Longreads Best of 2016: Investigative Reporting

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

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Francesca Mari
Senior Editor at The California Sunday Magazine.

My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard (Shane Bauer, Mother Jones)

Hands down the best reporting I read all year is Shane Bauer’s “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.” Bauer applied for a job at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana; though, let’s be real, as you’ll learn from the piece, applications are hardly necessary. Winn, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the company that basically invented private prisons in the eighties, pretty much begged him to come onboard. After all, the pay is $9 an hour, the shifts are twelve hours long, and only some one-third of hires stick around. Bauer’s piece gets readers up to speed on the history of private prisons and their ubiquity today and takes readers deep into the particulars of the understaffed hellhole that is Winn–a place in which the guards, having so little support, are left to negotiate their own rules with prisoners. Bauer’s portrait of the prison community–and it is a community–is rich, illuminating without being condescending, in part because Bauer is, to some extent, a participant. Here’s a taste of an exchange between Bauer’s 19-year-old coworker, a kid all too keen to demonstrate his power named Collinsworth, and a prisoner he won’t deign to talk to:

“The best thing you could do is get to know people in the place.”
“I understand it’s your home,” Collinsworth says. “But I’m at work right now.”

“It’s your home for 12 hours a day! You trippin’. You ’bout to do half my time with me. You straight with that?”

“It’s probably true.”

“It ain’t no ‘probably true.’ If you go’ be at this bitch, you go’ do 12 hours a day.” He tells Collinsworth not to bother writing up inmates for infractions: “They ain’t payin’ you enough for that.” Seeming torn between whether to impress me or the inmate, Collinsworth says he will only write up serious offenses, like hiding drugs.

The Architect Who Became a Diamond (Alice Gregory, The New Yorker)

First of all–mini spoiler alert–you can make a diamond out of someone’s ashes! That’s just one of the odd little twists in Alice Gregory’s nail-biter about the most unlikely of nail-biter subjects–an architect’s archive. The architect in question is the very on-trend (and truly talented) Luis Barragán, who designed geometric buildings with vivid colors throughout Mexico. And the problem is that a Swiss manufacturing family owns his archive. The woman in that family for whom the archive was bought is determined to carefully catalog his work herself and protect his legacy and so she has refused to grant anyone access to his archive for the last two decades. This story is about a contemporary artist’s clever plot to persuade her otherwise. Gregory’s excellent structuring lends suspense and urgency to questions about how to best maintain a virtuoso’s legacy. Who should be allowed access to his archives and who should determine who should be allowed access?


Erika Hayasaki
An associate professor in the Literary Journalism Program at UC Irvine. She writes features for The Atlantic, Wired, Newsweek and others, and is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life.

Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks.(Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu and Lauren Kirchner, ProPublica)

Propublica had one of the best stories of the year with its investigation into machine bias and how it can impact minorities. Brilliantly reported and eye-opening, this piece shows how important it is to have experienced data journalists on staff doing investigative, longform reporting and writing. Propublica’s reporting exposed how algorithms work behind the scenes of our lives, with most of us not understanding the intricate programming or methodology that goes into it. In our blindness, these algorithms make decisions for us—and these decisions can have serious consequences. Biases and prejudices are built into machines and if more attention is not paid to this future, we will find ourselves in a scarier and perhaps more prejudiced and unequal society than ever before. Propublica’s ongoing reporting on this topic exposes this reality, warning us of what may happen if we don’t pay attention and keep the pressure on designers and creators of this technology to remain aware.

Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City (Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times Magazine

Sometimes an investigation that begins within your own life can lead to illuminating reporting about the world beyond. This is what Nikole Hannah-Jones’ reporting on choosing a school for her own daughter in a segregated city does so poignantly. It begins with a choice that many parents must face. When you are a parent of color, the idea of diversity in education is not as simple as “a boutique offering for the children of the privileged,” as Jones writes, one that “does little to ensure quality education for poor black and Latino children.” Intentional school integration, as she points out “almost never occurs unless it’s in the interests of white students.” Through her expert storytelling, she is able to weave the personal narrative choice with the historical and social backstory of segregation in American schools, making for a thoroughly researched and captivating read.


Azmat Khan
Investigative Reporter, New America Future of War Fellow.

