Putting rivalry aside, NC newsrooms teamed up to keep the powerful accountable

Putting rivalry aside, NC newsrooms teamed up to keep the powerful accountable
Roy Cooper speaks at a press conference on the state's COVID-19 response as NCDHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen looks on in the background. (Source: UNC-TV)

Accountability journalism is sometimes bigger than competition.

That’s been a central tenet of the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network, a coalition of dozens of reporters and editors at newsrooms across the state who have collaborated for the past year to tell more than 45 critical, complex stories with statewide reach.

The network’s work has expanded from its initial focus on COVID-19 testing to cover everything from the vaccine rollout to policing practices and the 2020 general election. And it now consists of journalists from seven newsrooms: Carolina Public Press, The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer, WBTV-Charlotte, WECT-Wilmington, WRAL-Raleigh and North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.

One year after the network published its first collaborative story, here’s a roundup of some of the group’s best work – and the impact it’s had on the state.

In early March, as the far-reaching implications of the COVID-19 pandemic were becoming increasingly clear, WBTV Chief Investigative Reporter Nick Ochsner had a few basic questions about testing for the disease in North Carolina.

But that early in the outbreak, when confirmed cases numbered in the dozens and test kits were in short supply, the answers varied county by county.

So Ochsner contacted journalists at five other newsrooms for help, enlisting them to query health departments in every county about testing accessibility across the state for the then-unnamed collaboration’s first jointly reported story.

Their answers painted a more nuanced picture than the bare-bones dashboard of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services showed at the time.

With the state supplying only a handful of test kits to each county, local health workers resorted to putting their own sampling kits together to send to the few labs conducting testing.

The reporting also showed the public lacked, up until that point, a key metric for tracking the virus: How many tests were conducted statewide.

Coronavirus tears through NC nursing homes, state won’t say which ones

Nursing homes and other congregate care facilities quickly became among the worst casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic in North Carolina, much like in other states.

But unlike in other states, officials at DHHS refused to say where the outbreaks were taking place, leaving the decision up to county health departments or the nursing homes themselves. State officials’ decision to keep that information confidential, ostensibly over privacy concerns, meant uneven disclosure and confusion across the state for families, residents and health care workers.

And even some nursing homes weren’t happy about the decision, reporters found after contacting managers and administrators of facilities across the state.

“Not sharing anything does not help anyone,” Arnie Thompson, executive director of Friends Homes in Guilford County, said at the time.

But reporters and advocates pushed back.

The AARP’s North Carolina chapter wrote a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper pleading for transparency.

And a coalition of media organizations threatened to sue over access to the information, challenging state health officials’ claims that refusing to release the locations of outbreaks was necessary to protect patient privacy.

The pressure campaigns worked.

Days after the network published its report, N.C. DHHS announced it would identify outbreaks at specific facilities and update the information weekly.

That information led to more reporting on gaps in public notification and the potential links between problematic facilities and major outbreaks of the virus.

In addition to nursing homes, state prisons also proved a problematic vector of coronavirus spread – especially early on with testing still in short supply. And for many inmates and corrections workers, lives were literally on the line.

A 25-year veteran of the N.C. Department of Public Safety, nurse Barbara Stewart received little personal protective equipment and no COVID-19 testing from the prison where she worked before she died of the disease in early May at the age of 57, the network’s reporting revealed. It took seven days for the agency to even confirm publicly that she died.

Shortly after her death, the facility started testing off-site, and the prison system later rolled out larger scale testing at partner urgent care facilities.

But state employee advocates criticized the plan for placing too high a burden on prison workers, who in some cases had to travel far away from their places of employment to get a test.

Without adequate testing, experts said, staffers not only faced risk themselves, but brought those same risks home to their families and communities.

Stewart’s death triggered an inquiry by the N.C. Department of Labor, and the network’s reporting prompted N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, to grill the state’s prison commissioner over “grave concerns” about the testing regime.

The prison where Stewart worked, Caswell Correctional, announced a mass testing initiative just weeks after the original report.

North Carolina’s capitol press corps is no stranger to late-night hijinks at the N.C. General Assembly, which occasionally pushes through controversial measures in marathon sessions that sometimes stretch into the early morning.

But on this particular Friday morning, News & Observer reporter Lucille Sherman was paying attention.

She noticed language in a little-discussed, quickly approved and seemingly uncontroversial proposal – House Bill 168 – that would shield death investigation files that law enforcement investigators share with the medical examiner’s office.

