Most popular inewsource stories of 2017 — and the impact they made

Most popular inewsource stories of 2017 — and the impact they made

There was a lot of talk this year about “fake news” and the role of the news media in keeping the public informed. At inewsource, our stories are built on a foundation of in-depth reporting, documents and data.

Accountability journalism takes time, persistence, precision and patience to get it right. As 2017 draws to a close, we’re looking back at the inewsource stories that reached the widest audience this year based on pageviews to our website. If you have ideas of stories or topics you would like us to consider tackling in 2018 so they might wind up on this list next year, drop me an email at laurawingard@inewsource.org.

No. 10: Poverty in San Diego County

The corner of University Ave. and 42nd St. in City Heights, among the neighborhoods with the highest proportion of residents living below the poverty line. Jan. 3, 2017. Megan Wood, inewsource.

San Diegans, like the rest of the nation, took a significant hit during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. But even after the economic recovery began, people in San Diego County continued to suffer.

An inewsource analysis of U.S. Census data showed that from 2011 to 2015 more than 450,000 county residents were living below the federal poverty line — defined as $12,082 a year for an individual. That was more than during the five-year period from 2006 to 2010, which included the Great Recession.

Few groups in the county were immune from poverty. The analysis found that poverty increased among the elderly, the young and those in their working years. It increased among people living alone and those living in families. It also increased among two-parent households and those with a single breadwinner.

No. 9: America’s Wall — the struggle to secure border with Mexico

Motivated by President Donald Trump’s call to build a longer and stronger wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, inewsource partnered with KPBS for this in-depth reporting project called “America’s Wall.” We wanted to know what Trump’s vision might mean for people living on both sides of the border, and we looked to facts from the past to tell that story.

Using previously undisclosed information from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, inewsource created an interactive map that shows every mile of the current wall along with when it was constructed. We layered that information with illegal immigration patterns over the decades as well as federal efforts to beef up law enforcement staffing along the border.

The data analysis shows not a unified wall but a series of fences and barriers stretching across California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. We also found the fencing is relatively new. Nearly 90 percent was constructed in the past dozen years. The wall’s construction and stepped up border enforcement also was a bipartisan effort involving Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

If you haven’t checked out “America’s Wall,” which includes photos and videos of people whose lives are affected by the border, now is your chance.

No. 8: Mexico’s reliance on U.S. natural gas

Sempra natural gas pipeline crossing at the border near Otay Mesa, California. Homes in the background are in Mexico. March 23, 2017. Megan Wood, inewsource.

Mexico is buying more and more natural gas from the U.S. to fuel its power grid, and that has some in Mexico worried about the country’s energy dependence. How much does Mexico rely on this trade? Seventeen U.S. gas pipelines enter the country, and four more are in development. Since 2010, U.S. natural gas to Mexico was also up 300 percent and is expected to double by 2019.

For Mexico, this steady supply of natural gas has allowed the nation to shift its source of electricity and factory fuel from burning diesel fuel and other oil products.

No. 7: Gompers again in spotlight

After inewsource’s investigation of the Gompers Preparatory Academy published, the reaction was swift. The school’s supporters, including students and parents, defended the college prep education provided at the charter school. But more than a dozen former students and teachers also reached out to inewsource, many validating the concerns raised in the initial story.

Here’s what Shamika Shropshire, a parent of two Gompers students, said in defense of the school: “I think that this school has been targeted because of the minorities that attend here. I don’t think they like to see us succeed, I don’t think they like to see us prosper in this world. This story may sound like the sweetest cake to some people, but it’s horrible to me. Because I’m on the inside looking out, and I’ve also been on the outside looking in, and I think this school has done a wonderful job in educating my two children.”

No. 5 and No. 6: Diabetes — amputations to medications

Using state hospital data, inewsource uncovered diabetes-related amputations of lower limbs are up dramatically in California, particularly in San Diego County. The numbers: a more than 31 percent increase statewide from 2010 to 2016 when adjusted for population change and a 66.4 percent increase in San Diego County.

The trend has confounded physicians, surgeons and public health officials who consider amputations an indication of the quality of a region’s diabetes care. For people with diabetes, amputations deprive them of their independence, increase the need for social services, and add to disability and medical costs.

With 23.1 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with diabetes, it’s not surprising that stories on the disease took the No. 5 and No. 6 spots in the list of our 10 most popular stories of the year.

The No. 6 story was about the amputation risks found in an industry-sponsored trial of people who take Invokana, a popular drug used to treat patients with Type 2 diabetes. The study led the FDA to issue a “black box warning” that the use of Invokana might increase the risk of leg and foot amputations. A number of physicians inewsource interviewed said they still prescribe the drug to lower their patients’ glucose levels, but others said they are being more cautious.

