As I reflect on the roughly 60 stories we published in 2022, I am awed by what we accomplished. Wisconsin Watch is a small but growing nonprofit newsroom whose guiding values drive everything we do: Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Explore solutions.
Central to each deep, fact-checked story is real people — Wisconsin residents often caught up in broken, failing or corrupt systems.
We identify what is going wrong, and often, how things could be made better. Sometimes it’s a simple fix. In other cases, the solution is expensive, politically difficult or unpopular.
In no particular order, here are some of the best things we published in 2022:
Our seven-part Open and Shut podcast, which focused on the nearly unchecked power of prosecutors. The project took nearly three years to report, write and produce. We worked with our long-time partner WPR to examine the impact of two northeastern Wisconsin district attorneys who bent the rules, creating lasting negative consequences to the justice system.
The Flawed Forensics series explored the legacy of former University of Wisconsin Dr. Barbara Knox. Wisconsin Watch found that at least a dozen times, Knox labeled illness or accidental injury as intentional child abuse. Knox’s diagnoses of child abuse were repeatedly rejected by prosecutors, police, child-protection officials, judges — even other doctors. Nevertheless, authorities continued to rely on her opinion over 13 years in more than 200 court cases. Knox has left Wisconsin, but the impact of these cases lingers for parents and caregivers wrongly accused.
In a two-part series, we explored the roots of a culture war that gripped Kiel, Wisconsin, earlier this year. The turmoil began when the school district investigated students’ reports of being bullied over their race or gender identity. After the stories were published, throngs of parents showed up at the Kiel School District’s annual meeting, beating back attempts to curb efforts to make the schools more welcoming.
In our Democracy on the Ballot series, we examined the state of democracy in Wisconsin as the 2022 midterm election loomed. We revealed how a candidate for attorney general filed felony charges against voters who made innocent mistakes when registering to vote. We investigated overblown claims by activists that “incompetent” voters were being manipulated into voting. We showed that many eligible voters in Wisconsin jails are unable to vote — and how officials could change that. Wisconsin Watch explored the ways embattled municipal clerks were preparing for a contentious election. We showed how some GOP candidates continued to push the lie — a few loudly, others quietly — that the 2020 election was “stolen.” We showed how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric was being used for political advantage — and how candidates differed sharply on reproductive rights. And we found that the legislative maps drawn by Republicans were even more skewed in their favor in 2022 — maps that already were among the most gerrymandered in the nation.
In our two-part series Policing Pregnancy, we explored Wisconsin’s particularly punitive law that allows officials to force pregnant people into drug or alcohol treatment — even jail. In a separate story, we tapped into the wisdom of Wisconsin’s top experts who outlined how a more compassionate approach would help even more babies and parents stay healthy.
Beyond Hunger, a 10-part series reported by University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students, examined all aspects of food insecurity in Wisconsin, where 1 in 12 people are not sure where their next meal will come from. The stories showed how changes by government, nonprofit groups and individuals could improve access to fresh, healthy food for Wisconsinites.
As part of a new collaborative exploring key issues in the Mississippi River basin, we profiled French Island, a community near La Crosse, Wisconsin grappling with drinking water contaminated by PFAS, the so-called forever chemicals. We also offered advice on how people whose well water is tainted by PFAS can stay safe.
Wisconsin Watch revealed how Wisconsin’s “honor” system for removing guns from abusers failed Jesi Ewers, a mother of five murdered by her estranged boyfriend with a gun a judge had ordered him to relinquish. We showed how other jurisdictions take a more proactive approach to removing weapons from the hands of abusers.
We examined the problem of reckless driving in Milwaukee and Madison, showing how urban highways were making it easier for drivers to speed — with deadly consequences.
Wisconsin Watch also revealed how patients suffering from so-called chronic Lyme disease fight debilitating symptoms — while also facing widespread skepticism from the medical community.
Finally, our best-read story of 2022 was a look back at a massive project built to protect a long stretch of shoreline from wildly fluctuating water levels in Lake Michigan. We found the structure was exacerbating erosion elsewhere on the shore, threatening to topple nearby homes.