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CIR’s VA backlog investigation got the president to change his tone

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Obama Veterans

President Barack Obama speaks at a White House event last week with musicians, members of the U.S. military, veterans and their families.

Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Suddenly, President Barack Obama had changed his tone.

From his 2008 campaign through 2012, the president made a point of characterizing the backlog of disability and benefits claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs in overwhelmingly positive terms. He spoke of the progress being made to address the backlog with new technology and additional funding.

But then, after a series of stories by The Center for Investigative Reporting about the VA’s failure to address what had become an overwhelming backlog of cases, the president’s message changed. First, he went silent. Then, months later, he returned to the issue with a new message of attack. His tone became more strident and instead of simply addressing the problem when asked, he cited the backlog in his 2014 State of the Union address.

“We’ll keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned and our wounded warriors receive the health care – including the mental health care – that they need,” Obama said in the speech.

As the media impact analyst at CIR, my job is to analyze the connections between our investigative reports and the real-world changes that result. In the wake of CIR’s investigative series into the long wait times veterans faced when submitting disability claims to the VA, there was real, substantive change.

I wanted to determine whether the actions taken to decrease the backlog were a result of CIR’s reporting, outside factors or a combination of the two.

While CIR was writing its stories – most of which ran between April 2012 and November 2013 – media across the country increasingly covered this issue. Advocacy organizations and individual constituents used the investigation to lobby members of Congress. Congress pressured Obama to take action and respond publicly. And, ultimately, the VA implemented reforms that resulted in dramatically fewer veterans waiting for a decision about their benefits.

The full case study analyzes the changes made following CIR reporter Aaron Glantz’s investigation into the VA backlog, the coverage’s position and role in the broader media context and congressional and presidential responses to the series. It also details the methodology I used to understand how CIR’s multiplatform content and distribution strategy significantly shifted the way Obama characterized the VA backlog.

The analysis provides compelling evidence that the investigative series introduced the VA backlog into the national mainstream media, while simultaneously providing a deeply reported data set to regional media across the country, allowing them to localize the story for their communities.

This two-pronged distribution – a so-called above-and-below approach – brought widespread attention to the backlog at a national level, empowered local newsrooms to make the story relevant to their audiences and provided the public with the information needed to hold public officials accountable for this systemic failure. It also ensured that from Washington to their home constituencies, members of Congress could not ignore the rolling thunder media storm.

CIR frequently employs the above-and-below approach. The evidence found through this case study suggests that it can be effective, especially for national issues of government accountability that Congress can help solve.

Download a PDF of the full case study here.

At CIR, we are committed to continuing to track, measure and communicate the processes that lead to these outcomes. Learn more about our ongoing impact analysis efforts here.   

Lindsay Green-Barber can be reached at lgreenbarber@cironline.org