September was a big month for impact at The Center for Investigative Reporting.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law three bills that directly address problems revealed by CIR investigations published in June and July 2013. And as the media impact analyst at CIR, I was surprised that even with the different trajectories these three stories have taken in the year since their publication, each resulted in the same type of macro change: new legislation.

The stories:

  • The Rape in the Fields project revealed the persistent sexual abuse and harassment that female farmworkers across the U.S. face. The investigation was a collaboration among CIR, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, KQED-FM, FRONTLINE and Univision. It included a feature-length documentary in both Spanish and English, multiple text pieces and multimedia assets published in June 2013.

  • CIR reported on the unauthorized sterilization of more than 130 female inmates in California from 2006 to 2010 in violation of prison rules, published in July 2013.

  • Our Rehab Racket investigation with CNN, first published in July 2013, uncovered fraud at state-sponsored drug rehab clinics in California.

The “Rape in the Fields” documentary has been used as a tool by grassroots organizations to convene stakeholders in communities across California to address the issue, detailed in my August case study. Yet while local women’s advocates, law enforcement officials and agricultural labor rights groups began working cooperatively to address the issue, California legislators did not immediately respond to the investigation’s findings.

But in February, state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey, proposed a bill that would, among other things, revoke a farm labor contractor’s license if the contractor hires a supervisor who has sexually harassed workers in the past three years. Monning’s bill was passed by the state Legislature during the summer session and signed into law by Brown on Sunday. The case study of the impact sparked by Rape in the Fields illustrates the links between the community involvement in Monterey County and the subsequent legislation, a process that, once initiated, quickly built powerful momentum.

Second, soon after CIR’s investigation into prison sterilizations broke, state lawmakers pledged legislation to prevent abuses. CIR continued to cover this issue, releasing an in-depth story in February about a doctor linked to prison sterilizations that lacked state approval. After each story was published, there was a strong wave of direct audience response on social media and coverage of our work throughout mainstream and alternative media across the country.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, proposed a bill in February to prevent coercive sterilization of female inmates. The state’s own audit of prison sterilizations, which confirmed CIR’s findings, was released in June. Once the audit came out, the bill banning sterilization as a form of birth control for female prison inmates passed unanimously in the state Senate. Brown signed the bill into law last week.

The third example of CIR’s recent macro impact stems from our Rehab Racket investigation. Response to the story was swift: Following the investigation, the state Department of Health Care Services carried out an internal audit and in January committed to making reforms. The California State Auditor carried out an additional audit, which resulted in a searing review of the state’s drug rehabilitation program for the poor. Released in August, the report found $94 million in potentially fraudulent payments and more than 300 services approved for dead people.

These audits provided the foundation for a bill proposed by state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Modesto, that requires criminal background checks for executive directors and officers of nonprofit rehab centers deemed high risk. Brown announced last month that he had signed the bill into law.

Each of these investigations ultimately resulted in legislation that will create structural change within state institutions. But the processes of change in the year between the stories breaking and Brown signing bills happened in their own unique ways.

In the case of Rape in the Fields, grassroots community organizing pressured public officials to take action.

CIR’s prison sterilization investigation elicited a massive response from the public and drew attention globally through widespread media coverage. This attention kept pressure on California lawmakers to carry out an audit and ultimately draft and pass legislation to outlaw this practice.

Finally, CIR’s Rehab Racket series clearly identified the government bodies that were failing to oversee drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics, forcing officials to carry out audits of those agencies. The legislation passed in response addresses one of the most basic flaws of the program and will complement restructuring within the Department of Health Care Services.

At CIR, we are committed to continuing to track, measure and communicate the processes that lead to these outcomes. Learn more about our ongoing impact analysis efforts here.   


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Green-Barber is the director of strategic research at The Center for Investigative reporting. She works to identify, assess and rigorously test areas of programmatic work where CIR can have catalytic impact through its content distribution and engagement. She leads research and analysis and serves as an expert both internally and for external partnerships.
Previously, Green-Barber was an American Council for Learned Societies public fellow and served as media impact analyst at CIR. She earned a Ph.D. in political science from the City University of New York Graduate Center. Her doctoral research, conducted from 2011 through 2013 in Ecuador, focused on indigenous organizations’ use of new information and communications technologies for social mobilization. She also taught political science courses at Hunter College.