Journalism That Makes a Difference: Keep Going Back to the Story, Again and Again

By Jack Limpert

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The first followup story on how lead was poisoning kids in Washington, D.C.

Front page headline in the May 1 Washington Post:

Lead poisoning is ‘toxic legacy’ that still haunts Freddie Gray’s Baltimore

The Post story describes how Freddie Gray, who was injured in police custody and then died, sparking days of rioting, grew up in a Baltimore house with lead paint chips flaking off the walls. From the story:

“A child who was poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” Norton said. She called lead poisoning Baltimore’s “toxic legacy”—a still-unfolding tragedy with which she says the city has yet to come to terms.
Ten years ago Washington, D.C., faced similar lead poisoning problems.

The cover head on the August 2006 Washingtonian:

Why Lead Is Still Hurting Our Children

The 17-page story, by John Pekkanen, laid out in detail the lead paint problem in Washington, D.C., and how little was being done about it. At the end of the story, Pekkanen wrote: “Until real progress occurs, the District government, like others around the country, will fail to protect many of its children from lead poisoning.”

A year later, with little progress being made in the District, Pekkanen came back in August 2007 with a followup Washingtonian story. The head and deck:

Time for Less Talk, More Action

Last August we wrote about how lead poisons too many of DC’s children—and what should be done to end the tragedy. One year later—with a new mayor—are children being protected?

The story’s conclusion:

Will these efforts succeed in protecting children in the nation’s capital from being poisoned by lead?

“Unlike many of the District’s problems, child lead poisoning can be eliminated,” Newton says. “So far, the new city administration has taken some positive steps. Many more are needed, and the commitment has to be sustained for many more years because that’s what it’s going to take.”

A year later, with some progress being made, Pekkanen came back in August 2008 with another followup Washingtonian story. The head and deck in the magazine:

Getting the Lead Out?

The Fenty administration finally is taking steps to address DC’s lead-poisoning epidemic. But children are still being needlessly harmed. Will city officials do what it takes to save more kids from brain damage?

The story’s conclusion:

Erville is optimistic. “The federal government has declared 2010 as the year to end lead poisoning of levels ten and above,” he says. “We’re well on our way to meeting that goal. I’m not guaranteeing we’ll meet it, but at least we’re now in a position to try.”
Here’s how John Pekkanen, who won two National Magazine Awards in the 1980s for his Washingtonian stories, remembers his reporting on lead poisoning of children:

“I did the stories because it became apparent to me after looking into childhood lead exposure in DC back in 2005 that the city had failed and continued to fail to protect its children from this powerful neurotoxin that caused poor school performance and a propensity for violent behavior during adolescence.

“This was a story of bureaucratic ineptitude and neglect on the part of the DC government that resulted in harm to thousands of DC kids. This was allowed to happen despite the continued prodding of the DC Joint Lead Screening Advisory Committee and other citizen groups that tried to get the city to do a better job on lead screening for kids and forcing property owners to do lead abatement on their properties.

“The first article in August 2006 jogged the agencies charged with decreasing lead paint exposure but did not do much beyond that. So I decided to do a followup article in August 2007 and let the city agencies know it in hopes they would be more responsive.

“I did a third article the following August. Finally there were discernable results. People who had failed in their job were either fired or reassigned and the city hired Pierre Erville, who came with a very good reputation on dealing with lead exposure issues. From that point on the city took childhood lead exposure more seriously, both in childhood lead screening and lead paint abatement of older housing.”
Looking back on my years editing the Washingtonian, I wish we had done more followup stories. On many of the city’s problems, we did one good story but then left it at that, hoping there would be change.

With lead poisoning of children, John Pekkanen made it clear to the DC government that we were going to come back again and again to report on what action they were taking or not taking. It made a difference.



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