2020 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

Copy, Paste, Legislate

About the Project

The revelation that a pending bill was written by a corporation or special interest has sometimes sparked public protest and political pressure to scuttle the legislation. But more often than not, the true author’s identity has been kept secret. Our reporting effort, involving core staffers from three partner news organizations with support from several dozen newsrooms across the country, helped change that.

We traced the roots of the “heartbeat” abortion bills. We showed for the first time how widespread anti-Sharia bills (and others criticized as Islamophobic) have become. We traced the automotive industry’s attempts to shield itself from liability when defective cars cause deadly accidents. And we provided a way for the public to search legislation in their statehouse to see if it has been copied from elsewhere.

The news organizations also closely examined the lobbying efforts behind a number of these copied bills to show how special interests and corporations have shaped legislative efforts, often in surprising ways. Our stories revealed how model bills passed into law have made it harder for injured consumers to sue corporations, restricted the rights of protestors and forced local governments to ditch their own tough regulations on everything from puppy mills to gun control. And they showed for the first time which states, and which individual lawmakers, have most often backed these special-interest ideas.

These stories were often jointly reported by reporters in different newsrooms, guided by an editor in a third newsroom.

The first few pieces of the project were recognized in the 2019 Online Journalism Awards as a finalist for The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism. This year’s entry is subsequently published work, including digital tools, that build on our original, innovative data investigation of copycat legislation.