My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard (Shane Bauer, Mother Jones)

In 1887, acting on rumors of abuse at the secretive “Women’s Lunatic Asylum” on New York’s Blackwell’s Island, a tenacious reporter named Nellie Bly decided to investigate the only way that she could: she feigned “insanity” in order to get inside. Her bombshell reports—published in Joseph Pulitzer’s paper The New York World, and her later book, “Ten Days In A Mad-House”—resulted in a grand jury investigation with enduring impacts, and changed the face of investigative journalism. Over the next century, undercover reporting became an important plank of investigative journalism, a method used when all other options at cracking an important story failed. But since the 90’s, when the grocer Food Lion famously sued ABC News for an undercover report, this once-essential part of the investigative journalist’s toolkit, with few exceptions, has mostly been retired from serious newsrooms — instead relegated to the world of tabloids, TMZ, and the seedy underbelly of media. But in this sprawling undercover investigation for Mother Jones, Shane Bauer shows in devastating detail what we have lost as a result, and what we can gain if newsrooms make serious investments to do it right. Faced with the daunting secrecy of the country’s growing private prison industry, Bauer got a job as a guard at a private prison in Louisiana. The systematic mistreatment he witnessed—in one case, to the extent that an inmate’s legs had to be amputated as a result—was damning enough. But what he felt as he found himself sucked deeper into the psyche of guard life —his shame over his “lack of self-control” and his “growing thirst for punishment and vengeance”—could only be exposed by going undercover. It is a must-read, and a worthy reminder of investigative journalism’s fundamental tenets: to shed light on injustice that would otherwise go un-exposed, to probe in a systematic, comprehensive manner, and to employ the highest of standards in the quest for the truth.

Pentagon: Special Ops Killing Of Pregnant Afghan Women Was “Appropriate” Use Of Force (Jeremy Scahill, The Intercept)

Since its inception, The Intercept has published a number of truly remarkable investigations that few other outlets would invest in. At first glance, it would be easy to overlook the years of reporting that went into this one. It began in February 2010, when the U.S. military announced a raid on a Taliban compound in Gardez, Afghanistan, where Special Forces discovered the bodies of three Afghan women. CNN described their apparent Taliban execution as possessing “the earmarks of a traditional honor killing.” But when British Sunday Times reporter Jerome Starkey journeyed to the site—the only reporter to do so—the official story quickly unraveled. The so-called Taliban militants were in fact government allies. One was even a police commander who had gone through dozens of U.S. police training programs— his walls lined with his portraits with American soldiers. Multiple witnesses and Afghan investigators told Starkey that American soldiers had dug bullets from the bodies of at least one of the dead pregnant women. All signs indicated that in one night 16 children lost their mothers because of a botched U.S. raid that was subsequently covered up. Starkey’s damning investigation forced the military to abandon its earlier claims and open a formal investigation. The story could have ended then, but more than six years later, The Intercept followed up with the long-awaited results of a Freedom of Information Act request for the military’s own inquiry. The answers Jeremy Scahill received — laid bare in this investigation — are devastating and important. They are also a testament to the dire need for investigative ground reporting from war zones, and the years of persistence required to hold the powerful to account.

Unearthing The Secrets Of New York’s Mass Graves (Nina Bernstein, The New York Times)

If Nina Bernstein had not investigated, this story—of how some of New York’s most vulnerable wound up in this mass “graveyard of last resort” and the systems that failed them—would likely never be told. Bernstein’s unearthing of hundreds of those buried at Hart Island for The New York Times is a haunting, systematic indictment of some of the ugliest chapters of America’s past and present, from the Southern slave owners who “donated” or sold the bodies of dead slaves to medical schools, and the 16 people with AIDS who were buried on the Island “under 14 feet of soil instead of the usual three” during the height of ignorance and fear surrounding the epidemic, to the inmates who are today paid 50 cents an hour to act as pallbearers there. Through rigorous data collection and analysis, extensive interviews, and rich historical context, this piece manifests many of the best practices of investigative journalism, but it also showcases the kind of beautifully crafted storytelling that is too often lacking from this hard-hitting genre, making Bernstein’s opus a triumph.

