Valedictorians falling through the cracks; real-life goat rustling; more water investigations

March 15, 2019

This week was Sunshine Week. Media companies across the country contributed their time, effort, words and pictures to the issue of transparency that’s fundamental to our democracy. I’ve included some Sunshine-specific links below, and as usual, here’s our roundup of great local journalism from across these United States.

A slew of journalists from The Boston Globe contributed to this groundbreaking piece on area valedictorians — and it’s far from the usual rah-rah surfacey fluff you often get with the topic. The multipart series is an expose on the Boston educational system told through the lens of its supposedly most successful students. (There’s also a how-we-did-it component.)

Carmen George of The Fresno (California) Bee has this story about modern goat rustling. Don’t laugh; they are stealing kids from 4-H kids! (I’m sorry, I had to.)

The team at South Carolina’s The State is at it again, this time with “Tainted Water,” an investigation by Sammy Fretwell that revealed “disease-carrying bacteria, cancer-causing chemicals, toxic nitrates and brain-damaging metals (that) have shown up in small water systems from the foothills to the coast.” Bonus points for a nice intro video featuring the reporter explaining why he got interested and how he approached the investigation.

I hesitated to include this one because it’s so raw, but Rosana Hughes of the Chattanooga Times Free Press was sensitive and appropriate when reporting on this absolute tragic story about a woman visiting her slain fiancé’s grave in her wedding dress on the weekend they were to be married. But it’s the unbelievably intimate photos by Doug Strickland that will stick with you. It’s important to note that the family invited these journalists there.

Tim Eberly of The Virginian-Pilot dove deep into that area’s child welfare system, and discovered “How Norfolk’s foster care system victimized the city’s most vulnerable children.” Like all good investigations, it’s as hard to read as it is important.

In less serious Virginian-Pilot investigations, Matthew Korfhage has “A Norfolk bartender is credited with maybe the nation’s dumbest cocktail trend: The Turkey Dew”

Here’s a sunshine story: The Kansas City Star’s Mike Hendricks won a court battle against Jackson County in which a judge decided grand jury evidence couldn’t be hidden. The Star immediately dug in. “Thousands of pages of newly unsealed court documents obtained by The Star offer insights into the missteps, mismanagement and years of neglect that led the Jackson County jail to its current crisis.” This great example of a Sunshine Week win is just part of The Star’s ongoing coverage of the jail crisis.

Quote of the week from this crazy story out of Greensboro (North Carolina) News & Record about two men who survived a small plane crash into the ocean: “I came out of my examination room and Dan was sitting there with an IV in one hand and a beer in the other.” Props to writer Nancy McLaughlin for tracking them down and getting the tell-all.

The Houston Chronicle this week introduced the first in an occasional series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, spearheaded by Alex Stuckey. But the best part? A podcast with the badass name Cigarettes and Rocket Fuel with an even more badass premise: a retelling of the 1969 space race via an imaginary (but real-time) radio station of that era.

The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer has this remarkable tale of justice — and coincidence — that came from careful digging from writer Rachel Dissell.

The Arizona Daily Star partnered with Solutions Journalism Network for a wide-ranging investigation “into Title IX improvements and enforcement is believed to be one of the first of its kind.”

Reporter Bill Lukitsch and photographer Andy Abeyta of the Quad-City (Iowa) Times reported sensitivity on a vulnerable group of people being evicted from their subpar homes.

The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown is making sure readers know how events are unfolding in the Jerry Epstein case, even when the action is in New York, while Nicholas Nehamas and Lily Dobrovolskaya keep tabs on a Florida man who just happens to be seriously wanted in his home country of Russia. And yeah, he’s partied at Mar-a-Lago.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the Stephon Clark killing, the Sacramento News & Review, an alternative weekly, featured a story looking at his legacy, plus essays from Sacamento’s mayor and an advocacy group leader.

I promised more Sunshine Week stories, and here they are:

Here’s a great intro to the topic by The Roanoke (Virginia) Times’ Amy Friedenberger that explains exactly what her paper did — and why it should matter to citizens.

Alan Rosenberg, executive editor of The Providence Journal, wrote to say, “On Sunday, we kicked off a yearlong project on government secrecy with a big story and editor’s column.”

He said Sunshine Week was a happy coincidence in timing, and that topic is pressing in Rhode Island. And how. “Access Denied: Government Secrecy in Rhode Island” is a big, blistering indictment.

The (Lynchburg, Virginia) News & Advance editorial board spelled it out for readers, the Associated Press got in on the action for its readers with police video access rules, and the (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer spelled out why it was pushing against the University of North Carolina to disclose information.

Lastly, I heard from Tom Kearney, an editor for six microlocal weeklies in Vermont (the Shelburne News, The Citizen, The Other Paper, the Stowe Reporter, the Waterbury Record, and the News & Citizen of Morrisville). Those papers ran two versions of the same piece, he said. “The framework is the same for both editorials, but offer different specific examples of why Sunshine Week is important.”

I am loving hearing from you guys — keep these great one-of-a-kind features and hard-hitting investigations coming to ballen@poynter.org. Til next week!

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