We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in investigative reporting.
Senior Researcher for investigative journalist Ronan Farrow
Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis (Linda Villarosa, The New York Times)
Villarosa’s unflinching examination of giving birth while black in America has stayed with me. We lose black newborns and black mothers at astonishing rates; in the U.S., black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white infants, Villarosa writes, and black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their white counterparts. Why? The piece lays out evidence for a theory that black women bear the trauma of systemic racism in their very physiology — that years of exposure to the stress of discrimination wreaks havoc on a body, and might contribute to pregnancy complications. Just as lethal, Villarosa’s reporting demonstrates, is the frequency and callousness with which medical staff routinely — and disproportionately — dismiss the complaints of black pregnant women and ignore warning signs.
The ISIS Files (Rukmini Callimachi, The New York Times)
Callimachi is a reporter’s reporter; she’s all about the documents. During five trips to Mosul spanning more than a year, she scoured abandoned buildings that had recently housed the workspaces, training grounds, courts, and living quarters of ISIS militants, stuffing tattered papers and folders the group had left behind into trash bags. Callimachi and her team ultimately carted off more than 15,000 pages of documents. Through the lens of these records, Callimachi describes a regimented governing body focused on collecting taxes, issuing birth and marriage certificates, and meting out punishments. ISIS, she writes, “even ran its own D.M.V.” There are practical applications for such insights, the piece suggests. Our prior misconceptions about extremist groups like ISIS, Callimachi writes, have led to tactical failures in U.S.-led efforts to defeat them, such as a focus on destroying petroleum reserves when the group relied more heavily on agriculture for revenue. All this from a haul of jettisoned papers.
Reporting fellow for ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project
How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People (Jessica Pressler, The Cut)
I will always associate 2018 as the year of the scammer. There’s been several great pieces of journalism published this year chronicling the exploits of the grifter. My favorite was Jessica Pressler’s exposé on The Cut that detailed the life of Anna Delvey, a woman who manages to furrow her way into New York’s elite social scene and then scam them into thinking she is a rich heirress. It can’t be easy diving into the background of a chronic liar but Jessica Pressler gets receipts from everyone from Anna’s father to Martin Shkreli, and weaves a fantastic story about what you can get away with if you can act rich enough.
Editor-in-chief, Pacific Standard
‘If Bobbie Talks, I’m Finished’: How Les Moonves Tried to Silence an Accuser (James B. Stewart, Rachel Abrams, and Ellen Gabler, The New York Times)
The Peacock Patriarchy (David Usborne, Esquire)
Every single one of last year’s best-of lists — or every single one worth reading anyway — celebrated the feat of reporting that was Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s New York Times piece exposing Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator, and the extreme efforts he and the enablers around him took to silence those he harmed. It’s hard to believe that was only a year ago. With focused, relentless reporting efforts, Kantor and Twohey took down one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood and, in the process, kick-started a movement that’s unlike anything previously seen. This year, more reporters have turned their attention to the #MeToo movement and I’d argue that some of the best investigative work being done now is still building on what Kantor and Twohey — and Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker — started.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for her work on sexual harassment, the Times’ Ellen Gabler hasn’t let up. This year, she covered Eric Schneiderman’s resignation as New York attorney general following assault claims and partnered with Rachel Abrams and James B. Stewart for a stunning piece that’ll likely cost former CBS chief Les Moonves his $120 million severance package: “‘If Bobbie Talks, I’m Finished’: How Les Moonves Tried to Silence an Accuser.” Especially for a newspaper story, the writing here is tight and lively, and you’ll speed quickly through all 5,000 words of this. Use the time you’ve saved to read it twice, because, since the Times doesn’t call attention to it, you may not notice the first time just how many critical sources have gone on the record here, and how many of the smallest details have been unearthed in what I imagine was many, many months of reporting.
Journalist and host of the Bundyville podcast.
Targeted: A Family and the Quest to Stop the Next School Shooter (Bethany Barnes, The Oregonian)
In Bethany Barnes’ brilliant investigation for The Oregonian, she speaks to fears of people across the country: with school shootings happening at a constant pace, how do you figure out which kid will be the next mass shooter? Barnes embeds with the family of “Sanders,” a Portland teenager who school officials have singled out, and watches as the boy and his parents unravel under more and more scrutiny. Any other reporter might not have been able to tackle the topic so deftly, but Barnes — as always — balances humanity with investigative detail.
