December 29, 2020

There probably aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe 2020. One does seem to surface above all others, and that’s impactful.

With a death toll in the United States that has crossed 300,000, there’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has occupied a sort of premium on stories this year. Local journalists across the country have covered the virus, and much more. They’ve made a difference in their communities.

We wanted to hear from local journalists about the most impactful stories they’ve worked on this year. So we asked. Below are a few of their responses, and perhaps some inspiration for the journalists reading this.

The following stories were lightly edited for clarity.

Reversing course after reporting on inmate deaths

More than a year ago, the Montana Department of Corrections quietly decided to stop issuing public notices when an inmate or probationer died in department custody. We found this out after learning an inmate had died amid a lawsuit in which he alleged sexual harassment by prison staff and his death had gone unreported. After a records request to get basic information, we found 20 had died since the agency stopped publicly acknowledging their deaths. By the end of that month the agency had reversed course and set up a page to list in-custody deaths.

Worth noting: None of the deaths at the time of this reporting were COVID-related, according to the death certificates we received from the department and through our own requests. Those deaths began in October. We continue to request each death certificate for inmates and probationers who die in state custody. – Seaborn Larson, criminal justice reporter for Missoulian in Montana

Focus on minority-owned businesses spur change

Our series — called the Color of Public Money — directly led Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to create a new state agency to manage/improve the state’s spending with minority-owned businesses.

The full series is here, but in short —

We first established that the value of state spending with minority-owned businesses has DECLINED over the past 20 years (adjusted for inflation). We then established that during Baker’s administration, the state began padding those numbers, taking credit for a bunch of stuff that is not actually “spending” by state agencies.

Those are the things the governor’s announcement Nov. 3 is directly responding to, but our stories have also revealed that the Steamship Authority — that runs the ferries to Martha’s Vineyard — hasn’t hired a Black business in years and that universities in the state talk a lot about student diversity but generally spend around 2% of their budgets with minority-owned businesses.

We expect more developments on those fronts because we are aware that our stories have generated a lot of conversation in those corridors, but can’t claim direct impacts from those yet. But we have clearly helped carve a new path for state government; we will continue watching to see whether it produces results. – Paul Singer, investigations editor for GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting

Story helps donations pour in

I produced a story in my freelance role at CBS Miami on the 25th anniversary of 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce’s death. We focused on the Jimmy Ryce Foundation Bloodhound Program and how they have raised money to donate dogs to law enforcement agencies all over the world. I interviewed Don Ryce, via Zoom, three weeks or so before the anniversary day of Jimmy’s abduction and murder. The story aired many times the week of Sept. 11, and sadly that was to be Don’s last interview, as he passed on Oct. 3.

The foundation let me know that not only did this story make Don proud and happy, but that it generated several thousands in donations, at a time when they were lagging. Don said that he knew it would survive as Jimmy’s legacy, way beyond him. – Andi Phillips, freelance journalist in Miami

A volatile story opens up a conversation about race

In my view, my reporter, Megan Alley, wrote The Clermont Sun’s most important story of the year in June at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests, “Motorcycle gangs’ incite violence at Bethel Black Lives Matter demonstration.” Aside from other news entities taking notice of her work — organizations like BuzzFeed, our local NPR station, and Solutions Journalism Network — Megan’s story had the most impact in our community this year because it opened up a conversation about race in the small, rural, and politically red community of Bethel, Ohio. Megan, who was the only reporter on the scene when the protests occurred, captured the story in the most unique and accurate way precisely because, as a reporter for a small community newspaper, of course she would be the only one covering a small town’s happenings.

For a lot of residents both in Bethel and in the broader Clermont County area, I don’t believe they expected the undercurrents of such race discussions to even become animated in the way they did following the protests. For me, as an editor, I didn’t expect it to become what it did, either.

And not for nothing, the story had an impact on us, as reporters. First, Megan, when telling the story even weeks later to the Solutions Journalism Network, was still emotional because of how volatile the situation was to report on the ground. She was accosted, intimidated, and needed an escort to her vehicle. Second, the headline of the story is Megan’s, and it was something our publisher was uncomfortable with and asked me, as the editor, to change. I did not. The headline stayed as is because I believed, and still believe, that Megan’s headline accurately reflects the events of that day.

I’m proud of that story. I’m proud of Megan for reporting it through both a pandemic, of course, and uncertain volatility, and I’m proud of us as a newspaper standing behind an unambiguous examination of that day. A lot of our readers, in a deep red county, were not going to take kindly to such a story. We faced pushback from would-be advertisers, and even threats on social media.

But we stood by it, then, and do now, for your consideration. – Brett Milam, editor of The Clermont Sun in Clermont, Ohio

Stories feed a greater understanding

I write about poverty in West Virginia for Mountain State Spotlight (a new nonprofit investigative newsroom in West Virginia), and I’ve been writing about child hunger in the state during COVID-19. We have some of the highest rates of poverty and hunger in the country. These two stories not only got donations to these families (always a good thing!), but continued to allow me to hear from families and advocates about what isn’t working during COVID-19 when it comes to feeding kids.

I am still outraged that our governor is sitting on billions of CARES Act money as we know kids are going hungry. I recently spoke at a hunger summit about this reporting and the role reporters play in dispelling stereotypes about hunger and helping get information about barriers to food out there. – Amelia Knisely, a Report for America Corps member who covers poverty for Mountain State Spotlight

Countering disinformation

This story I wrote took on a crazy life of its own: It ended up on Seth Myers, MSNBC, etc. Not the typical reach of a piece from a digital alt-weekly in Columbus, Ohio. Though, in terms of concrete impact, it’s hard to say, other than combatting a previously viral narrative.

The basic gist is: My editor and I noticed a Facebook post from Columbus Police going viral during the early days of the George Floyd protests. The post showed a photo of a bus apprehended on suspicion of rioting, with axes and other items found on the bus. The post even made its way to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But after some digging, the narrative didn’t pan out.

In the big scheme of things, I think it was just one example of how local journalism can counter some of the mis/disinformation that has been widespread in 2020. – Joel Oliphint, associate editor of Columbus Alive

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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