In investigative journalism, impact is the coin of the realm. But impact is unpredictable. At ProPublica, our hope is that by exposing problems — or things not working as they should — legislators and policymakers will make changes.
Sometimes, the impact is immediate. In 2009, my colleagues and I reported that the California Board of Registered Nursing took years to discipline problematic nurses, putting patients in harm’s way. Within two days of our story, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced the majority of board members; a day later, the executive director of the board resigned. Our boss had to call ProPublica’s founder to tell him not to expect this to happen every time ProPublica published a big investigation.
Other times, impact is delayed. In 2011, ProPublica and Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism reported how a program run by the U.S. Department of Education had failed, leaving many borrowers who became disabled in deep financial debt even though they should have qualified to have their federal student loans dismissed. It took until 2021 for the Education Department to say it would forgive $5.8 billion in loans.
It’s hard to know in advance what stories will prompt change or how fast it will happen. Some stories land at the right moment, capturing the attention of politicians running for reelection, those who have a personal connection to an issue or bureaucrats who have been quietly fighting for change from within. Our Local Reporting Network project with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about the long-known failure of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to return Native Hawaiians to ancestral lands prompted lawmakers last year to appropriate $600 million to fix the program, the largest one-time infusion of money in its more than a century of existence. It didn’t hurt that the state had a huge budget surplus.
And then there are those in positions of authority who are committed to the status quo and dead set against reforms no matter how much evidence is presented that something is broken.
All of this is to say that we can get our facts right and do careful analyses and reporting, but when you get into the realm of impact, it’s a little mysterious.
A slew of recent ProPublica stories show the widespread impact our journalism has produced. Many of the original stories are the result of collaborations we undertook with other news organizations. (Be sure to check out our 2022 annual report for a look at our impact last year.)
WHAT WE REPORTED: Last year, we found that four psychologists on Colorado’s roster of child custody evaluators had been charged with harassment or domestic violence. (These evaluators often help determine custody in cases in which abuse allegations play a central role.) One was charged with assault in 2006, after his then-wife said he pushed her to the bathroom floor, according to police reports. He pleaded guilty to harassment in 2007, though he told ProPublica that his guilty plea was a result of poor legal representation and that his ex-wife made false allegations to get him arrested.
IMPACT: Colorado lawmakers are considering two bills that would reform the way family courts handle cases involving allegations of domestic abuse. One bill would require evaluators to have expertise in domestic violence and child abuse and would restrict judges from ordering forced “reunification” treatments that cut a child off from the parent who expressed concerns about abuse or neglect. The second bill would create a task force to study training requirements for judicial personnel on the topics of domestic violence and sexual assault, among other crimes.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat and the chair of the state House Judiciary Committee, praised ProPublica’s investigation. “We don’t usually see in-depth coverage on this kind of thing,” he said.
WHAT WE REPORTED: The Salt Lake Tribune and ProPublica reported how 94 women who alleged they had been sexually abused by a Utah OB/GYN were treated more harshly in Utah’s civil courts than those harmed in other settings. Their cases had to be filed within two years of the alleged abuse, and they faced a $450,000 cap on damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases.
IMPACT: The Utah Legislature passed a bill that would exclude sexual assault from the state’s medical malpractice law going forward. It would not apply to the 94 women.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “I’m so glad that the legislative side of the law corrected this huge problem, fixing that gap in our legal system that 94 women essentially fell through. We’ll fill it in for future people in this situation,” said Brooke, one of the women who says she was abused by the OB/GYN and who asked to be identified by only her first name. (The doctor’s lawyer said the allegations are without merit.)
WHAT WE REPORTED: An investigation last year by ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune revealed that ticketing students in schools was rampant across Illinois, with citations that can result in a fine of up to $750 for fighting, littering, theft, possessing vaping devices and other violations of local ordinances.
IMPACT: A bill in the Illinois legislature, introduced last month, would amend the state’s school code to prohibit school staff from involving police to issue citations to students for incidents that can be addressed through the school’s disciplinary process.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “We have to close that loophole and end school-based ticketing,” said Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Democrat from Chicago who is sponsoring the legislation. “There is no place for this type of system to be in our schools.”
WHAT WE REPORTED: Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises and ProPublica have detailed beatings of patients at a state-run center for people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses, as well as a concerted effort by some staff members to cover up abuse and serious neglect, and intimidation of employees who reported it.
IMPACT: The Illinois Department of Human Services plans to dramatically reduce the number of patients with developmental disabilities who live at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “It became clear, I would say certainly over the last year — and, in part, because of your reporting — that there were more significant changes that needed to be made,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said.
WHAT WE REPORTED: An investigation last year by ProPublica and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found at least 500 current and former volunteer diplomats, known as honorary consuls, have been accused of crimes or embroiled in controversy.
IMPACT: So far, the investigation has prompted action in nine countries: Jordan, Israel, Latvia, Germany, Austria, Finland, Brazil, Paraguay and Spain. Most recently, a former Lebanese diplomat who was a focus of our investigation was arrested in Romania and U.S. officials are seeking his extradition. Federal prosecutors have accused Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi of attempting to evade sanctions by trying to launder and move money from the United States to Lebanon.
Bazzi has not made an appearance on the latest charges. In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Bazzi a “global terrorist,” saying he had funneled money to the militant group Hezbollah. In court papers, Bazzi said the U.S. government had failed to provide evidence that he had financed Hezbollah.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Mohammad Bazzi thought that he could secretly move hundreds of thousands of dollars from the United States to Lebanon without detection by law enforcement,” Breon Peace, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a release. This “arrest proves that Bazzi was wrong.”
WHAT WE REPORTED: ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported last year that local courts were not following a 2009 Texas law meant to keep people with a history of serious mental health issues from legally acquiring firearms. Despite language in the law that says courts should report any time a judge orders a person, regardless of age, to receive inpatient mental health treatment, we found that some were not reporting juvenile records. As a result, the information was being excluded from the national firearms background check system.
IMPACT: Bipartisan legislation has been filed in the Texas House and Senate that would explicitly require courts to report information on involuntary mental health hospitalizations of juveniles age 16 and older.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “I just want to get this fixed,” said Elliott Naishtat, a former state lawmaker from Austin who authored the 2009 law.
WHAT WE REPORTED: ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune reported how a small Illinois school district, which operates a therapeutic day school for students with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities, turned to police to arrest students at a rate higher than any school in America.
IMPACT: The U.S. Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into whether the Four Rivers Special Education District has denied children enrolled at the Garrison School an appropriate education because of the “practice of referring students to law enforcement for misbehaviors.”
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “I think it’s long overdue,” a parent named Lena said of the federal attention on Garrison. (ProPublica and the Tribune referred to her by her first name only in order to avoid identifying her child.) “I want some kind of change for that school and the students still in there. I want them to find out everything that was done; I want somebody held accountable for all the crap that people are put through there.”
Some say investigative reporting is a decidedly pessimistic profession. We disagree. The examples above show why there’s reason to be optimistic. When we bring problems to the public’s attention, people of good faith often work to fix them.