Public Policy Meets Real Life

June 24, 2020

By Kalena Thomhave
U-M Poverty Solutions

In this session, three veteran journalists discussed the intersection of public policy decisions and “real life”: how do these decisions that play out in local, state, and federal governments affect real people on the ground, and how can journalists bring their stories to life?

Melissa Sanchez, a reporter at ProPublica Illinois, shared how she investigated Chicago’s bankruptcy filings and how they were influenced by punitive city policies surrounding parking tickets, license suspensions, and fees. Between 2007 and 2017, the average ticket debt in the city had more than doubled from $1,500 to $3,900 per case, while Chicago had become the nation’s “bankruptcy capital,” says Sanchez. Part of what happened, Sanchez’s reporting revealed, is that people were finding that declaring bankruptcy was more affordable than the city’s ticket repayment plan.

Sanchez says that she and her team expected some readers would push back and ask why people wouldn’t just pay their parking tickets. They reframed the story away from individuals declaring bankruptcy and instead centered the public narrative on why the city had used these policies to try to generate revenue—and failed. (View Sanchez’s slides)

The story had a significant impact; Chicago ended the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid parking tickets and reformed payment plans so they were more affordable.

Jonathan Cohn is a social welfare reporter at HuffPost, where he focused on health. Cohn detailed how policy journalism needs to bring in human stories to illustrate complex policy articles. This is commonplace for journalists, he says, as people much prefer reading about others’ stories rather than dry policy statistics. However, journalists also bring in human stories “to educate ourselves,” says Cohn. “It equips me to do a better job, [and] equips us as reporters to do better” at fully telling a story. Cohn has had success reaching out to sources simply through Facebook, whether by posting for his network to help or by reaching out to particular groups.

Cohn shared the story of Justin Martin, a college student with cerebral palsy whom he interviewed in 2017 when the Affordable Care Act was threatened with repeal. ACA repeal would have affected not only the previously uninsured, Cohn wrote, but also people on Medicaid, because congressional proposals called for altering the Medicaid financing system. Martin’s equipment and services that help him attend college were funded by Medicaid, and some congressional proposals would have limited that funding. “It’s almost incomprehensible what would my life look like without these services, because there would be no ‘my life’ without these services,” Martin told Cohn.

Cohn’s reporting process, as he describes it, began with starting at the big picture of Medicaid, then “finding the little picture”—a person’s story that revealed the complexities even policymakers and advocates may not know.

Christine MacDonald, reporter at The Detroit News, discussed the outlet’s 2013 investigation of the City of Detroit and its overtaxation of homes. Improperly assessed home values led to residents losing their homes through tax foreclosure because they could not pay expensive—and inaccurate—property taxes. More than a third of properties in the city have gone through tax foreclosure, she says.

MacDonald was part of a recent project that sought to quantify exactly how much people were overtaxed. Between 2010 and 2016, reporters found that the city overtaxed Detroiters by at least $600 million.

“Many people are still facing the loss of their homes from the tax foreclosure process,” MacDonald reminds us. Indeed, 90 percent of the approximately 63,000 people who are currently facing tax foreclosure were overtaxed. With an online tool, residents can look their addresses up themselves and see The Detroit News’ estimate of their overtaxation, bringing this far-reaching issue to scale at the individual household level. Despite this reporting, the city has no plan to compensate homeowners.

Public policy, and its concomitant long lists of regulations and laws, can be sometimes be dull. But reporters can look at how policy shows up in people’s lives to better inform the public about social welfare and poverty.