Detroit Free Press stories that made a difference in 2021

After such a difficult year in 2020, we had hoped to be in a better place by now — the end of 2021. Still, this year brought hope. 

It came in the form of a vaccine, and our deliberate, fact-based reporting that addressed people’s hesitations without judgment helped many make the decision to get the shot and convince others to do the same. In the spring when shots were scarce, one tweet from our reporter covering the vaccine rollout helped dozens to get immunized at Ford Field that very day.

It came in the form of donations, from readers who paid off a grandmother’s home to another who paid off a widow’s car repair bill.

It came in the form of water filters for Benton Harbor, jobs for veterans, university accountability and state government reinforcing transparency in an increasingly encrypted world.

The most important thing we do here at the Free Press is help to make our communities better. It’s our company mission and our test as a newsroom on guard for the people of Michigan. While we reach millions, we measure our impact as real-world change. 

Sometimes, too, that comes in the form of a reporter, standing on a woman’s porch and explaining her rights, giving her the information she needed to save her home from foreclosure. 

Through steps big and small, and with each other’s help, we will see change. 

Here are the stories that made a difference in 2021, told by journalists at the Free Press:  

An LGBTQ civil rights coalition in March called on state officials to formally investigate serious allegations involving the rape and further abuse of a transgender woman in a Michigan prison and require the Michigan Department of Corrections to train its staff regarding transgender cultural competency and adherence to the law after we reported on the woman’s allegations and her lawsuit. Furthermore, it said the MDOC should join other states that provide the option of housing transgender people who are incarcerated in correctional facilities that are in accordance with their gender identity. The LGBTQ civil rights coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan; Affirmations LGBTQ Community Center; Equality Michigan; LGBT and Allies Caucus; OutCenter of Southwest Michigan; OutFront Kalamazoo; Ruth Ellis Center; the Rev. Lindsey Anderson, Love Rising Lutheran Church in Detroit; Matthew Bode, faith leader in Detroit; Stand with Trans, and Trans Sistas of Color Project. The MDOC has declined to comment.

Legislature moves to ban use of text messaging encryption apps by state agencies

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a bill passed by the Michigan House and Senate banning the use on state-issued phones of text messaging encryption apps that can be used to evade the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, told a Senate committee he saw the need for the bill after reading a series of articles in the Free Press about the use of Signal by top officials at the Michigan State Police. Signal is an “end-to-end” encryption app, meaning it bypasses the state server and the company that provides the app keeps no record of the text messages sent. Once deleted, text messages sent using Signal are essentially gone without a trace — evading both the Michigan Freedom of Information Act and legal discovery.

Ford continues to pay drivers affected by DPS6 transmissions years after our investigation; AG joins case Michelle Hughes looks out the window toward her Ford Fiesta in Flint in 2019. Michelle Hughes looks out the window toward her Ford Fiesta in Flint in 2019. “It got me to and from work for quite a few years and now it just sits in the driveway,” Hughes said about the car plagued with a transmission problem. “I trusted Ford and I shouldn’t have.”
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

Two years after we published the “Out of Gear” investigation into Ford, we’re still hearing from grateful Focus drivers. “I wanted to let you know that today Ford bought my Focus back!! I’m very happy with my settlement — only a few thousand less than what I paid for it in 2014 —and more importantly, I’m glad to be rid of that lemon!  THANK YOU SO MUCH!  I’m indebted to you for your great work on this whole transmission fiasco.”  The investigation, first reported in July 2019, shows Ford knew before putting Focus and Fiesta cars on the road that the transmissions used in them for nearly a decade were defective. In the wake of our reporting:

  • Three members of Congress immediately called for federal safety regulators to investigate. 
  • Ford extended the warranty on 600,000 of the vehicles’ transmissions in August 2019. 
  • A federal judge approved a class-action settlement in March 2020 that requires Ford to buy back vehicles for up to $22,000 apiece and spend a minimum of $30 million in payments to owners and former owners who may not qualify for the buyback program.

