Journalism in the Public Interest

Impact in 2016

In 2016, ProPublica stories produced change in a wide range of important areas:

  • Following ProPublica’s reporting that students at for-profit schools accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) have the lowest graduation rates in the country and struggle to repay their student loans, the Education Department announced that it would terminate the agency. This unprecedented move stripped the powers of one of the nation’s largest accreditors of for-profit schools. It came after 12 state attorneys general, a coalition of 23 student and consumer protection organizations, an Education Department advisory committee and a report by officials at the Education Department — all citing ProPublica — recommended that the government de-authorize ACICS.
  • When ProPublica reported that Facebook allowed advertisers to buy credit, housing and employment ads that exclude anyone with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic people from seeing them, it sparked a wave of criticism aimed at the social network. Four members of Congress wrote Facebook demanding that the company stop letting advertisers exclude viewers of housing ads by race. The federal agency that enforces the nation’s fair housing laws began talks with Facebook to address what experts said was a clear violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. Two weeks after our story ran, Facebook announced that it would bar advertisers from excluding users by race in ads that involved housing, credit and employment. The company said it would build an automated system to spot ads that discriminate illegally.
  • Our series of articles published with the New York Daily News, which detailed “nuisance abatement actions” — New York Police Department lawsuits that give police the power to evict people purportedly using their homes or business for illegal purposes — led to important results. After the investigation was published in February, the NYPD imposed new safeguards in the process of locking residents out of their homes before they’ve had a chance to tell their side of the story in court. The number of nuisance abatement actions filed by the NYPD dropped significantly. Several City Council members introduced a package of 13 bills that would reform the way the NYPD carries out nuisance abatement actions. The department has expressed support for some of these, including measures to remove marijuana possession as a charge that could lead to immediate eviction, to require lab reports to support drug allegations, and to limit exclusions of most people from homes to one year. In addition, one family that was wrongfully kicked out of their apartment, citing our reporting, filed a lawsuit seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional.
  • A ProPublica investigation, published in July with the New York Times Magazine, spotlighted how police departments across the country use roadside drug tests to secure guilty pleas and send tens of thousands of people to jail every year — despite widespread evidence that they routinely produce false positives. Our reporting spurred the district attorney’s office in Portland, Oregon, to review its drug possession cases. The office discovered five cases where defendants had pled guilty — but subsequent lab tests came back negative for the presence of any controlled substances — and vacated those five wrongful convictions. Portland’s district attorney’s office also changed the way it secured guilty pleas in drug possession cases based on these tests. Now such pleas will not be allowed unless the preliminary police roadside test is confirmed by lab analysis. In Texas, a state commission recommended that crime labs review all field test results and re-test substances collected in previous drug cases that had not been confirmed by lab testing. In Las Vegas, the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice set up a committee looking for ways to challenge law enforcement’s methods for getting drug convictions.
  • ProPublica and NPR reporting spotlighted Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system, which allowed companies to “opt out” of state workers’ comp and write their own plans for dealing with injured workers. In September, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the opt-out system as unconstitutional, echoing an earlier ruling from the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission. The Florida Supreme Court struck down laws that capped attorney fees and limited workers to two years of temporary disability pay regardless of whether they were able to return to work. In October, the U.S. Labor Department released a report detailing how states are failing injured workers — an effort prompted by ten members of Congress who urged the U.S. labor secretary to devise an oversight plan for state workers’ comp programs, citing ProPublica’s reporting. The report lays the groundwork for new federal oversight, as Sen. Sherrod Brown announced he was drafting legislation to address its findings and hoped to advance it in the next Congress.
  • ProPublica, in partnership with the Texas Tribune, launched a multimedia project showing that Houston is at risk of a major disaster: a hurricane with the potential to devastate the region. In December, President Obama signed into law a bill to expedite a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study that will determine how best to protect Houston from such a hurricane. Called the “Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation,” or WIIN, Act, the law included a bill that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed in April — one month after ProPublica and the Texas Tribune jointly published stories on the problem.
