by: Rich Kane
To residents of the other 49 states, Wisconsin’s lenient drunk driving laws might seem shocking.
Police-run sobriety checkpoints are illegal. It’s the only state that doesn’t criminalize a first offense for drunk driving (the penalty is a fine). More than one-third of all Wisconsin drivers convicted of “operating while intoxicated” (OWI) have been convicted before—sometimes more than 12 times. Bills designed to strengthen OWI violations are consistently killed in the state legislature. Walk around some cities in the Badger State, and you’ll inevitably spot someone modeling a “Drink Wisconsinably” t-shirt.
With this background, John Ferak and the Gannett Wisconsin Media investigative team he leads decided to do something about it. The results were released in November—a deeply reported series, titled “Under the Influence,” and including multiple video segments and interactive graphics, exploring the state’s drinking culture and the problems it spawns, which ran in all 10 of Gannett’s Wisconsin newspapers and websites. The series can be found online at post.cr/1xyFgkc.
“One thing that kept coming up over and over was, ‘Joe Smith Arrested for Eighth OWI,’ and a week later, another paper would say someone was arrested for his sixth offense,” said Ferak. “These were fairly common, and these people served such a small amount of jail time. Our hope and intention with the series was that it would draw some attention from the public and state lawmakers.”
That, it has.
In January, prompted by “Under the Influence,” two state lawmakers crafted a bill that would permanently revoke the driving privileges of repeat OWI offenders. The fate of this bill had yet to be determined as E&P went to press, but the political response is certainly indicative of the power of advocacy journalism.
The series spawned a thought-provoking panel discussion that was live-streamed on the Web. It was also turned into an e-book, copies of which were delivered to the offices of every state politician by lead reporter Shereen Siewert.
“The overwhelming feedback we got was positive,” Ferak said. “The feeling from readers was that we need state lawmakers to do something, that this shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat issue. We wanted it to be about repeat drunk driving and ask why someone even gets the opportunity to have a tenth driving offense.”
Ferak said all 10 of Gannett’s Wisconsin papers were able to localize “Under the Influence” in some way, making the topic even more compelling.
“I really believe in collaboration, especially these days when newspapers are strapped for cash and investigative journalism gets cut. But at the same time, readers are clamoring for good investigative projects. So we utilized the talents within our company—people who may not be on the investigating team, but they know graphics or video. My hope would be that we would do at least a handful of projects like this that would make a similar splash across our state. The longer we work together, the more we learn how to do better investigative journalism.”