What did The Bee’s public service mission look like through the course of 2014?
Most often our work was aimed at holding accountable the powerful politicians, business people and others who make decisions that affect your lives.
Sometimes it was telling the very personal stories of people in this region dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, mental illness or other challenges, so that they could be a role model for others with the same struggle.
Other times it was reporting intended to help you with your daily lives, whether to inform about new laws, weather emergencies or changes in a school curriculum.
Looking back over the year, some of our impact is readily apparent – such as when we won a lawsuit to force public disclosure of information. Other times I know we hit the mark based on emails and other reaction from those of you who take a moment to let us know our coverage has been of value.
In the spirit of the New Year – which requires looking back as we plan to move forward – here are a few highlights from 2014:
▪ The Bee and the Los Angeles Times in August won a legal fight that went all the way to the California Supreme Court to force release of the names of police officers involved in the November 2011 pepper-spray incident at UC Davis. We filed suit in May 2012 and won when the state high court dismissed an appeal by the police officers’ union to stop release of the names.
Why did we sue? While law enforcement officers sometimes endanger themselves to protect others, they also have considerable power and carry weapons. Perhaps more than most public servants, it matters that a police force be held accountable for its actions and be completely transparent about use of force against the public. You can’t hold someone accountable if that person’s identity is shielded from the public eye.
▪ Our reporting led to additional court review in a federal court review of excessive force against mentally ill California prison inmates. Ultimately, new prison policies were implemented to limit such force.
Reporters Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh revealed in January that a mentally ill inmate, Joseph Damien Duran, died at Mule Creek State Prison after a guard pepper-sprayed him in the face despite the fact he had a tracheotomy. He had been acting out inside his cell. His death was ruled a suicide. Our reporting led to an investigation into the death and public scrutiny of inmate treatment.
▪ We published voter guides for the primary and general elections, endorsed candidates in dozens of races, fact-checked sometimes outrageous claims in political advertising and covered the races and election results.
I wish I could say that because of our reporting more Californians voted. Instead, The Bee’s Christopher Cadelago reported that California’s abysmal voting turnout was part of a national trend, one that may have been the lowest point in any election cycle since World War II, according to the United States Election Project.
What I can say is that those of you who took the time to vote were able to make more informed choices because of our coverage, and we revealed lies in political advertising.
▪ Because of Charles Piller’s dogged reporting, commuters and taxpayers are aware of serious construction flaws and problematic spending decisions made by Caltrans and others during construction of the $6.5 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. His reporting spurred Senate hearings, multiple investigations and expert review of all future California megaprojects to improve oversight and better inform the public. Repairs are ongoing.
▪ We published the only database available that identifies the chain ownership of every nursing home in California – and also lets consumers know how well that chain does in key quality indicators of patient care. (You can search the database by county.)
The three-part investigation by Marjie Lundstrom and Phillip Reese found that homes within chains had similar problems and track records. Yet state regulators allow businesses to obfuscate ownership, thus ensuring that consumers rarely know ownership details.
▪ We aggressively covered, and in some cases revealed, corruption and other problems within the California Senate. Reporter Laurel Rosenhall covered the conviction of Sen. Rod Wright for perjury and voting fraud and the federal corruption cases against senators Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco.
She also reported that court testimony and a toxicology report showed a sergeant-at-arms, Gerardo Lopez, had cocaine and marijuana in his system the night he was involved in an off-duty gunfight that left three people injured and one man dead. He was fired, and in the aftermath, Tony Beard Jr., the longtime chief sergeant-at-arms, retired, and Lopez’s mother and Senate director of human resources, Dina Hidalgo, retired.
Some of our watchdog coverage will continue into 2015 because we’ve just begun digging into issues that need scrutiny. In other instances, public officials or courts already are working to remedy problems. Either way, whether we are holding powerful people accountable or finding stories that help you connect with your community, public service reporting remains a priority for us in 2015.
Call Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar, (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.