Longreads Best of 2015: Investigative Reporting

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in investigative reporting.

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Lauren Kirchner
Senior Reporting Fellow at ProPublica.

The Price of Nice Nails (Sarah Maslin Nir, The New York Times)

I can’t remember another investigation that had as much widespread and immediate impact as this one. Through a year of persistent and patient reporting, Nir uncovered the ugly truth of New York’s nail salon industry: the labor exploitation, institutionalized racism, and dire health risks faced by its manicurists. It was an explosive story, but Nir told it with restraint. When this came out, everyone I knew was talking about it. Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio both pretty much immediately launched emergency task forces and investigations to address the problems Nir described. Reforms continue to roll out for salon owners who put their workers at risk.

But I noticed a subtler impact, too: some real soul-searching among New Yorkers about the ethics of indulging in cheap luxuries—for many of us, the only luxuries we can afford. A lot of readers were asking themselves, how could we have not have seen it? “We hold hands with this person for a half hour; we look into her eyes,” as Nir later put it. “I think my investigation revealed that we are not seeing them.”

Shaken Science (Debbie Cenziper and many others, The Washington Post)

The Post had to have a lot of guts to take on a topic as fraught as Shaken Baby Syndrome, the (now) controversial diagnosis that has landed countless innocent parents and caretakers in jail over the past four decades. “The diagnosis gave a generation of doctors a way to account for unexplained head injuries in babies and prosecutors a stronger case for criminal intent when police had no witnesses, no confessions and only circumstantial evidence.” Working with Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, the Post team examined 1,800 SBS cases since 2001, to show how many questions have been raised after the fact, and how little consensus there now is for the science SBS was supposedly based on. The series includes heartbreaking interviews from both sides of the debate, and graphics that inform and explain in a non-overwhelming way. It’s incredibly thorough, totally readable, and devastating.


Mark Lotto
Editorial lead, Medium, and proprietor of Matter.

Cosby: The Women (Noreen Malone, Photos: Amanda Demme, New York Magazine)

It’s been described as a feat of Mossian magazine-making, an innovative multimedia, multi-platform package, a site-crashing cover story—and it’s all those things, it is. But those monumental compliments also obscure the truly impressive thing about “Cosby: The Women”: Noreen Malone’s reporting—her painstaking, sensitive, rigorous, expansive, mind-blowing reporting. It must have taken months and untold reserves of will for her to find and interview these women, to gather their stories, shape them, bear witness to their pain. In her own words, from her intro: “The group of women Cosby allegedly assaulted functions almost as a longitudinal study—both for how an individual woman, on her own, deals with such trauma over the decades and for how the culture at large has grappled with rape over the same time period.” There it is: Not a cleverly packaged cover story about a dark-side celebrity, but a longitudinal study conducted over decades, reported over months, about trauma and silence and the culture that allowed it.

The Counted: People Killed By the Police in the US (The Guardian) & Investigation: Police Shootings (The Washington Post)

The Guardian has done extraordinary, laudable work compiling its database of all police shootings in 2015; The Washington Post’s investigation was equally impressive, and they’ve generated a lot of great stories out of it and around it. These databases are necessary, but they can also run the risk of reducing a lot of human beings to digestible stats and scrollable infographics. So I’m mostly putting them down because I can’t say “Twitter and Facebook, and millions of people on them.” On these social platforms, activists and bystanders with their cell cameras and invested, inventive journalists and terrified young people are pulling together a devastating investigation into an institutional crime as big and old as the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals. On these social platforms, those databases are updated live, with another terrible video, another needless death, on those social platforms, victims are given back their humanity and voice. As Stacia L. Brown wrote in her heart-aching Buzzfeed piece, “Why I Facebook Stalk Black Teenagers.”: “It’s a powerful and chilling development: young people of color sharing what could become their last will and testament. They’re shooting cell phone footage that could be admissible in the trials that follow their deaths. They’re erecting memorials in their own honor, typing micro-obituaries.”

Ghost Boat (Eric Reidy, Medium)

In the Spotlight-ish movie adaptation of “Ghost Boat,” I’m played by the John Slattery figure, the well-meaning editor who doesn’t quite see what we had at first and is half-annoyed to keep hearing the pitch. The mysterious disappearance of 243 refugees in the Mediterranean? How do you even tell a story without an ending? I didn’t have any clue, which is why I feel comfortable recommending the story here. But Medium editor and Matter co-founder Bobbie Johnson and Tunisia-based reporter Eric Reidy did: Make it as honest, open, and alive as possible.

