Since its founding in 2009, WCIJ has become a trusted source of in-depth, nonpartisan news that is seen by millions of people each year in Wisconsin and across the nation. Through a partnership with the Associated Press and using Wisconsin Watch’s statewide distribution system, these stories reach the audiences of hundreds of news outlets each year, in addition to the audience at WisconsinWatch.org. Our guiding values: Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Explore solutions to problems.
In 2020, Wisconsin Watch produced 81 major reports — nearly three times as many stories as a typical year. Forced by the pandemic to abandon the offices at the UW-Madison journalism school in mid-March 2020, the Wisconsin Watch staff worked tirelessly to investigate disinformation, Wisconsin’s failing unemployment system, the impact of crushing medical debt, Wisconsin’s often-flawed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and problems in the state’s election system. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, we examined calls for racial justice and how police can better respond to protests to minimize violence, what “defunding” the police would look like in Milwaukee, the factors leading to the deadly protest in Kenosha — including the decision by police to work with armed militia members. These stories were picked up by 401 news outlets, reaching an estimated 43 million people. The Milwaukee Press Club has awarded Wisconsin Watch 12 awards for our 2020 coverage, and along with WPR, we were honored with a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
Also in 2020, Wisconsin Watch and the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service launched the Google News Initiative-funded News414 project. This innovative free news-by-text service helps fill information and accountability gaps in Milwaukee’s Black- and brown-majority neighborhoods. News414 provides information to 2,100 subscribers, helping vulnerable residents navigate often-complicated systems to access services they need. In the early months of News414, the effort helped a father get free beds for his children.
Information provided by News414 also has also helped residents access thousands of dollars in rental assistance and provided tips for staving off eviction. “Thank you for all the information and supporting the community,” one renter texted last year after receiving $1,420 in rental assistance. In recent months, News414 began translating texts, social media outreach and stories into Spanish. These provided crucial information to residents of Milwaukee and statewide, including that undocumented state residents are eligible for significant pandemic-related rental assistance, and that proof of legal residency or insurance are not required to get a COVID-19 vaccination.
Here’s more examples of our impact:
In 2019 Wisconsin Watch reported what would happen if the state were to legalize marijuana. Gov. Tony Evers proposed recreation marijuana legalization in his 2021-2023 biennial budget proposal, and our reporting was cited in news articles about Ever’s actions.
After Bram Sable-Smith, the WPR Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow, reported on Wisconsin blocking disability payments during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Baldwin, Sen. Moore, Sen. Kind and Sen. Pocan wrote to the U.S. Department of Labor to provide clarity about the eligibility of Wisconsin recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which was provided in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This occurred after Wisconsin Secretary of Workforce Development (DWD) Caleb Frostman requested guidance from DOL on the same issue.
Bram Sable-Smith reported in April on how Wisconsin hospitals were suing patients over medical debts even during the pandemic. Five days later, two of those hospitals dismissed some of those suits, and members of the public offered to help those who had been sued by their health care providers.
A press release put out by the mayors of five Wisconsin cities cited a Wisconsin Watch tweet of Dee J. Hall’s report covering Milwaukee residents who were dissuaded to vote in the April 7th election. The mayors of Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay, Milwaukee and Racine “successfully secured a combined $6.3 million in nonprofit grants to fund the “Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan.” The grants, awarded by the nonpartisan Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), will help each municipality administer elections this year in the midst of the deadly coronavirus pandemic,” and used the tweet to show how not to run an election in Wisconsin during a pandemic.
A Wisconsin Watch report was cited in a dissent issued by Justice Brian Hagedorn to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision overturning the state’s Stay at Home order extension for COVID-19. Hagedorn compared the broad authority that Gov. Tony Evers had to enact the order to that of prosecutors, who “are given vast discretion in choosing whether to file a criminal complaint, and which crimes to charge.” As noted in the story, the Dane County district attorney directed law enforcement not to bring him cases based on possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The Wisconsin Humanities Council is using Los Lecheros (Dairy Farmers), our 21-minute documentary, as a catalyst for community immigration discussions. A blog post about their efforts reads, “Who are these undocumented people? We need the story. Los Lecheros takes you into a Wisconsin dairy barn to talk to undocumented workers and the farmer who employs them.”
Dozens of people attended the community events in Dubuque, Verona and Darlington, with additional events scheduled. Some grew up on dairy farms and shared a similar plight in having difficulty finding people able and interested in farming.
After Wisconsin Watch reported in 2019 about how black people are arrested at four times the rate of white people in Wisconsin, Sen. Fred A. Risser along with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Reps. Sheila Stubbs, David Crowley and Dave Considine introduced legislation that would decriminalize 25 grams or less of marijuana in the state of Wisconsin. In his press release, Risser cited Wisconsin Watch’s report.
