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What We’re Thankful For: Being Able to Make a Difference in Illinois

Our mission is to spur real-world change through journalism. In the last several weeks, we’ve seen change begin to come about on two issues our reporters have brought to light and doggedly pursued.

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

Among the many things I’m grateful for this Thanksgiving is being able to work with a group of extraordinarily talented, driven colleagues to make our state a better place to live.

That might surprise you a little to hear; many people think of journalism, especially investigative journalism, as negative. The stories are depressing, friends sometimes tell me. Hard to read.

It’s true that many of the subjects we write about are disturbing, even outrageous: children abused in the care of agencies that are supposed to protect them; low-income Chicagoans driven into bankruptcy by unfair ticketing practices; a for-profit system that pressures people to buy their way out of criminal prosecutions.

But you can’t address wrongdoing without first identifying and exposing it. Our mission as an organization is to spur real-world change through journalism. We can’t create the change; we can, through our work, create the impetus for it. And when it happens, that’s a positive outcome. That’s why I see what we do as ultimately creating good news.

In the last several weeks, we’ve seen change begin to come about on two issues our reporters have brought to light and doggedly pursued.

Since February, Melissa Sanchez has been reporting an ongoing series of stories exposing how the city of Chicago’s aggressive and unequal ticketing practices, combined with punitive collections measures, have pushed tens of thousands of mostly black motorists into Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Her work, continued in partnership with WBEZ, has now spurred a slew of proposed reforms, with the Chicago City Council last week approving one set of changes to the system, while other, more sweeping improvements have also been put forward and are awaiting consideration. The reporting led to an independent report on ticketing disparities by a nonprofit research group that has been widely publicized and was cited in a lawsuit. The issue has also become a touchpoint in both the Chicago mayoral and treasurer’s races.

Duaa Eldeib, who has been investigating the treatment of children with mental illness in state care, broke the story last month of troubling conditions at a psychiatric hospital where many of these young people are placed. She uncovered more than a dozen allegations of abuse or neglect of children at the hospital in Uptown since January. Hospital officials have said they provide “the best care to the most vulnerable people.”

Some of the children had already been cleared for discharge but remained at the hospital because the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had failed to find them a more appropriate placement.

Citing her reporting, lawmakers and advocates stepped forward. The agency stopped sending children to the hospital and agreed to an independent review of the facility, while state and federal officials continue to investigate. Just last week, two aldermen called for a hearing into the matter, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois took DCFS to court in an attempt to move the remaining children in state care out of the hospital.

I asked Duaa and Melissa to talk a little about what it means to them to see change come about from their reporting.

Here’s what Melissa said: “For so many months, I felt frustration that the city refused to acknowledge that there was even a problem. I thought maybe I was crazy for spending so much time on this one issue. Now that some changes are actually happening, I feel happy, validated and hopeful that people’s lives will be improved. And more than anything, I feel inspired to stay on the story and keep digging.”

And from Duaa: “I’m amazed when families open up and describe the pain that has led to me sitting across from them, with my pen and notepad in hand. They often tell me that they’re sharing their stories in hopes of changing a system that has failed them. That change may not come in time for them, but it can help the next family and the family after that. As reporters, that’s why we do what we do.”

Of course, there are many reasons that some stories spur change and others don’t. (It’s no coincidence, by the way, that we’re seeing movement on the ticket issue as the mayoral and aldermanic elections approach.)

But when it happens, it’s what we most hope for as journalists: for our work to make a difference.

Rohan Patrick McDonald for ProPublica Illinois

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