Welcome to America — Now Spy on Your Friends (Talal Ansari and Siraj Datoo, BuzzFeed News)

Donald Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric may have cast a worthy spotlight on Islamophobia and Muslim registration programs, but this fresh attention masks a grim fact: similar programs have already been in existence for years. In this BuzzFeed News investigation, Talal Ansari and Siraj Datoo shed light on one of the least known among them, the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program, or CARRP. Formerly secret, this federal program delays or denies citizenship and immigration benefits based on what rights groups have only been able to identify as religion, national origin, or similar factors. The overwhelming majority of those affected by CARRP are Muslim. Their investigation, “based on government and court documents, official complaints, and interviews with immigrants, immigration and civil rights lawyers, and former special agents,” exposes how many Muslims caught in CARRP’s crosshairs have reported being pressured by the FBI to become informants in exchange for immigration help — a violation of the FBI’s own rules. It’s remarkable, not just for its depth and unprecedented findings, but because it offers a blueprint for other investigative reporters as they venture into the burgeoning Islamophobia beat in the Trump era.


Brooke Jarvis
Freelance magazine journalist.

My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard (Shane Bauer, Mother Jones)

It would be irresponsible not to include this stand-out investigation in a list of notables. Not only did it involve impressive undercover reporting, it made a real impact on government policy — and then Donald Trump was elected, and shares of private prison companies took off. This is an issue that will require a lot more scrutiny. But Shane Bauer’s pathbreaking work is an excellent foundation.

Trump boasts about his philanthropy. But his giving falls short of his words. (The Reporting of David Fahrenthold & The Washington Post)

For months, David Farenthold doggedly investigated one area of Donald Trump’s dishonesty—the difference between his “charitable” persona and foundation and the reality. Not only did Farenthold find a number of important scoops (like the one in the lede, wherein Trump takes credit for donations he did not give, endangering real donations in the process), but he also helped make the difficult process, and enormous value, of investigative reporting visible for his readers by sharing his work along the way. Subscriptions to newspapers have increased since the election, presumably as part of a growing public awareness that this kind of work is an invaluable check on an administration with little respect for the truth.


The white flight of Derek Black (Eli Saslow, The Washington Post)

You may argue that this article doesn’t rightly belong in the investigative reporting category. Perhaps. But it was a difficult dig into one of the most important questions we currently face: How can the rising tide of hatred and xenophobia be combatted? Saslow’s story focuses on the extraordinary transformation of a single individual, Derek Black: a former prince of the white nationalist movement who, through the compassion and patience of the people he used to denigrate, changed his mind.


Leah Sottile
An Oregon-based freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and Outside Magazine, among others.

David’s Ankles: How Imperfections Could Bring Down the World’s Most Perfect Statue (Sam Anderson, The New York Times Magazine)

Some of my favorite stories from this year involved deep, deep dives into history. Sam Anderson’s immaculate deconstruction of how Michelangelo created The David deftly covers 552 years of history, weaving together a tale I couldn’t put down. It’s about everything the sculpture represents and how a cultural icon that is so important to the world is literally teetering on the brink of destruction. This story pushed boundaries, too, because it seamlessly weaves together a brilliant investigation with personal essay, making it a fascinating, completely modern piece of journalism.

The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife (Ariel Sabar, The Atlantic)

My favorite investigations often are ones where you the reader gets a glimpse of the obsessions of the reporter, much like what Anderson did in the David story. The Atlantic ran this amazing piece last summer about an obsession over a small scrap of papyrus that suggests that Jesus was married — and the around-the-globe hunt filled with crazy real-life characters that it took Ariel Sabar on.


Aaron Gilbreath
Contributing editor to Longreads; essayist and journalist; author of the essay collection Everything We Don’t Know.

Ghost Stories (Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker)

Many Germans see ghosts and have premonitions. “It’s an old German habit of mind,” writes Burkhard Bilger, “this mixing of the mystical and the scientific.” Over half a century after WWII, guilt and spirits still haunt a generation of Germans, and many struggle to come to terms with their ancestors’ atrocities. They are called kriegskinder, the children of war. When Bilger goes to Germany to research his elusive grandfather’s Nazi involvement, he sees others like him, searching historical archives to piece together their family story. To cleanse their conscious, some attend a type of group counseling that mixes science and séance. Considering the Fascist parallels between Nazi Germany and President Trump’s current administration, Burkhard’s story seems particularly prescient. The Third Reich and the Holocaust indelibly shaped the psyche of German citizens. Wrestling with these issues, Bilger asks: what does inter-generational trauma look like? How do the offspring of the SS and WWII refugees deal with silence and guilt? One day, we Americans might be asking ourselves these same questions post-Trump. As people say about the Holocaust, never forget; it could happen again.