In February, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel joined half a dozen county prosecutors in filing a legal brief urging the state Supreme Court to hear a case against Ford brought by consumers who say the company violated the state’s consumer protection statute. “Consumers will benefit from this Court hearing this case and correcting a long-standing misinterpretation of consumer-protection law,” Nessel wrote in the brief. The case involves an estimated 12,000 consumers from Michigan and throughout the U.S. who opted out of the class action and chose to sue Ford on their own.

Ford develops policy of lending F-150s with generators 

The Free Press was the first media outlet to report the use of F-150 generators during a February storm that left Texans trapped for days without electricity, heat or lights or the ability to run refrigerators or stoves despite freezing temperatures. After Ford saw this and an 18% spike in online searches for the F-150, the company developed a policy of lending the trucks during crises. F-150 owner Randy Jones, whose story went global after ours hit the wire, credited us with inspiring Ford to react. “I just can’t believe all the coverage you have created. … Many others have shared stories using their trucks similarly now. I guess you started a ‘Movement.’ … Ford’s quick decisions may have helped someone and their family during a rough time. I can’t help but give you some credit for that.” 

Youth sailing program receives a $5,000 charitable gift from a reader Sailor Tim Prophit of St. Clair Shores gets his boat 'Fast Tango' ready for his next race from Port Huron to Mackinac Island in July 2021.Sailor Tim Prophit of St. Clair Shores gets his boat ‘Fast Tango’ ready for his next race from Port Huron to Mackinac Island in July 2021.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

Challenge the Wind, a nonprofit youth sailing program, received a $5,000 gift from a reader in metro Detroit after we wrote about sailor Tim Prophit and his support of the program. The organization reaches out to families through schools, churches and community centers. Now about 50 kids and 30 adults (predominantly families of color) who might otherwise never think of sailing are learning each summer on Detroit’s waterfront. “Tim is the kind of person who doesn’t talk talk talk but do do do,” said Harry Jones, the program’s director. He and Prophit work together to grow and diversify the sailing community in metro Detroit. People in the program crew on boats from Bayview, Detroit Boat Club and Crescent Yacht Club in Grosse Pointe.

Story makes a difference for veterans, abuse survivorsJim Conner, from left, Ford 3D process director, helps Nathaniel Crawford II and Jarret Schlaff, co-owners of Pingree Detroit, prepare to transport thousands of dollars in donated leather hides.Jim Conner, from left, Ford 3D process director, helps Nathaniel Crawford II and Jarret Schlaff, co-owners of Pingree Detroit, prepare to transport thousands of dollars in donated leather hides.
Charlotte Bodak for Ford Motor Co.

Sales boomed at two Detroit businesses — one that employs and benefits military veterans and another that employs and supports female abuse survivors — after we wrote about Ford giving them $100,000 in leftover leather it found while demolishing one of its buildings. Pingree Detroit hired more veterans and needed to bring on a second shift to meet demand for its leather coasters, footwear and other items. “Thanks for being the difference,” co-founder and CEO Jarret Schlaff wrote. 

$3M Milan Dragway sale closes, getting everyone’s bills paid David Ploucha, a potential buyer, walks down the bleachers at Milan Dragway in London Township in July 2021.David Ploucha, a potential buyer, walks down the bleachers at Milan Dragway in London Township in July 2021.
Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

Following months of uncertainty, Milan Dragway has been liquidated and the money used to pay some $2.5 million in unpaid bills and liens. The goal of the sale was also to turn the 136-acre property 50 miles southwest of Detroit over to a buyer who would execute a vision for the little farming community that has known the sound of race cars since 1963. Racers were devastated when it closed. “Oh my God, it’s everything Harold has been wanting his whole life,” said Elizabeth Devine, whose husband, Harold Bullock, bought the track. “Everything we do revolves around racing and motors.” The attorney handling the sale said the Free Press story made a difference.

