Providing context and understanding for the news of the day is part of our job at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2018, that included explaining why some voting machines were not used on election day despite anticipated long lines.
Photo: AJC file photo
Photo: AJC file photo

Opinion: Looking out for readers’ interests

Every day at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we strive to bring you news you won’t find elsewhere. We work to tell the stories of metro Atlanta with depth and context and to hold officials and institutions in Georgia accountable for spending tax dollars wisely and upholding the public trust. As we look back on 2018, here are a few notable efforts.

Secret tape

When business executive and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Clay Tippins felt burned by fellow candidate Casey Cagle earlier this year, he reached out to AJC reporter Greg Bluestein and our reporting partners at Channel 2 Action News. Tippins had secretly taped Lt. Gov. Cagle acknowledging he had backed a bill he considered bad education policy in order to block another candidate for governor from getting campaign donations. The story raised questions about Cagle’s character and how far he would go to win the race. Many believe the revelation of the tape cost Cagle the primary and helped advance Brian Kemp to the general election he would ultimately win.

This reporting was built on Tippins’ trust that Bluestein would recognize the importance of the news and report it fairly. Bluestein had written several in-depth articles about Tippins’ campaign earlier. His even-handed coverage led to the exclusive report.

Reveal problems and improve lives

When the newspaper learns about system breakdowns harming those who live in poverty, state care or without advocates, we reveal those problems. Sometimes, the mere existence of a news story can resolve a lingering issue for an individual or group.

That happened when reporter Carrie Teegardin told of a Honduran woman who had been separated from her four children for more than a year. She had been deported and her children were held in foster care in Georgia. A misplaced document contributed to the delay. The new chief at the Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services stepped in to address the problem. “Your job is now reflected in the blessings and happiness of a mother that has been reunited with her boys,” the Honduran counsel general’s office wrote Teegardin after the children were flown to Honduras to be with their mother.

Reporter Alan Judd revealed another bureaucratic delay with lasting ramifications. His story of Lucretia Felder, a developmentally disabled woman who has been held in state institutions for 42 of her 44 years, revealed the challenges facing the state’s behavioral health system. Threatened with federal oversight, Georgia has promised to transform care for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities by moving long-warehoused patients like Felder from institutions to homes of their own. Those who remained in institutions were supposed to have their cases reviewed annually by a judge. In Felder’s case, no review had occurred since at least 2008 and she had been moved into increasingly restrictive settings. Judd wrote of the violent episodes and behavior that made Felder’s dream of living in her own home so difficult — but also of the system’s failure to recognize her improvement over time.

In May, about six weeks after Judd’s original story, a judge reviewed Felder’s case. “I want to live my life on the outside,” Felder told the judge. “I want to work. I want to do good and hold my head up and do the right thing.” The judge gave the state three months to get her out of a medical prison unit and into her own home, with appropriate support from the state.

On Veterans’ Day, reporter Bo Emerson told the story of Krystina Brown, 32, a Navy veteran who was living in her car with her two dogs, sleeping in a Cobb County parking lot while holding down a full-time job. Brown’s situation, part of a larger story about homeless women veterans, touched readers, who wanted to donate money and gifts. Brown and others directed readers to several organizations that help veterans.

Reporter Arielle Kass wrote about a broken process in the Fulton County magistrate court, which left more people at risk of spending excessive time in jail on minor offenses. One man spent 11 days in jail before he was formally accused of misdemeanors.

Serving as readers’ watchdog

Readers tell us one of our most important roles is watching out for how elected officials and others uphold the public trust – or don’t.

A stunning example this year was our continuous reporting on the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. If you missed the stories, read reporter Dan Klepal’s in-depth report on the front page of Sunday’s newspaper.

One story written by our state budget expert, editor James Salzer, almost certainly influenced lawmakers to lower state tax rates. Salzer wrote about a $3.6 billion windfall the state would receive as a result of changes in the federal tax code. At the time he wrote the story, officials did not have a plan to return that money to taxpayers. Within weeks of publication of Salzer’s story, the picture had changed and legislative leaders were pushing a measure to cut income tax rates and increase deductions. “I want it to be on the governor’s desk as soon as possible,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, the day the measure passed out of a House committee.

Some other ways we served as a watchdog for readers this year:

Providing context and understanding

Some stories go beyond the news of the day to illuminate larger issues, providing context and understanding to the trends of our time. That includes digging into local versions of national stories.

This year with the #metoo movement in full swing, we examined the lack of accountability for mistreatment of women in Georgia.

Janel Davis in March reported a system of laws and policies has kept sexual harassment claims involving those who work in the state Capitol mostly hidden, and left many women reluctant to speak up.

Reporters Jennifer Peebles, Chris Joyner and Johnny Edwards over the summer and fall found the state government of Georgia often fails at its handling of allegations of workplace sexual harassment. In a multi-part series, they wrote of shoddy tracking of cases and investigative processes that mistreat women when they report cases. Governor-elect Kemp has pledged reforms in this area.

We also put a lot of effort into in-depth reporting on concerns about voter issues, including Mark Niesse and Maya Prabhu’s report on voting precincts across Georgia being closed before elections, and Niesse’s explainer on why some voting machines sat unused on a busy election day.

And as cities across the South wrestled with what to do about Confederate monuments and icons, reporter Rosalind Bentley took a look closer to home. Her report on a stalled effort to address divisive symbols in Atlanta reignited efforts to rename Confederate Avenue, which is now named United Avenue.

We work hard to tell stories like these, stories that make us a better place by holding officials accountable, revealing problems that can be solved and providing context to the news.

We’ll keep working at it in 2019. Please keep reading.

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