The Shadows Under the Sun: 2016's Great San Diego Journalism - Voice of San Diego

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The Shadows Under the Sun: 2016's Great San Diego Journalism

A sampling of the journalism from local and national outlets that impressed us in 2016.

We’re proud of our work at Voice of San Diego, but we’re not the only news organization producing valuable journalism about our fair city and county.

Here’s a look at a sampling of the journalism that impressed us in 2016:

KPBS Uncovers a Transit System Mess

First, KPBS exposed the big weakness of the San Diego transit system’s Compass Card system: You can’t put money on the cards for single rides, even though other systems understand that “stored value as a way to make riding transit as convenient as possible.” The glitch makes the cards costly for those who don’t ride very often because they have to put money on the card that they may never use.

Then KPBS discovered that the Compass Card has security problems that put users at risk of identity theft — and taxpayers at risk of picking up the cost of any fraud. What happened? A local coalition of governments “appears to have greatly underestimated the full cost of having a functional, user-friendly and secure Compass Card,” KPBS says.

A Local Woman’s Fight for Justice

In a stunning story, the Daily Beast chronicled the extraordinary persistence of a San Diego rape victim who uncovered what prosecutors call a predatory ring “in the community of pickup artists — men who obsessively study and practice methods of meeting and sleeping with as many women as possible.” Her story reflects poorly on local cops, with a judge declaring that “obviously, we know that the police dropped the ball.” Among other things, it took police three years to test the victim’s rape kit.

• Thanks to a dive into public records, NBC 7 discovered that the Sheriff’s Department has scanned at least 8 million license plates since 2014, and it got “hits” on about 1,600 stolen vehicles.

Apparently, a database can tell officers about the locations of drivers whose license plates were scanned by cameras installed on vehicles or along roads. The data is stored for 12 months; officers don’t need a warrant to dig into the data. And if you’re wondering whether you’ve been tracked as you tool around town, don’t bother asking: They won’t tell you.

KQED’s “The California Report” dug into San Diego County’s disturbingly high number of jail suicides as part of an investigation of the challenges facing prisons and jails as they house more mentally ill inmates.

The Guardian closely examined San Diego’s controversial curfew crackdown: “we see our youth being harassed daily,” says a barber shop owner.

The Homeless Get a Fierce Defender

Until fairly recently, San Diego’s homeless lacked defenders in the local media outside of the weekly alternative paper CityBeat. Now, U-T columnist Dan McSwain is using his platform to passionately speak up for the homeless and shame politicians for failing to do enough.

In one recent column, McSwain tells the story of a pregnant woman who was discovered to be in labor on the streets of downtown but refused medical help. Another homeless woman examined her, and she finally agreed to go to the hospital, where she presumably gave birth. McSwain assumes the woman is mentally ill, perhaps one of the 10 percent of homeless who never recover.

“It’s those people, that chronic and hopeless tenth, who’ve been effectively abandoned by San Diego’s political leaders to its sidewalks, parks and canyons,” he writes. And while other big cities find solutions, the numbers suggest San Diego is a failure. “In our burgeoning failure to house the most vulnerable, San Diego stands alone. We are a national disgrace.”

Inewsource’s Deep Data Dives

Inewsource, a nonprofit local news outfit, ruled the roost in 2016 when it came to data-driven stories. Among other projects, it discovered that almost 20 percent of local school classrooms are portable (including 1,500 in San Diego Unified schools), revealed that many local doctors (including a stunning 84 percent at one hospital) accepted drug and device company payments and uncovered a big gap in the recovery of wages stolen from workers.

Inewsource also reported that “California school districts are back to issuing once notorious capital appreciation bonds after a short-lived decline. Districts also are changing the way they use more traditional bonds, which could foreshadow more trouble for schools’ finances.”

Restoring a Name to a Silent Man

California Sunday Magazine chronicles the long effort to identify a man, known only as “Sixty-Six Garage” for reasons that are lost to time, who lies in a vegetative state in a local nursing home. The story, titled “Two countries, thousands of families, and a 16-year quest to identify a silent man in a bed,” follows up on KPBS’s award-winning “Impossible Choice” investigation into the lives of thousands of Californians who are on life support.

