Illuminating shadows

Brian Sonenstein ’09 is an activist turned journalist who strives to uncover injustices through investigative reporting.

In August 2015, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Wheaton alum founded, an independent press organization whose mission is to expose systemic abuses of power in business and government.

“I became a journalist because I’ve always admired and depended on investigative reporters for my work as an activist,” said Sonenstein, who majored in international relations and Latin American studies at Wheaton. “I want to be such a resource for community advocacy and social change.”

At, Sonenstein investigates and writes regularly about U.S. corrections and criminal justice issues. Prior to that, he served in the roles of new media associate, campaign director and associate publisher at, an independent news site focused on advocacy journalism.

“I worked for a few years as an activist organizer before becoming a journalist. My work involved supporting protest movements like Occupy and policy reform efforts such as marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. Incarceration was a major, recurring theme throughout these and other campaigns, and it was pretty much exclusively a destructive force,” he said.

This motivated him to dig deeper into the extensive impacts of incarceration—including the social and financial burdens that come with every single imprisonment, he said.

This past year, Sonenstein published a three-part series titled “Gaming the System,” which explored the private inmate health care industry and a contractor accused of “gross and inhumane” misconduct against inmate-patients, he said.

“This series is the product of a three-month investigation involving analyses of hundreds of pages of contracts, medical documents, lawsuits and minutes from county meetings across the Midwest, as well as hours of interviews with families involved,” he said. “It has been cited in legal proceedings against the company, and has spurred news stories by other journalists and organizations.”

With newspapers consolidating through corporate acquisitions and also experiencing declining revenues, independent journalists and freelancers are taking up the mantle, he said.

Sonenstein said his time at Wheaton and the interactions he had with many professors there influenced and shaped the work he produces today.

“My study abroad experience in Nicaragua, which involved an independent reporting project on law enforcement, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that had a major impact on me,” he said.

Sonenstein also said that Wheaton professors’ focus on critical essays and analytical thought gave him the opportunity to hone his writing skills and develop intellectually as an individual.

“I loved the political theory, history and creative writing courses I took there, and feel like they helped me develop a critical lens and an interest in social movements,” he said.

Looking forward, Sonenstein plans to continue to develop as a relevant source of independent, reader-supported news by publishing quality, in-depth reporting in the public interest.

“I hope to continue to shed light on a wide spectrum of corruption and abuse,” he said.

More online

Read Sonenstein’s stories and other investigative reporting at