Best of 2021: Investigative Reporting

The journalism that made our jaws drop.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5. At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years! Today, we’re highlighting the best investigations of 2021 — projects that went deep, sucked us in, and spoke truth to power.

Beyond Britney: Abuse, Exploitation, and Death Inside America’s Guardianship Industry, Heidi Blake and Katie J.M. Baker, BuzzFeed News, September 17, 2021

Britney Spears is now free of the conservatorship that dictated every part of her life for 13 years. The #FreeBritney movement, which drew international attention to her case, also raised awareness of the guardianship system at large. In this three-part investigation, Heidi Blake and Katie J.M. Baker expose a dangerously unregulated industry — one that is estimated to control more than a million people in the United States. Examining more than 200 guardianships across 30 states and an impressive number of court, mental health, and financial records, they uncovered a rigged system and a network of lawyers, judges, corporations, and professional guardians who abuse and exploit wards (the individuals who are locked into these arrangements). They found evidence of financial corruption in 130 cases, and abuse or neglect in 110. They detailed horrific instances of wards stripped of their rights, stolen from or drained of their money, pulled away from their families, or confined against their will. In some cases, wards have gone missing, or suffered wrongful deaths. Blake and Baker’s investigation is a disturbing but important look at the inner workings of this dark and dehumanizing industry, and one that can hopefully help drive reform nationwide. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Author Katie J.M. Baker on the story she wishes she’d written this year:

One of the biggest stories in the UK, where I live, has been political “sleaze,” and the Financial Times, my favorite newspaper, has delivered scoop after scoop that goes beyond the daily tabloid headlines. The FT has received a lot of well-deserved attention for its coverage of the Greensill scandal, but one of my favorite stories of the year was FT Magazine’s investigation into the secretive donor club that backs Boris Johnson’s government. Come for the juicy details about albino peacocks and airlifting elm tea bags to Madonna, and stay for … the egregious cronyism!?

They Went to Bible College to Deepen Their Faith. Then They Were Assaulted — and Blamed for It. Becca Andrews, Mother Jones, September 30, 2021

The Liberty Way, Hannah Dreyfus, ProPublica, October 24, 2021

These investigations into two prominent Christian colleges’ response to sexual abuse and harassment on their campuses are, in a word, damning. Both Liberty University and Moody Bible College routinely sidestep accountability in the name of God, and young women bear the consequences. As Becca Andrews writes, for students steeped in evangelicalism, “it can be hard to recognize harassment when it is at the hands of a brother or a sister in Christ.” It can also be hard to recognize harassment — or worse — when the institution where it occurs uses “purity culture” as an excuse to blame and punish victims. Hannah Dreyfus describes how, when Amanda Stevens reported a rape to Liberty officials, she wasn’t informed that she could make a statement to police, but she was told to sign a notice of her own potential infractions of the school’s honor code, including having premarital sex, being alone with a man, and drinking — though she wasn’t drinking when the assault occurred.

That thing you’re feeling reading this blurb? It’s rage.  —Seyward Darby

Author Becca Andrews on the story she wishes she’d written this year: 

Basically every time I see Sarah Jones’ byline in New York, I have that prickle of jealousy. She covers labor, the religious right, and gender in a way that deeply resonates with me. This essay about being an atheist from an evangelical family and reconsidering God in the coronavirus pandemic gave me chills, because I felt such a connection to her experience.

Highway to Hell: A Trip Down Afghanistan’s Deadliest Road, Jason Motlagh, Rolling Stone, January 22, 2021

This gripping story starts out with a local mayor commuting 30 miles to work in an armored vehicle, driven by a man with an AK-47 on National Highway 1 in  Afghanistan — a road that reporter Jason Motlagh describes as “a glaring symbol of America’s failures, scarred with bomb-blast craters that snarl traffic and under constant attack from a resurgent Taliban.” Motlagh reports on life in a war zone, a place where everyone has suffered loss. The United States withdrew troops at the end of August, nearly 20 years after invading a country where violent conflict continues. The U.S. and its NATO allies thought a paved road system would “lay the ground work for a functioning state,” one where people and goods could move freely. According to Motlagh, they could not have been more wrong: “Over the course of hundreds of miles — and in meetings with the Taliban, government forces, and civilians caught in the crossfire — a grim truth emerged: The backbone of the U.S.-led nation-building campaign is hopelessly broken, a life-or-death gauntlet where people drive in fear, commerce is stymied, and state forces are targeted with impunity. What was intended to ease the lives of Afghans and cement the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan is, instead, a story of colossal waste and squandered opportunity.” —Krista Stevens

The Spine Collector, Reeves Wiedeman with Lila Shapiro, New York, August 17, 2021

This is a smartly written piece about a thief who has turned the cozy world of books upside down. Hiding behind a computer, their game is to impersonate people in the literary scene via email, in an attempt to obtain unpublished manuscripts. The thief’s portrayals are very convincing: An assistant at WME only “realized her boss was being impersonated because she would never say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’,” and people in the publishing industry have become so twitchy that they are putting NDAs on a “70-page Dutch Novella.” Reeves Wiedeman decided reporting on the thief would be “a fun challenge,” and during lockdown, he attempted to identify the motivation for the crimes, as well as the shadowy figure behind them. It became a thing of obsession, with Wiedeman creating what he calls a “Homeland wall” over the course of a year — and having his very own interactions with the thief. This is both an investigation and a story about how an investigation can consume you. —Carolyn Wells

Author Reeves Wiedeman on the story he wishes he’d written this year:

I’ve written about companies in various states of duress, and it’s extremely rare to get the people in charge to have honest conversations with you about what went wrong. Courtney Rubin managed that with the founders of Ample Hills, Brooklyn’s once-hottest ice cream empire, in her piece for Marker. Come for the lessons in running a small business, and I promise you it will be worth it once you get to the “squints.”

Homegrown and Homeless in Oakland, Kevin Fagan, Sarah Ravani, Lauren Hepler, and J.K. Dineen, San Francisco Chronicle, November 3, 2021

After five years of covering the epidemic of the unhoused in San Francisco, the Chronicle sent a team of reporters across the Bay Bridge to examine homelessness in Oakland. What they found, unsurprisingly but no less sadly, was that there’s no such thing as a simple cause, let alone a clear solution. The four people profiled in the piece all grew up in Oakland, and had all owned their own home at one time; now they count themselves among the fastest-growing unhoused community in the Bay Area. The time and care invested is on stark display throughout the piece, the deep reporting paired with rich photography and data visualization. “As they long for a place of their own in a city with too many in need and too few resources,” the team writes of the article’s subjects, “they are the city’s reflection staring back at it.” Even if you’ve never set foot in the Golden State, you’ll come away with a grasp of the problem’s scope and scale — and hopefully a new understanding of the humanity that’s crushed when a city loses a battle against loss itself.  —Peter Rubin

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