  • A ProPublica investigation, published in July with the New York Times, found that a New Jersey agency was pushing student loans with stringent rules, aggressive collections and few reprieves — even for borrowers who died. In December, Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a new requirement, prompted by our reporting, that required the state’s student loan agency to forgive the debts of borrowers who die or become permanently disabled. The New Jersey Senate also passed bills requiring the agency to obtain a court order before garnishing wages, taking state tax refunds, or suspending professional licenses, legislation that is now before New Jersey’s House. Another bill would set a borrower’s monthly payment at a level that is considered affordable based on his or her income. In September, a New Jersey state commission unveiled a report urging the agency to offer better protections for borrowers, including recommendations to boost students’ understanding of the terms before they sign for loans and to offer a rehabilitation program that allows borrowers who default to improve their payment status after several months of consistent payments.
  • After our reporting revealed that New York City landlords who collect lucrative tax breaks in exchange for providing rent-stabilized housing failed to register up to 200,000 apartments for the program, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a large-scale enforcement program targeting more than 3,000 rental buildings. Saying “enough is enough,” de Blasio said building owners who fail to follow the law will lose their tax breaks. Officials from the city housing authority and finance department have pledged to end the practice of granting the benefit without checking to make sure landlords comply with the rent rules. In addition, since ProPublica’s investigation on this issue, two City Council members introduced a bill that would require the city’s housing arm to audit 20% of buildings receiving the tax benefit, and mandate that violators return the money. State lawmakers introduced a bill that would institute much higher financial penalties for landlords who overcharge their tenants, and the city’s housing commissioner outlined a plan for hiring more staff and investing in technology to improve management of the program.
  • In 2014, ProPublica and the Washington Post investigated the business practices of USA Discounters, especially the company’s high-priced loans to active duty service personnel. In the wake of our coverage, the company went out of business. In September, USA Discounters also settled with 49 states and the District of Columbia (Colorado settled with the company separately) over a suit accusing the company of various abuses, including misleading customers about the quality and price of its merchandise, its loan contracts, as well as aggressive debt collection. The settlement deal required USA Discounters to pay $40 million in penalties and to wipe out debt for its past customers.
  • A 2010 ProPublica investigation covered two Texas-based home mortgage companies, formerly known as Allied Home Mortgage Capital Corp. and Allied Home Mortgage Corp, that issued improper and risky home loans that later defaulted. Borrowers said they’d been lied to by Allied employees, who in some cases had siphoned loan proceeds for personal gain. In December a federal jury ordered the companies and their chief executive to pay nearly $93 million for defrauding the government through these corrupt practices.
  • Following our 2014 reporting that Verizon and AT&T were attaching hidden tracking numbers to their subscribers’ internet activity, even when users opted out, Verizon agreed to pay $1.35 million to settle charges from the Federal Communications Commission that the undeletable “zombie” cookies violated customers’ privacy. The company also signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission after the government alleged that the company made false representations to consumers. In the settlement, Verizon agreed to modify its privacy policy and provide users an effective opt-out of tracking.
  • In a joint investigation with the Washington Post and German news outlets Handelsblatt and Bayerischer Rundfunk, ProPublica examined dividend-arbitrage transactions, a trade strategy that helps foreign investors avoid an estimated $1 billion a year in taxes on dividends paid by German companies. Following our report, prosecutors in Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital, launched an investigation into the trades, and the German Parliament voted to end the tax-avoidance deals in the country. Germany’s top finance official also released a statement criticizing div-arb, and a Danish member of the European Parliament called on the EU’s European Commission to examine the transactions, which are draining Denmark and many of its neighbors of tens of millions of dollars in forgone tax revenues.
  • After a series of ProPublica articles identified dozens of cases of nursing home workers posting mocking photos of elderly residents on social media sites, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in August announced a plan to increase its oversight to prevent and punish such abuse. In a memo to state health departments, the federal agency said all nursing homes must have written policies on this issue that include an explicit ban on taking demeaning photographs of residents, procedures for investigating such complaints and reporting those involved to state licensing agencies for possible discipline. Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the U.S. Justice Department for specific information on how aggressively it pursues this form of elder abuse in nursing homes, days after Sen. Tom Carper similarly asked government regulators at the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services what they’re doing to stop nursing home workers from the dehumanizing practice.
  • ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot have been investigating whether Vietnam veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange has also led to health problems in their children and grandchildren. At a ProPublica-sponsored Washington, D.C., event in June, Veterans Affairs officials announced new efforts to address this issue, including the agency’s first nationwide survey of Vietnam veterans in more than three decades and requesting an outside panel of experts to continue its work studying multigenerational impacts of Agent Orange.
  • ProPublica’s investigation on risk assessments, algorithms used across the criminal justice system that generate a score predicting a defendant’s risk of committing a future crime, uncovered racial differences in the outcomes. Our analysis of the algorithm used in Florida, Wisconsin and other jurisdictions showed that it wrongly labeled black defendants as likely future criminals at twice the rate of mistaken predictions about white defendants. Citing our reporting, in July the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that, while judges may consider risk assessment scores during sentencing, warnings must be attached to the scores to flag the tool’s limitations. The White House quoted ProPublica’s findings in a report on the impacts of artificial intelligence across various sectors of society.
  • After a 2014 ProPublica and NPR story on Missouri’s Heartland Regional Medical Center showed that the nonprofit hospital had for years sued low-income patients over their unpaid bills, Sen. Charles Grassley launched a Senate investigation which concluded in June. As a result of the scrutiny, the hospital overhauled its financial assistance policy and forgave the debts of thousands of former patients.
  • Following our report on abuse and neglect at the Carlton Palms Educational Center in Orlando, Florida, a residential facility for children and adults with developmental disabilities, officials stationed an investigator at the center and formed a special team to closely monitor staff and residents. The state also said it would move current residents to new homes.
  • In 2015, ProPublica and investigated a harsh Alabama law that charges women who used drugs during pregnancy with “chemical endangerment,” a felony that carries a 10-year sentence even if the baby is born unharmed or if the drug is legal. In May, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to exempt women who use medically prescribed drugs from the state’s law.
  • In October, ProPublica disclosed that Google quietly changed a major privacy policy. The company had previously promised that it would not reveal identifying information about its users to the advertising network DoubleClick, a Google subsidiary. However, this year Google updated its policy to say that users’ web browsing activities “may be” combined with their personal information collected from Gmail and other login accounts. In response to our reporting, two advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that Google had deliberately deceived consumers and that the privacy policy change violated legally binding commitments that Google made to the FTC.
  • In the days leading to Election Day, reporters on ProPublica’s Electionland project saw several instances of false information about voting requirements spreading on social media. One example we reported came from clothing retailer Urban Outfitters, which tweeted an election guide to its 1 million Twitter followers full of false information, including a claim that voters need a “voter’s registration card” and an ID. After our story, Urban Outfitters promptly deleted the tweet and updated its guide.
  • After ProPublica reported that doctors who took payments from pharmaceutical companies prescribed more expensive, brand-name medications than those who didn’t, two medical journals published studies that confirmed this link. JAMA Internal Medicine found significant evidence that doctors who received meals tied to specific drugs prescribed a higher proportion of those products than their peers, with the share of the drug prescriptions rising with the greater number of meals they received. A Harvard Medical School study found that Massachusetts physicians prescribed a higher proportion of brand-name drugs the more industry money they received.
  • A 2011 ProPublica investigation, published with Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and the Center for Public Integrity, found that, while student loan borrowers with severe disabilities are entitled to have federal student loans forgiven, the program for deciding whether they qualify is deeply dysfunctional. Federal officials consequently changed the program’s regulations, and this April the Department of Education announced that it will offer to write off $7.7 billion of student debt owed by approximately 387,000 borrowers who have become disabled.
  • Following our 2014 report on abusive discipline techniques at the Judge Rotenberg Center, a Boston-area school for children with severe developmental disabilities, the Food and Drug Administration moved to ban the facility’s use of a controversial electric shock device. In a 124-page document proposing the ban, the FDA accused the Rotenberg Center of underreporting harmful effects of electric shocks and misleading families about alternative treatments.
  • After our story on a Habitat for Humanity New York project that displaced several low-income families in the process of buying and renovating buildings in Brooklyn, New York City Council member Robert Cornegy asked the charity’s local affiliate to find housing for the families. Habitat for Humanity’s New York chapter took responsibility, encouraging the families named in the article to contact them directly in order to “help them find solutions that meet their needs.”
Photo by flickr user sparkieblues


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