Box company gets inquiries from all over the world after story highlights innovative design P2Packaging owner Rudy Youell sits with a couple versions of his P2 product box that are assembled at Anchor Bay Packaging in New Baltimore in September 2021.P2Packaging owner Rudy Youell sits with a couple versions of his P2 product box that are assembled at Anchor Bay Packaging in New Baltimore in September 2021.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

Rudy Youell, 64, of Columbus, Ohio, patented a simple-yet-unique box design called P2 Packaging in 2016 that’s now licensed to companies in Michigan, South Carolina and Indianapolis and used to ship car parts all over the U.S. and the world. On average, each box design may be reused six times, according to the company and two customers we interviewed. By custom designing it to carry hundreds and thousands of car parts, there is no empty space that requires filler. Or, in the words of packaging experts, no one is paying to transport air inside the boxes. Every inch is packed. Fewer boxes transport more materials. Fewer people are needed to haul fewer packages. Less factory space is needed to store boxes. Recycling costs plummet. The impact on the environment, too, is notable. Companies everywhere contacted Youell after a story in the Free Press went global. “What’s wild is I’ve had inquiries from Germany, Belgium, UK, India, Spain, Italy, France,” he said. “You got the word out globally!”

Readers pay off family’s homeColandra Boyd-Hopson had been buying her home through a land contract when we wrote about her in 2021, but she risked eviction due to the ongoing pandemic and losing her husband to COVID-19.Colandra Boyd-Hopson had been buying her home through a land contract when we wrote about her in 2021, but she risked eviction due to the ongoing pandemic and losing her husband to COVID-19.
Antranik Tavitian, Detroit Free Press

An anonymous couple donated $16,500 to pay off a Detroit woman’s home after reading about her in the Free Press. Colandra Boyd-Hopson, whose husband died of the coronavirus last year, lives in the house with her mom and sister, both of whom have cerebral palsy, and her daughter and grandson. They were close to losing the home when the donors stepped in. “Sitting on sidelines, when we could do something, wasn’t an option,” they told us. Boyd-Hopson said she’s “really grateful that someone found it in their heart to help us because it would have been really, really bad if we had not received that help.”

Grandmother avoids losing her home over $11,000 in back debt after reporters show up on her porch and explain her rights Alexandria McCurtis, from left, Xavier Johnson, 14, Darius McCurtis and Sebastian McCurtis, 3, faced foreclosure in April 2021 on the Detroit home that had been handed down to them by her grandfather.Alexandria McCurtis, from left, Xavier Johnson, 14, Darius McCurtis and Sebastian McCurtis, 3, faced foreclosure in April 2021 on the Detroit home that had been handed down to them by her grandfather.
Antranik Tavitian, Detroit Free Press

When a Free Press analysis showed about a third of Detroit homeowners still carried more than $95 million in tax debt despite a program designed to help, reporters hit the streets and knocked on doors. One woman who answered their knock was Callie Logan. A 68-year-old grandmother who collects only $610 a month from Social Security, she had more than $11,000 in back debt and had never heard of the tax break. Reporters explained her rights and she was able to wipe all the debt away. “I’ve been so worried about losing my home,” Logan said. “There was a lot I didn’t know. I wasn’t trying to dig in and get anyone to do something for me. I just wanted to save my house from foreclosure.” For help applying, go to waynemetro.org/propertytax or call 313-244-0274.

Woman avoids eviction when reporters explain new pandemic rules, resourcesNeva Green of Melvindale was facing eviction in November 2021 after she had to stop working at a group home when she got COVID-19.Neva Green of Melvindale was facing eviction in November 2021 after she had to stop working at a group home when she got COVID-19.
Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press

People were being evicted from their homes back in December 2020 despite government-mandated protections for renters during the coronavirus pandemic, many because some judges were ignoring the new rules. As a part of the reporting, we helped a woman avoid eviction by explaining the new rules to her and connecting her with resources. A judge had failed to do that when Neva Green appeared in court. “You don’t know what to do,” said Green, 51, of Melvindale. “I didn’t know anything about the programs.” She admits she didn’t notice the number for legal help on her eviction notice. “I was so depressed and stressed. I can’t work, I done caught this and they about to kick me out. Where am I going to go?” Green qualified for a no-cost attorney and applied for aid. The state paid $2,900 to her apartment complex for her past debt and some of her future rent, her lawyer said. 