The job agency in Chicago’s Chinatown accused of exploiting Latino workers ceased operations under a consent decree approved by a federal court judge. The court-ordered closure came just days after the Chicago Sun-Times and Wisconsin Watch published a special report putting the spotlight on Xing Ying and other agencies accused of exploiting undocumented workers. Four days after the report was published, the U.S. Department of Labor announced an initiative to help restaurants in Wisconsin comply with wage laws.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice wrote a column titled “Sen. Leah Vukmir and Democrats clash over impact of nursing home law she supported.” The column mentions Wisconsin Watch’s 2011 report on tort reform law which showed how the law “has made it more difficult to hold nursing homes accountable for wrongdoing by keeping this crucial evidence out of court.”
Wisconsin Watch published a report by Pawan Naidu explaining how big campaign donations increasingly influence politicians in Wisconsin. Pat Nash wrote a column, picked up by the Baraboo News Republic and at least five other news organizations, that mentioned and quoted our secret campaign cash coverage. It read, “Big money is fighting for Republicans to hold the majority in the state legislature.”
The Wisconsin Election Commission corrected one of the largest flaws in the state’s election-security program in a unanimous vote to revise their policy for voting-machine audits. By introducing the possibility that hacked results could be detected and corrected before election results were certified, audits became a security measure for the first time. Beginning later in 2018, the commission randomly selected 5% of all voting machines statewide on the day after the November general election and instructed municipal clerks to conduct public hand counts of those machines’ paper ballots in four key races. The audits were completed before election results are certified.
In previous years, Wisconsin’s election officials audited only after they finalized results. This major flaw consistently put Wisconsin in the lower half of the 50 states’ election security rankings. Post-election audits using paper ballots are considered critical for election security because officials have no other way to detect Election-Day computer errors. Local officials can keep software secure while it is in their possession, but they have no way to assess whether it was adequately secured before then. Lack of IT expertise and the voting-machine manufacturers’ claims of proprietary secrecy prevent election officials from examining the software directly. Pre-election tests cannot prevent Election-Day computer errors or glitches, nor can they detect malicious code designed to operate only on Election Day. In August 2018, The Green Bay Press Gazette published a column titled “Give Wisconsin Elections Commission input on election security.” The column cited Wisconsin Watch’s coverage of election security in Wisconsin.
Jamie Gilford, Clery Program director at University of Wisconsin Police Department, wrote an email to Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall and Digital and Multimedia Director Coburn Dukehart expressing her gratitude for our report covering campus sexual assaults. Gilford’s note said, “I wanted to say how much I appreciated the article you published in Madison Magazine in September. Sexual assault is always a challenging topic to cover and navigating the intersecting laws regarding report-tracking can be very disorienting for most people. I think you did an excellent job accurately explaining the data and fairly putting it into context. Quality journalism like this does much to advance our understanding of the prevalence of sexual assault in our communities, the actions we are taking to combat it, and all of the work we have left to do. As someone who also takes a professional interest in institutional transparency, thank you.”
Wisconsin State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout wrote a column about the tactics used by majority party leadership to rush bills through the Legislature in Madison. Vinehout discussed how speed sacrifices public input and prevents thoughtful debate in the lawmaking process. The column heavily cited Wisconsin Watch’s coverage of the speed of lawmaking in Wisconsin. The column was picked up by news organizations across Wisconsin.
The Badger Herald published a column titled “State’s GPS bracelet system inefficient, ineffective in monitoring offenders.” The column heavily cited Wisconsin Watch’s coverage of the state Department of Corrections’ GPS monitoring program. The stories showed that five years after Wisconsin Watch first revealed technical problems that were prompting offenders to be jailed when they had not committed any violations, some of the same problems remained.
Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, introduced a bill to reinstate the state False Claims Act and restore the ability of a private individual or whistleblower, to bring a claim alleging Medicaid fraud. Wisconsin Watch had reported that the state was missing out on at least $11 million in reimbursements for alleged fraud after the Legislature quickly repealed the law in 2015.
WISDOM referenced our reporting in a July 2017 press release about the risks faced by Wisconsin consumers in regard to payday loans and called for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to issue a strong payday lending rule.
Precious Lives was a collaborative project with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Public Radio and 371 Productions covering gun violence on children in Milwaukee and across the state. Precious Lives received two gold awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, top honors from the National Association of Black Journalists and was a national finalist for the prestigious Peabody Award for broadcast journalism. Precious Lives stories were shared on social media by prominent organizations and figures such as National Public Radio, Reveal, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Rep. Mark Pocan and CNN correspondent Jake Tapper. The project was also featured in a segment on All Things Considered.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections proposed a program for Wisconsin inmates similar to one highlighted in a Wisconsin Watch story in which Colorado prisoners in solitary confinement are allowed up to 20 hours a week out of their cells.
Alexandra Arriaga’s story on firearm background checks was featured on the front pages of 12 newspapers and prompted 10 columns/editorial responses. The story and its sidebars were picked up 56 times.