Mike Dang
Longreads Editor-in-Chief and Editor at WordPress.com / Automattic.

‘You Want A Description Of Hell?’ Oxycontin’s 12-Hour Problem (Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion, Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times)

My father spent more than half his life working at an all-American car company until a workplace accident put him into early retirement. Multiple doctor visits and surgeries later, my father still refuses to take the pain medication prescribed to him because he’s seen what it’s done to other people in his position. Here’s a report published just this last week: “One-third of Americans who have taken prescription opioids for at least two months say they became addicted to, or physically dependent on, the powerful painkillers, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey.”

The painkiller drug addiction epidemic has not emerged due to illicit use, but can be largely attributed to profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies. The L.A. Times investigation into America’s bestselling painkiller, Oxycontin, revealed that drugmaker Purdue Pharma sold its painkiller as a 12-hour drug for years despite knowledge that the drug wasn’t providing 12 hours of relief for patients, and told doctors to prescribe stronger doses to patients who complained, rather than more frequent ones. It’s old-fashioned reporting: digging through three decades’ worth of documents from sealed court cases and government investigations to piece together a detailed picture of how the company pushed deceptive marketing practices for profit.

The problem is industry-wide; earlier this month, The New York Times reported that another drug company, Insys Therapeutics, “offered bribes and kickbacks to pain doctors in various states” in exchange for getting them to prescribe a spray form of the highly addictive pain drug fentanyl. Cheers to the reporters who are following the money to expose corruption.


Sari Botton
Writer, contributing editor to Longreads, editorial director of the non-profit TMI Project, and owner of Kingston Writers’ Studio.

Why Did It Take 9 Hours and 3 Emergency Rooms For This Woman to Get a Rape Kit? (Jillian Keenan, Cosmopolitan)

A harrowing look into one woman’s experience being denied rape kits in more than one ER in Texas after being sexually assaulted. The piece also sheds infuriating light on the difficulty many other women have getting tested and treated properly, and also on the hundreds of thousands of untested kits sitting in police departments nation-wide.

Healing Hasidic Masturbators and Adulterers — With Psychiatric Drugs (Batya Ungar-Sargon, Narratively)

Batya Ungar-Sargon investigates the phenomenon of Hasidic Jews being treated with heavy psych meds to steer them away from sexual behavior considered by the religion to be taboo. Men called askanim, refer members of their community who engage in anything considered sexually deviant to a handful of specialized psychiatrists, who treat their subjects’ theological transgressions as mental illness. Transgressions include but are not limited to: masturbation, same-sex attraction, and responding to the kind of sexual ennui that might result from marrying at 20 by engaging in affairs. Ungar-Sargon interviews a number of men and women in the community to find many of them have had similar experiences.


Mark Armstrong
Founder, Longreads.

Trump boasts about his philanthropy. But his giving falls short of his words. (The Reporting of David Fahrenthold & The Washington Post)

One of the brilliant things about David Fahrenthold’s work this year is that he brought us along on the investigation. His work started with a tweet and a sheet of paper:

Fahrenthold admits he did this “out of desperation”: “Trump would not say what groups he’d donated to, or in what individual amounts. I just had to trust Lewandowski. I didn’t want to.” What he produced was a thorough accounting of the Trump Foundation’s activity, revealing a sketchy record of charitable giving and self-dealing–where promised donations never materialized, where Trump crashed a press event for a children’s AIDS charity without giving a dime, and where foundation money was used improperly to enrich his businesses or pay off legal disputes.

Fahrenthold’s incredible reporting this year–along with aggressive coverage from the rest of the reinvigorated Washington Post–helped uncover many of the lies that Trump had peddled on the campaign trail. No wonder post-election subscriptions have gone way up for the Post, not to mention The New York Times, and magazines like Mother Jones: We’re going to need journalists like Fahrenthold more than ever.


See more from our Best of 2016 series