A Missed Chance to Avert Sept. 11?

“The 9/11 attacks could have been derailed in San Diego, had the CIA not spiked a memo alerting the FBI about an Al Qaeda terrorist who was coming to the United States and ended up living here in 2000,” reported H.G. Reza, a VOSD contributor, in a Reader cover story.

Child Abuse and the Jehovah’s Witnesses

As we revealed a few years back, San Diego played a small if intriguing role in the history of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Now, San Diego is the face of the faith’s refusal to cooperate with those seeking to uncover its history of abuse.

In a series of stories, including one titled “How Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders hide child abuse secrets at all costs,” the Reveal investigative news outlet uncovers how the leadership of the faith has “has boldly defied court orders to turn over the names and whereabouts of alleged child sexual abusers across the United States.”

At the center of the allegations: Gonzalo Campos, “a Jehovah’s Witness who sexually abused at least seven children in San Diego congregations in the ’80s and ’90s. During that time, Watchtower leaders knew Campos was abusing children but did not report him to law enforcement, according to testimony by congregation elders. Instead, they promoted him to the position of elder.”

A local attorney who specializes in church abuse cases is pursuing 18 lawsuits against the church.

Rep. Duncan Hunter Keeps Reporters Busy

Persistent reporters are a godsend. Case in point: A steady drip of news stories raised more and more questions about spending of campaign funds by Rep. Duncan Hunter.

First came reports of spending on “video games, oral surgery, private school tuition, a garage door and unspecified items at a Coronado surf shop,” the U-T reported. Then the paper dug deeper and found “thousands of dollars of expenses such as groceries and gas fill-ups that could well be legitimate campaign expenses — but also have a lot in common with the expenses of a typical suburban family.”

Last month, the U-T discovered that Hunter “took out a third loan on his home to repay nearly $49,000 to his campaign account after months of scrutiny surrounding what appeared to be personal spending.”

Water Wars: A Town on the Brink

In a deeply reported story, Curbed Los Angeles went to the tiny desert town of Borrego Springs — which once dreamed of Palm Springs-style modernist glamour and glory — and discovered that its future “is essentially dependent on the future of its aquifer, and today, if the town’s citizens don’t find a way to cut their water use by about 70 percent, this small town is in danger of sucking it dry.”

• While San Diego water officials didn’t like the idea, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California debuted an expanded rebate program in 2014 to compensate water users who dumped their lawns. Bloomberg BusinessWeek uncovered an ugly truth: A company that had removed grass from 12,000 lawns spawned big complaints and went out of business after collecting $44 million.

Dental Coverage but No Dentists

The state has a dental program for the poor, but Capital Public Radio revealed that most dentists don’t accept the coverage, “leaving patients with impossible wait times that lead to expensive health consequences.”

San Diego Assemblyman Brian Maienschein has led efforts to fix the problem in the Legislature, but so far his bills have failed.

SEAL Deaths, One After Another

The Washington Post discovered that “a sailor has died in three out of the last four Navy SEAL training classes, with one drowning days ago during a pool exercise and another committing suicide in April after failing to complete one of the U.S. military’s most demanding training programs.” All the deaths occurred here.

“I think my son would do it all again if he could,” said the father of one of the men. “But it’s not right the way they are so careless about the well-being of a guy they’ve taken to the point of breaking and having broken him, to leave him unsupervised.”

Inside Our Sorry Sports Record

ESPN The Magazine and Outside the Lines offered the definitive story, circa February 2016, of the NFL’s desperate bid to restore a team, maybe the Chargers, to the nation’s second-largest market, Los Angeles. Note the description of Chargers CEO Dean Spanos that you don’t hear every day: “beloved owner.”

The data journalism site 538.com looked back at 50 years of football data and discovered that the Chargers, on top of all their many other problems, are “unprecedented late-game failures“: “This goes beyond simple ‘if the game ended after three quarters’-type stuff to encompass many types of bungling that can make a game closer than it had previously been.”

Meanwhile, in June, Esquire noted that San Diego “has gone a staggering 109 seasons without a major sport pro title.” Cleveland, the story says, “is no longer the saddest sports city in America.” We are, Esquire claims.

Hmm. Maybe perspective from other news outlets isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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