Wisconsin Watch’s Failure at the Faucet series sparked a statewide conversation on the risks to the state’s drinking water, leading to several pieces of legislation aimed boosting childhood lead testing and funding to replace aging lead pipes. The investigation revealed that hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin are at risk of drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrate, bacteria, arsenic, lead and other contaminants.
Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 The Year of Clean Drinking Water, citing statistics from our series. Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, introduced a bill calling for tap water testing when a child is lead poisoned. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, introduced the Leading on Lead Act, which facilitates the replacement of lead service lines delivering drinking water. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources updated water sampling protocols for operators of thousands of public water systems recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after Wisconsin Watch revealed a delay of nine months in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, lead water crisis.
Wisconsin Watch’s Failure at the Faucet series prompted other news organizations to customize reports based on our work, examining their local water systems in communities including Milwaukee, Stoughton and Eau Claire.
Wisconsin U.S. Sen.Tammy Baldwin cited our Failure at the Faucet investigations in a newsletter to her constituents, urging supporters to demand that “Congress prioritize the safety of our drinking water.”
In April 2016, John Oliver, a comedian and television personality, mentioned the Center’s investigation into lead pipes on his show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” in a segment discussing issues of lead poisoning in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Chris Johnson of the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition (FLAC) said his organization relied on data from the Center for its campaign, which seeks to pressure Milwaukee into getting rid of its lead pipes.
“The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) was instrumental in sharing research data on lead in water and lead poisoning of children with FLAC,” Johnson said. “WCIJ was also instrumental in bringing attention to Milwaukee’s lead water crisis to a much broader audience when none of the other local media outlets would report about this issue. WCIJ was very impactful in bringing attention to this public health crisis.”
Wisconsin Watch identified 40 allegations of physical or psychological abuse by correctional officers against inmates in Waupun Correctional Institution’s segregation unit since 2011. The investigation took five months and cost $40,000 — a tenth of the Center’s entire budget and resources that few Wisconsin news organizations would be able to muster. The series prompted an interfaith advocacy group to ask Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to investigate the abuse allegations. Saying that the series proved the state Department of Corrections “routinely engages in torture,” the group requested an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice because the DOC “cannot be asked to investigate itself.” Six Democratic legislators wrote to Walker to demand action. The agency later revised its disciplinary rules, including the use of segregation.
In response to our report on Wisconsin’s GPS tracking of offenders, the head of the Assembly Committee on Corrections called a legislative hearing to question the Department of Corrections. At the hearing, another legislator read aloud portions of Wisconsin Watch’s story when questioning the DOC’s director of sex offender programs. Citing the reporting as a factor, the state Legislature’s budget committee scaled back a planned expansion of the GPS monitoring program for offenders — and called for a study of the system’s reliability.
After we reported that Gov. Scott Walker was failing to apply for federal funds to help thousands of disabled state residents get job training and support, the governor reversed his position, accepting $15 million and eliminating a waiting list of 3,000 people with disabilities seeking to join the state labor force.
Our reporting on frac sand mining in Wisconsin created a rush of its own. Other news organizations locally and nationally jumped in to begin telling the story of this side effect of the controversial practice of “fracking.” The state DNRbegan to study the effects of sand mining on Wisconsin residents. And the state Department of Transportation has consulted our reporting in its effort to quantify the effects of the burgeoning sand rush on Wisconsin’s highways and railroads. Our frac sand project page remains a trusted source of information. In April 2015, we produced an innovative, entertaining video that uses grains of sand to summarize key issues in the nation’s No. 1 frac sand mining state.
A group of University of Madison-Wisconsin students, led by Wisconsin Watch intern Amy Karon, exposed misleading nutrition claims by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s $30 million a year pro-dairy campaign. The state milk board removed from its website the misleading claim that eating dairy products can promote weight loss the day our story was published.
A computer-aided analysis of a sample of 50,000 e-mails sent to Gov. Scott Walker found Walker accurately said most were supportive — but a third of supporters were from other states. We discovered one message that came from an Indiana GOP activist and prosecutor who urged a “false flag” operation to fake a physical attack on the governor and discredit pro-union protesters. The follow-up story led to the immediate resignation of the Indiana prosecutor.
A collaborative investigation revealed allegations of a physical altercation between two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices in a nationally significant collective bargaining case. Separate legal and ethics investigations were launched to examine the Supreme Court incident, prompting calls to replace judicial elections with merit selection, and Justice David Prosser faced three ethics charges. JThe high court deadlocked on whether to discipline one of its own members.
Even before it was published, Wisconsin Watch’s story on campus sexual assaults prompted the University of Wisconsin-Madison dean of students to vow to improve the treatment of students who report abuse. University officials also created a webpage to improve public access to sexual assault data that previously were available only through public records requests.
After our story on questionable tactics used by a for-profit college, Wisconsin regulators ordered Westwood College to halt enrollment until problems were corrected.
Our story on the tragedy of high suicide rates among Native Americans in Wisconsin brought nationwide attention to the issue, and a former Menominee Reservation resident donated $5,000 to a local Boys & Girls Club.