In the new year, we will continue to examine diabetes-related care and treatment. If you have thoughts on this topic, you can email our health care reporter, Cheryl Clark, at cherylclark@inewsource.org.

No. 4: Millions in unexplained expenses at San Diego Christian College

An inewsource investigation into possible financial problems at San Diego Christian College uncovered the school’s chief financial officer couldn’t account for more than $20 million in expenses that should have been detailed in public tax returns. Students pay $30,000 a year to attend the private, nonprofit college in Santee.

About a dozen current and former students were interviewed for the story. Some talked of unexplained cuts in scholarship money and trouble getting their financial aid. They also complained of inadequate facilities. Former professors said they were paid part-time wages for full-time work. A lawsuit filed by a vendor claimed the school often fell behind on payments. All of this and other public documents were used in the months-long investigation.

After the story came out in October, the college’s lawyer sent inewsource a retraction demand but stated no specific inaccuracies as required by California law. Weeks later, we learned through a former teacher and then confirmed through the college’s executive office that its CFO had been replaced.

Again, this is a story we’re continuing to follow. If you have information you’d like to share with reporter Megan Wood, you can email her at meganwood@inewsource.org.

No. 3: Sempra Energy on 100 percent renewable grid

Energía Sierra Juárez, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, a cross-border wind generation project at La Rumorosa, Tecate, Baja California. Credit: Martin Lemus, Fotografia Lemus

A Sempra Energy vice president caused a stir in May when he told a group of gas and oil executives meeting in La Jolla that no technical obstacle is keeping California from getting all of its energy from renewable sources. inewsource was the first to report the comment from Patrick Lee, Sempra Energy’s vice president for major project controls.

Environmental groups and renewable energy companies have said for years that utilities don’t need to rely on fossil fuels for power. It can all come from sources like wind, solar and water. But power companies, including Sempra, have insisted the electric grid for now still needs natural gas-fueled plants.

Well, two days after the inewsource story came out, Lee backtracked on his comments. In a single tweet — the only one on his account that he created in May — the Sempra executive said: “My conference comments were incomplete & don’t mean 100% renewable now. Today a reliable grid in CA requires natural gas-fired generation!” Sempra also issued a statement calling Lee’s comments “aspirational in nature and not reflective of Sempra Energy’s position on the issue.”

No. 2: Gompers and its college-ready promise

Gompers Preparatory Academy

The nonprofit Gompers Preparatory Academy in southeastern San Diego has received nearly $75 million in government grants and private contributions since it opened in 2005. The charter school promises to prepare every student for college. And for years, the people who founded the academy and who run it have received much praise for turning around what was once a drug- and gang-infested campus.

But a months-long inewsource investigation based on data, documents and interviews raised questions about the school’s promise that every graduate was ready for college. Gompers’ standardized student test scores are among the lowest in San Diego County and California. Yet its students often get A’s in rigorous college prep classes, including pre-calculus, advanced biology and AP history. Former teachers told inewsource they were pressured to inflate grades and that students who were failing were encouraged to attend other schools.

The school’s supporters, including Cecil Steppe, a school founder and board chairman, stand behind Gompers’ many accomplishments. “Most people talk about at-risk kids. What they define as at-risk is at risk to failure. We have at-risk kids that we say are at risk of becoming successful,” he said.

After the initial story published in May, we asked two college news interns to spend the summer tracking down Gompers’ graduates to see how they were doing in college. The results were mixed, and we shared them in stories and in a podcast.

We continue to follow the Gompers story. If you have comments and ideas on this investigation, email reporter Brad Racino at bradracino@inewsource.org.

No. 1: Methane at Otay Ranch housing project

Escaya-Otay-Ranch

inewsource broke the story in December that methane and other chemicals had been discovered underground at the new multimillion-dollar Village at Escaya, a massive housing project being built in eastern Chula Vista. Home buyers who had planned to move in by Christmas had those plans temporarily put on hold while the builder, HomeFed Corp. of Carlsbad, worked to mitigate the environmental issues at the 450-acre site.

We’ll continue to follow this story in 2018. One of the questions we will be trying to answer: Are the nearby Otay Landfill and other industrial developments the source of the methane and chemicals?

Since the story soared to the No. 1 spot for the year in just a couple of weeks, there obviously is a lot of interest in this. Reporters Brad Racino and Brandon Quester are following it. You can reach them at bradracino@inewsource.org and brandonquester@inewsource.org.

shadow-ornament

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Laura Wingard:

Laura Wingard
Laura Wingard is managing editor at inewsource. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email laurawingard [at] inewsource [dot] org.