Michigan sends water, filters to Benton Harbor as news media draw attention to elevated lead levels in water 

The state of Michigan is providing bottled water, going door-to-door to ensure distribution and proper installation of faucet lead filters and testing of the blood-lead levels of children after 20 nonprofit organizations appealed to the federal government to take action and several media organizations, including the Free Press, amplified their call. The ongoing exposure to high lead levels for Benton Harbor residents, 85% of whom are Black, hearkened many back to the Flint water crisis of 2014, and was framed as an environmental justice issue. Since fall 2018, more than 60 homes in the city of 10,000 people have tested for lead levels in their drinking water that exceed the federal government’s action level of 15 parts per billion. One home tested for 889 parts per billion, nearly 60 times the federal safety limit. Government has failed residents at every level for years, said Nick Leonard, an attorney with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. Tips: [email protected]

Eastern Michigan University launches efforts to combat sexual assault; Dingell introduces billFive women who came forward to testify about the sexual assault they experienced while at Eastern Michigan University now lean on one another for support.Five women who came forward to testify about the sexual assault they experienced while at Eastern Michigan University now lean on one another for support.
Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press

Eastern Michigan University announced an audit of its Title IX program in 2020 amid our questioning and reporting on numerous sexual assault reports at the school. Following an illuminating Free Press sex assault investigation, the filing of more charges and federal lawsuits, the university is now taking multiple steps to quell campus sexual assaults including:

  • Mandatory Title IX training for students.
  • Expanded bystander training.
  • The creation of survivor handbooks.
  • The creation of an employee resource guide.
  • Trauma-informed response training.
  • Clery Act training for 100-plus university administrators.
  • The return of a program to escort students or employees on campus during late-night hours. 

Additionally, following our reporting on sexual assaults reported at EMU, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, introduced legislation to force schools to investigate rumors of assault, not just reports, and lower the bar to make them liable if they don’t. 

Mis- and disinformation reporting cited in Election Integrity Partnership report on 2020 electionElection officials process absentee ballots at Detroit's TCF Center in November 2020.Election officials process absentee ballots at Detroit’s TCF Center in November 2020.
Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press

Free Press coverage was cited in “The Long Fuse: Misinformation and the 2020 Election,” a report by the Election Integrity Partnership on its findings and recommendations for future actions. The Digital Forensic Research Lab, Graphika, Stanford Internet Observatory and the Center for an Informed Public formed the partnership to defend the 2020 election against voting-related mis- and disinformation. This coverage was funded by a grant from the American Press Institute.

People get vaccinated against COVID-19 when shots were scarce

The state health agency asked our health reporter to alert people through social media that there were extra doses of COVID-19 vaccines for people who could get to Ford Field in Detroit before 6 p.m. She tweeted it, and the response was mind-blowing: 1.27 million impressions, 62,542 engagements and — best of all — dozens of people responded saying it helped them get shots during March, when doses of vaccine were still scarce and people were driving hours to find one. 

Pandemic religion coverage archived at Western Michigan

Several Free Press stories about how the pandemic affected churches, killed religious leaders and altered how bodies are handled after death have been archived at Western Michigan University. The articles are now part of the university’s research project “Pandemic Response and Religion in the United States” and available for public viewing in a scholarship database. 

Reader pays Flint widow’s $3,000 car repair bill 

A reader paid off a Flint widow’s $3,000 car repair bill after learning about her story while reading about IRS troubles and tax refund delays related to the pandemic. “Is the car going to break down before the money gets here?” asked Tonya Williams, 69, who is raising her two grandchildren. “I pray a lot, let me say that.” Her tax return was filed Feb. 27 and as of late November she had yet to receive her federal income tax refund and continued to face delays.

Alternatives for Girls gets $1,000 in donations and a monthly donorJames Maier is a volunteer with the Alternatives for Girls outreach team.James Maier is a volunteer with the Alternatives for Girls outreach team.
Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

Alternatives for Girls, a Detroit nonprofit that helps homeless and high-risk girls and young women avoid violence, teen pregnancy and exploitation, received $1,000 in donations and a monthly donor after a story explained their street outreach. The group hands out care packages and drug harm-reduction kits containing hygiene products, needle-cleaning kits, water, snacks, wipes, condoms and information. “People like to think that problems such as human trafficking don’t exist in their neighborhoods,” said volunteer Marissa Graziano, “but until you really see some of these statistics and experience it for yourself, you see that it is everywhere and it is in our backyards.”

