2022 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Wires and Fires

About the Project

No signs of fire could be seen from the outside of the rental duplex on Milwaukee’s north side. Behind the walls of the upstairs unit, however, a stealthy fire smoldered and flooded the apartment with heavy smoke, killing Patricia Colston and Clarence Murrell.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter John Diedrich was at the scene that chilly Saturday morning in October 2019, as the fire lieutenant told the media it appeared to be a tragic accident.

The evidence pointed to faulty wiring. Yet local and state authorities failed to conduct electrical testing or investigate further, instead classifying the fire as “undetermined.”

Was the fire that killed Colston and Murrell really a mere accident?

Diedrich and fellow investigative reporters Raquel Rutledge and Daphne Chen set out to find the answer. Building their own datasets and drawing from dozens of interviews with regulators, fire experts, electrical engineers, landlords and tenants, the reporters showed the fire that killed Colston and Murrell was part of a widespread disparity in Milwaukee.

They discovered that suspected electrical fires are concentrated in Milwaukee’s most-distressed communities, which are almost entirely Black. In one such neighborhood, these fires ravaged single- and two-family rental units at five times the rate of the rest of the city, they calculated.

And little, they found, was done to prevent it. Officials don’t thoroughly investigate suspected electrical fires, and in Milwaukee, the residential rental inspection program had been dismantled.

The reporting team didn’t stop there. The reporters designed a randomized study to determine the scope of electrical hazards in the city’s rental units. They hired a master electrician to inspect properties and then hit the streets. Over summer, they fanned out through the hardest-hit neighborhoods, knocking on doors and offering tenants safety inspections of their electrical systems.

The Journal Sentinel study, supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center, revealed that city renters, especially Black residents, face a significant and elevated fire risk: exposed wiring, ungrounded and rusted electrical service panels, broken light switches and shorting outlets. Based on the methodology, the study indicated four of every five renters in the neighborhood lived in similarly hazardous conditions. The team also prompted landlords to do something the city had long failed to get them to do: fix the dangerous problems.

Next, the Journal Sentinel team turned the lens on the financial dynamics that perpetuate the problems. Obtaining rarely released rental assistance data, they painstakingly matched payments to electrical inspection data. The reporters discovered that taxpayer dollars flowed to landlords who repeatedly failed to fix electrical problems, allowing them to richly profit by renting unsafe units to desperate tenants.