“Ghost Boat” tackles a gargantuan, global topic through a new kind of live, crowdsourced reporting. The serialized, episode-a-week approach draws in the audience. Literally draws them in: Experts, amateurs, J-school students, have all joined together—even as the story spreads from smugglers in Libya, to fishermen in Tunisia, to legal sources in Italy who leak wiretaps—to find leads and chase down theories and understand, really feel, all the complexity and frustration of this investigation.

There have been haunting, affecting, immersive moments throughout. At one point, having uncovered a garbage dump in Tunisia that’s been turned into a mass grave, Reidy questions what he’s seeing—and pinpoints exactly why this story, this approach, this moment is so goddamn important.

“Walking over the nondescript ground, I was imagining the bodies buried in piles under my feet. Those corpses had an identity—they were people. And those people had families, friends, loved ones, maybe children, who, like the Ghost Boat families, are in limbo: suspended by nagging questions.”


Ariella Cohen
Editor-in-chief at Next City.

Revenge Killing (Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker)

Wow. This New Yorker piece by Rachel Aviv made me text my Louisianian African-American husband a thank you for not allowing me to try to move us back to Louisiana to raise our family. It made me cry. It made me send a small donation to the Innocence Project.

You hear a whole lot about the racism of our criminal justice system, and in the past 16 months, I feel like not a day has gone by without a headline about some racist police action or another. But this story drilled into the sickness infecting American courtrooms in such a way that you would have to be Donald Trump to leave the story without recognizing the need for change. Sometimes I get annoyed at the way the New Yorker writes about the South—it can feel condescending and like everyone is either a charmingly non-threatening retro figure or a Victim of American Oppression who we in the North should contemplate with sensitivity as we book Airbnb reservations for our upcoming visit to the new hipster New Orleans. But with this story I had no such thoughts. Aviv is an empathetic writer and the lives she lets us into— except for that of the monster district attorney whose blood thirst for black men is at the center of the piece— are presented with dignity and grace. Following the article’s publication in July, the DA announced he would not run for reelection and this month, the parish’s first Black DA was sworn in. That is powerful journalism.

Tenants Take the Hit as New York Fails to Police Huge Housing Tax Break (Marcelo Rochabrun and Cezary Podkul​, ProPublica)

My inner watchdog has a huge crush on this story. I measure the value of investigative pieces in their power for public impact and with this piece, Pro Publica served the city of New York a political hand grenade that can’t be ignored.

Reporters Marcelo Rochabrun and Cezary Podkul exposed how the city’s failure to police the use of a controversial tax break enabled a prominent developer to illegally raise rents on tenants while reaping millions of dollars in subsidy for providing the rent protections they flouted. It was a juicy scoop and timely in two key ways. One, the tax break—421-A—is now being negotiated in Albany so lawmakers have an opportunity to push for reforms and two, the developer, Two Trees Management and the city recently signed on another affordable housing deal. Like the best investigative journalism, this piece had humans at the center—there was no abstraction around who the public malfeasance in question was harming. Now, I don’t know how Pro Publica came to this story, but I like the fact that it was published with a call for New Yorkers to text in their own rent troubles. It would be interesting to know if this story was crowd-sourced. All in all, this is the kind of watchdog reporting that every city needs.


Longreads Editor’s Pick: Mike Dang
@reportermike

Whatsoever Things Are True (Matthew Shaer, Atavist)

Matthew Shaer spent several months speaking to dozens of people while looking into a story of how two men were separately convicted and exonerated, years apart, for a double murder in 1982. The story takes you to unexpected places with its string of reversals, investigation into the investigators, and exposure of a limited criminal-justice system. Shaer found himself unraveling details until the minute he filed his story. “When I started the reporting process, 11 months ago,” he writes in his intro, “I assumed that every new interview would bring me, in a straight line, one step closer to solving the case. But more often than not, as the red light on my recorder went dim, I encountered new alleys, new questions, new ways of interpreting the available evidence.” In the end, a very convoluted story is masterfully pieced together.


 

Longreads Editor’s Pick: Mark Armstrong
@markarms

How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes (Justin Elliott and Laura Sullivan, ProPublica & NPR)

Whether it’s a business, government or charity, following the money almost inevitably leads to indications of waste. But Justin Elliott and Laura Sullivan’s account of mismanagement with the Red Cross’s efforts in Haiti is still shocking in how millions of dollars and seemingly good intentions can lead to corruption and “a cycle of overhead” where no one in need actually benefits.

On the bright side for nonprofits: One of the most promising trends in journalism has been the continued rise of specialized 501(c)(3) organizations dedicated to investigative journalism—the above piece is just one example of the outstanding work being done by ProPublica, The Marshall Project, Mother Jones, and The Trace, to name just a few. They’re all worthy of your holiday gift-giving this year.

See the entire Longreads Best of 2015 Collection.