Explicitly requested, she was told, by DHHS, the bill passed both chambers amid nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. And as Sherman pointed out in her reporting for the network, the measure would keep confidential, among other things, details gathered by law enforcement about deaths in custody.

The reporting struck a nerve.

Rapper Ice Cube tweeted about it. Protesters gathered outside the governor’s mansion to urge a veto. And state legislative leaders, apparently surprised by the backlash, pledged to fix the bill if it became law.

But they ultimately didn’t have to. Cooper vetoed the measure at the last minute, opposing the provision on public records grounds, his office said.

The announcement of Cooper’s decision prompted cheers from protesters, who had rallied downtown for days.

In recent weeks, The News & Observer has obtained some documents that would’ve been shielded had the legislation been signed into law.

Months into the pandemic, and despite major changes in the data DHHS disclosed to the public, there were still significant reporting gaps about outbreaks in one of the biggest employment-related drivers of spread: meatpacking plants.

Such information was vitally important to the people who worked there, overwhelmingly members of the Latino community who have consistently experienced disproportionate impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reporting from the network found that state health officials were hobbled by fears that, due to a lack of regulatory authority, the meatpacking industry would stop disclosing outbreaks if DHHS opted to identify them.

There was a plan early in the pandemic within the state agency, in fact, to do just that.

But some county health directors challenged the move, afraid it would prompt plants to shut down contact tracing and other work that helped epidemiologists respond to community spread.

After the plan was nixed, some plants disclosed outbreak numbers on their own, although those disclosures weren’t always reliable. The state and some counties, meanwhile, outright refused to tell the public what they knew about where the virus was running rampant.

The resulting secrecy rankled workers and advocates alike.

“They’re risking their lives to cut up chicken and it’s not fair that somebody should withhold that information,” Ilana Dubester, director of El Vinculo Hispano/The Hispanic Liaison, said at the time.

With the 2020 general election on the horizon, and more and more voters looking to cast ballots by mail amid the pandemic, concerns mounted over the increasingly sluggish delivery times of the U.S. Postal Service.

The new Trump-appointed postmaster general, North Carolina Republican megadonor Louis DeJoy, cracked down on overtime and deep-sixed massive mail-sorting machines across the country after the start of his tenure.

To test the reported slowdowns, the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network mailed more than 100 letters to each other to track their journeys across the state with a goal of better understanding the impact in North Carolina. Most of the letters arrived just fine and on time.

But there were a few issues, including a handful that arrived without a postmark.

Those would be problematic during voting, the group’s reporting revealed, because postmarks serve as an indicator to county election officials that a last-minute mail-in ballot arrived on time.

It wasn’t just ballots at stake. Delivery delays mean impacts to businesses and to residents like Robert Brunson, a diabetic who relied on the postal service for medication refills.

“Gets to be real serious, when the mail is being used,” he said. “For whatever reason, political, whatever, it’s always the people on the side, the fringes, that suffer the consequences.”

Records from the U.S. Postal Service indicate the on-time delivery rates continued to drop since the network’s story published in October, which can delay prescriptions, bills and even rent money.

In early 2021, the Governor’s Crime Commission hit a significant milestone.

After continued mass protests nationwide over accountability and transparency in the criminal justice system, the North Carolina agency and others like it across the country had collected a full year of data under the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, a measure to track just how many people die during interactions with law enforcement.

Citing a federal confidentiality law, the Governor’s Crime Commission said it was forbidden from releasing the information – whether it wanted to or not – in response to a public records request from the reporting network.

That position puts the commission at odds with law enforcement agencies across the state, more than a dozen of which quickly provided the records upon request. And even the Tar Heel State’s neighbors – namely Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia – readily handed over data and documents after receiving nearly identical requests.

Legal opinions, the network’s reporting showed, were mixed about whether the Governor’s Crime Commission was in the right. But the bill’s author didn’t mince words.

“As a sponsor of the bill, I’m unaware of anything in federal law that prohibits the release of this information,” U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, the Democrat representing Virginia’s 3rd District, said.

The Biden administration pledged to release an “interim report” on the data soon.

In the meantime, the network continues to follow the government’s handling of the data – on the state and local level.

This story was jointly reported and edited by Laura Lee and Kate Martin, of Carolina Public Press; Tyler Dukes, Jordan Schrader and Lucille Sherman, of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Michael Praats of WECT; Travis Fain and Ali Ingersoll of WRAL; and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.

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