Detroit police to add to sex crimes unit, encourage reporting

Shortly after the Free Press published a column calling for the Detroit Police Department to make reducing the rate of sexual assault a top priority, reach out to survivors and add staff to investigate sex crimes, Chief James White announced he would to add capacity and engage in a high-profile campaign intended to encourage survivors to file reports. For years prior, the DPD had downplayed sexual assault, touting reductions in other violent crimes and barely mentioning the rate of sexual assault complaints, which remain steady year over year — or increase. Sex assault stats have often been skipped at the Police Department’s weekly crime report to its civilian oversight board. Thirty personnel have been assigned to sex crimes, compared with 60 in homicide, even though rape happens three times as often.

Reporter’s case study included in U.S. Census Bureau’s training materials for journalists

The U.S. Census Bureau included a case study written by the Free Press in materials used to train other journalists to cover the 2020 decennial population count. In the training materials, we explain how journalists can use American Community Survey data to identify year-to-year changes in population and housing characteristics. This case study involved income trends in Michigan. 

Owner saves commercial properties from tax foreclosure 

An owner saved his commercial properties from tax foreclosure after an article published in collaboration with Outlier Media advised people to check the status of their properties. “Had I not happened to run across your article advising taxpayers to check the status of their delinquent issues, my properties could have been seized and sold at auction with no other warning,” Frank Imani Jamal said. Officials with the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office said more than 4,000 unoccupied properties and vacant land that owed at least three years’ worth of unpaid property taxes as of June were at-risk of foreclosure.

Coronavirus obituary series inspires donations, connects lost loved ones 

Our “We Will Remember” obituary series and memorial wall honors the lives and contributions of Michiganders who were not necessarily public figures or celebrities, but who were loved and made a difference in this world before dying of COVID-19-related complications. Nearly 750 names are on the wall and readers continue to reach out to thank us for providing a small bit of comfort during such a trying time. We’ve heard of many connections made through sharing these life stories, including a church that raised funds for seven children who lost their parents and a man who found his long-lost cousin. 

Student gets to be a reporter, writes essay on her experience at the Ford F-150 Lightning reveal

Thirteen-year-old Allegra Blackwood of Ann Arbor got the assignment of a lifetime when she was invited to shadow a reporter covering Ford’s reveal of the F-150 Lightning. Allegra hopes to one day become a professional journalist and an author. “It was magical,” she wrote in an article that published in the Free Press. Ford and UAW executives agreed on the spot to talk with her when she approached them at the event. These were not pre-arranged interviews. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that they would take me seriously. I was just a young girl with a dream of being a writer.”

Vaccine project persuades dozens to get vaccinatedTania Allen, who works as a neurodiagnostic technologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, talks in July 2021 about the slow recovery she has experienced since contracting COVID-19 in November 2020.Tania Allen, who works as a neurodiagnostic technologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, talks in July 2021 about the slow recovery she has experienced since contracting COVID-19 in November 2020.
Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press

A series of stories explaining the coronavirus vaccines and how they work, answered concerns carefully with nonjudgmental language and called for a “benevolent conspiracy” of the vaccinated to help the unvaccinated get shots gained national attention. More importantly, though, it made readers feel more empowered to make healthy decisions, changed opinions on the vaccine, convinced dozens to get vaccinated and gave hundreds the information they needed to persuade others to do so. Given that this is a highly polarizing issue and the vaccine first became available months before the series, leaving those without it largely hesitant or resistant at the time, we were encouraged to have convinced dozens — or maybe more than admitted so in a survey that accompanied the coverage. We distributed thousands of free copies of the 11-page print project throughout metro Detroit. The package was built with input from readers and Columbia University’s Health Language Lab to write from a place of empathy. To get a COVID-19 vaccine, text your ZIP code to 438829. 

McLaren Flint staff, family and friends gather during a candlelight memorial for Santa Staples, an RN at McLaren Flint who died from COVID-19, in November 2020.McLaren Flint staff, family and friends gather during a candlelight memorial for Santa Staples, an RN at McLaren Flint who died from COVID-19, in November 2020.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free PressNews tips 

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Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press. Twitter: @anjdelgado. 

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