The Delay (Rachel Monroe, Esquire)
The investigative pieces that stuck with me this year had a theme: people whose lives were caught up in systems meant to prevent harm, but that ended up causing harm. The first of those was written by one of my favorite long-form journalists, Rachel Monroe, about the disappearance of 12-year-old Ashlynn Mike on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. It’s a complex story that shows how well-intentioned systems meant to help children aren’t applied equally to Native communities. In this case, the incident of one child going missing led to a bureaucratic game of telephone between the Navajo Nation Police, the FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the New Mexico State Police. This isn’t only a story about a girl who fell through the cracks, it’s a story that waves a flag, warning that it will happen again if something doesn’t change.
Investigative journalist and author of Magic Is Dead
Blood Will Tell (Pamela Colloff, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine)
The best investigative reporting doesn’t feel like reporting — it feels like storytelling. When we meet Joe Bryan and his murdered wife Mickey in Pamela Colloff’s “Blood Will Tell” (Joe — ding ding ding! — is charged with the killing), they don’t feel like examples of an injustice, but rather the injustice itself, a living and breathing thing, with all the sordid facts woven into a captivating narrative. Colloff is best known not only for her reporting grit, but also her ability to craft a compelling tale out of dry police reports, crime scene photographs, newspaper clippings, and the like. It takes a truly gifted writer to transform thousands of pages of paper into a real story. And that’s what she has done here with “Blood Will Tell.” But you’ll never get lost in the lyrical prose, of which the piece abounds, because Colloff, who spent over a year reporting the story, doesn’t let the bigger picture escape her: That bloodstain pattern analysis, a forensic “science” which has lent itself much use to prosecutors not only in this Texas-based case but also in dozens of other cases around the country, is unreliable at best and egregiously incompetent at worse. I left this story convinced that the prosecutors had committed a grave injustice — that it wasn’t Joe Bryan who had blood on his hands, but them.
Lost in the Storm (Sheri Fink, The New York Times Magazine)
I am going to use this opportunity, which Longreads has graciously (and somewhat surprisingly) granted me, to share another gut-punching narrative investigation. Sheri Fink’s “Lost in the Storm” — also set in Texas, also involving a husband and his deceased wife — showcases not only the highest level of reporting acuity, but an inherent understanding that investigative reporting doesn’t have to be dry and clinical; it can read like a thriller, stab your heart like a love story, and twist the knife like a tragedy. And with Fink’s riveting multimedia account of Hurricane Harvey, that’s exactly what we get. But it’s not really about the storm at all; rather, it’s about how the institutions tasked with protecting residents during a natural disaster failed at the highest level. For a story, on its face, about how calling 911 during a hurricane can be unreliable, I sure came away feeling that I had, instead, read a tale about love and loss, desperation and determination — about how one man’s adoration for his wife wasn’t enough to save her life during Houston’s historic flood. (A side note: The Daily podcast did a tremendous job translating Fink’s story into a nail-biting audio experience; I highly recommend reading the story and then listening to the episode.)
Dirty Gold, Clean Cash (The Miami Herald I-Team)
This Miami Herald investigation looking at how billions of dollars worth of gold from Latin American narco-traffickers illegally made it into South Florida was an impressive feat of storytelling that required a large team of reporters, editors, and visual journalists collaborating together. Very few news organizations are able to dedicate significant amounts of resources to these kinds of projects anymore, and this one was well worth it, incorporating animation, interactive graphics, and video into a compelling narrative explaining how drug money was laundered into clean cash using circuitous routes. The ill-gotten gold is used to make our jewelry, coins, and smartphones while on another continent, workers burn toxic chemicals to mine the gold, poisoning themselves and a rainforest locals use to farm fish.
Do Men Enter Bathtubs on Hands and Knees? An Investigation (Kelly Conaboy, The Cut)
I want to completely change course for a moment and highlight a very different kind of investigative story: It’s a piece of humor writing based on a very real message board post left on BabyCenter, a resource site for parents. I don’t want to give too much away by explaining how this message board post is investigated, but I do want to say that the writer, Kelly Conaboy, consistently writes pieces full of heart and humor that are a welcome escape from a crushing news cycle that usually involves our president and his tweets. I thank her for that, and for writing this hilarious story.
* * *