining case. Separate legal and ethics investigations were launched to examine the Supreme Court incident, calls grew to replace judicial elections with merit selection, and a justice faced three ethics charges. Justice David Prosser maintains he’s innocent.