We took a deep dive into our archives to rank the top 10 stories we’ve ever published — a fitting way, we believe, to celebrate the dawn of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s 10th year of operations, which begins this month!
These investigative reports provided insights into issues shaping Wisconsin, as residents’ lives were roiled, and sometimes uplifted, by political, social and economic forces.
Read the countdown below, watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall talk about the Center in this video, and be sure to sign up for our newsletter to have the Center’s new reports sent straight to your inbox.
10. State passes up federal disabilities aid for jobless, despite backlogs
By Tegan Wendland, July 14, 2013
In this story, WCIJ found that Wisconsin was forfeiting $14.2 million in federal funds for job training for the disabled, which meant that thousands of people with disabilities faced long waiting lists to access state employment resources. After we reported the story, Gov. Scott Walker reversed his stance and accepted the money, wiping out a waiting list and allowing thousands of people to get to work.
9. Lost signals, disconnected lives
By Mario Koran, March 24, 2013
This investigation explored GPS monitoring of offenders in Wisconsin. The report found that the monitoring suffers from technological malfunctions that sometimes prompt offenders to be tossed in jail for false alerts. Despite these warnings, the state continues to expand GPS — and problems persist. The state has declined to study the effectiveness of its monitoring program.
8. Suffering in silence: Campus sexual assaults vastly underreported
By Kate Golden, Alex Morrell and Sara Jerving, February 28, 2010
This series exposed the underreporting of sexual assaults on college campuses across Wisconsin. This pioneering collaboration with other nonprofit investigative reporting centers was led by the Center for Public Integrity and set the stage for later debates about the proper role of colleges in responding to allegations of sexual assault on campuses. Our report was picked up a total of 15 times, including by UW-Madison student newspaper The Badger Herald. Listen to the report on Wisconsin Public Radio here.
7. Groundwater war pits Wisconsin farms against fish
By Kate Prengaman, July 21, 2013
Our multimedia story on high-capacity wells was the first media report to document the severe drawdown of water in the Central Sands region, where some lakes and streams are drying out because of over-pumping. Now, this issue has become a pitched battle between large agricultural interests, environmentalists and residents and a hot political topic. Listen to the original story and an interview with Center reporter Kate Prengaman on WPR here.
6. Strong public support, pleas from grieving family fail to move Wisconsin on gun background checks
By Alexandra Arriaga, Aug. 28, 2016
Part of the award-winning multimedia Precious Lives project, this story showed why criminal background checks, a gun-violence prevention strategy supported by 90 percent of the public, have failed to gain traction among Wisconsin lawmakers. The report was picked up 42 times, including by the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It was also mentioned in a USA Today editorial.
5. Supreme Court spat got physical
By Bill Lueders, June 25, 2011
This story, produced in collaboration with Wisconsin Public Radio, broke the news of explosive allegations (eventually found to be true) that a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice put his hands on the neck of another justice during a heated debate over the court’s decision on the legality of Act 10. It spread across the nation and worldwide: At least 91 follow-up stories were written about the incident, including by The Atlantic, Politico, The Washington Post and Forbes.
4. Sand mining surges in Wisconsin
By Jason Smathers, July 31, 2011
This story reported on the increase in frac sand mining across Wisconsin and the environmental and health concerns that rise with it. The Center was the first news outlet to bring Wisconsin’s frac sand boom to the attention of state residents far from the rural areas where giant mines and processing facilities were springing up. For a time, the Center’s coverage was so authoritative that we hosted the only known map of all Wisconsin frac sand facilities.
3. Waupun prison guards accused of abusing dozens of inmates
By Bill Lueders, July 20, 2014
The Center revealed that inmates of the Waupun solitary confinement unit had lodged 40 allegations of physical or severe psychological abuse against correctional officers at the prison. Twenty-eight involved a single guard, Joseph Beahm. After those allegations were aired, the Department of Corrections quietly began working to improve conditions in solitary confinement. The story was picked up 23 times and mentioned by Investigative Reporters and Editors, The Crime Report and Solitary Watch.
2. Wisconsin dairy farms are growing — along with their immigrant work forces
By Jacob Kushner, May 26, 2010
Part of the Center’s Dairyland Diversity series, this story explored the hidden workforce behind America’s Dairyland — thousands of immigrants, many of them here illegally, who were milking cows and cleaning barns to keep Wisconsin’s multibillion-dollar signature industry afloat. The series was produced in collaboration with The Country Today. This story was reported by then-intern Jacob Kushner, who is now a freelance reporter covering issues in East/Central Africa, Germany and the Caribbean. In 2017, the Center, in collaboration with Wisconsin Public Radio, expanded its coverage of this issue with in-depth reports examining the rise in tensions over undocumented immigrant dairy workers since the election of President Trump. In stories and our first video documentary, we chronicled the decision of some workers to return to Mexico rather than face deportation.
1. Safe, clean drinking water eludes many Wisconsinites
By Ron Seely, November 8, 2015
Our Failure at the Faucet series revealed that Wisconsin has widespread drinking water problems that put hundreds of thousands of residents in peril. The launch story was picked up 90 times, including by USA Today. Later stories were published just as the Flint, Michigan lead-in-water crisis was dominating the headlines. Our reports led to legislation and programs to fund replacement of dangerous aging lead pipes. In 2017, Failure at the Faucet received a first-place national investigative reporting award from the Society of Professional Journalists. We continue investigating threats to Wisconsin’s drinking water.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.