The best journalism of 2016

Illustration by Jeff Drew Pictures

I’m a sucker for cynicism like the rest of us. But don’t let the Grinch make you forget that journalism did some good in 2016. Here’s a sampling of CJR’s favorite work, in no particular order: 

‘It’s just the ice in front of us that’s still frozen.’

The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert takes us to Greenland, where a massive but fast-melting ice sheet is locked in a series of feedback loops that may already be irreversible. The upshot: Higher sea levels, potential shifts in weather patterns, and necessary changes in ways of life in both Greenland and elsewhere around the world. If you’re searching for one climate change story to read in the waning days of 2016, look no further.

Follow the pills

Let’s be honest: Who among the national media would have tracked the deluge of prescription painkillers into West Virginia—and then followed them into individual counties, pharmacies, and families? Eric Eyre, of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, catalogues how six years’ worth of “unfettered shipments amount to 433 pain pills for every man, woman and child in West Virginia.” Eyre’s empathetic portrayal of his subjects provides a stark reminder of how local journalists are often best placed to analyze their communities’ chronic diseases.

Beyond Flint

In wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the USA Today Network undertook a multi-part investigation that found dangerous levels of lead in water systems in all 50 states. Reporters from Florida Today, the (New Jersey) Asbury Park Press, The Detroit Free Press, The Fort Collins Coloradoan, Arizona Republic, USA Today, and other newsrooms joined together to paint a frightening portrait of the nation’s drinking water—and what various governments are doing to address it. The amalgamation of Gannett’s far-flung journalistic firepower appears ideally suited for such diffuse national stories.

Grace under pressure

When a Russian diplomat was gunned down in a Turkish art gallery this month, Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici, just steps away, captured images of the armed assassin within moments. Ozbilici’s poise is what all journalists aspire to in the face of danger, and his pictures make for the latest installment of chilling visual journalism emanating from the Syrian Civil War.

First person

What’s a New York Times Magazine writer to do after finding her young daughter at the center of a local fight over school integration? Nikole Hannah-Jones penned a feature layering her family’s navigation of New York City public schools atop historical context on education policy, housing economics, and the trajectory of student outcomes. Whereas many journalists shy away from putting themselves into stories, Hannah-Jones does so masterfully. “I worried—I worry still—about whether I made the right decision for our little girl,” she wrote of enrolling her daughter in a Brooklyn school with mostly low-income students. “But I knew I made the just one.”

In the Dark

American Public Media’s 9-part podcast about a Minnesota boy’s 1989 abduction and murder is a feat of investigative storytelling. Reporter Madeleine Baran’s legwork exposed fundamental errors in the ensuing police investigation, and the program proved remarkably nimble when a man confessed to the crimes just a day before the first episode was set to air. “When he confessed,” Baran told CJR, “we’d already done all the work, so it was just a matter of figuring out how to use it and the significance of certain details based on what he said in court.”

‘A description of hell’

The Los Angeles Times’ investigation of drugmaker Purdue Pharma’s claim that OxyContin provides 12 hours of pain relief not only shed new light on how people become addicted to the drug, but also the way in which pharmaceutical companies may obfuscate evidence to protect profits. What’s more, it provided a much-needed reminder of the immense talent at the flagship property of tronc, a company that this year appeared woefully out of touch with the realities of the media industry. America needs The Los Angeles Times—a newspaper trying to claw its way back from 15 years of mismanagement—and more of such ambitious reporting in the public interest.

Bad blood 

After Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s first exposé on Theranos, in October 2015, employees at the biotech startup reportedly chanted “Fuck you, Carreyrou!” during a staff meeting. In the 14 months since, the formerly multibillion-dollar Silicon Valley company has come apart at the seams under continued scrutiny from the press—namely Carreyrou—and federal regulators. His continued work is a testament to the power of recalcitrant investigative reporting.

The Great Republican Crack-Up

Few pre-election analyses seem as prescient now as ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis’ July feature on the decades-long weakening of the GOP establishment in Dayton, Ohio. Co-published in Politico, MacGillis’ piece concludes with a description of local Donald Trump supporters that could have been written on Nov. 9: “They were no one’s constituency, until now.” 

Generation heroin

Many news organizations have covered victims of America’s growing opioid epidemic, but The Palm Beach Post did the heavy lift of profiling all 216 people who died from overdoses in its county in 2015. “We needed to go beyond what many outlets have done—and done well,” Managing Editor Nick Moschella told CJR. The project succeeds in forcing readers to grapple with how overdose deaths comprise not just a shocking statistic, but a collection of unique human stories.

Don’t try this at home 

Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer worked as a private prison guard for four months, getting a firsthand look at a Louisiana facility’s rampant mismanagement and horrid treatment of inmates. The quasi-undercover reporting—Bauer used his real name and Mother Jones’ parent organization on his job application—filled out an epic feature in the magazine, a series of mini documentaries on YouTube, and a riveting episode of Reveal, a podcast by the Center for Investigative Reporting. “Initially, I felt like I was a journalist with a guard suit on, like it was a mask,” Bauer told CJR. “But as time passed, I became more and more of a guard….Some days, when I was driving home, I was feeling ashamed. I was writing about this other person who existed inside the prison.”

Carbon’s casualties

Not many multimedia projects integrate various elements as seamlessly as The New York Times’ eight-part series on climate change and displacement. In its installment on heat and hunger in West Africa, for example, Somini Sengupta’s text story about men and boys in search of a better life is buttressed by stunning photography of their journeys and a video walkthrough of Agadez, a city in central Niger. The collective effect is a more immersive storytelling experience—and a more human portrayal of the subjects.

Gymnastics predators

In a year when American gymnasts captivated the world at the Summer Olympics, the Indianapolis Star revealed the sport’s dark underbelly. Its ongoing series, “Out of Balance,” has quantified the scope of sexual abuse among young American athletes, the ways in which coaches and physicians have taken advantage of children, and whether USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, is doing enough to address complaints. The Star deserves plaudits for work with such a high level of difficulty.

OMG

BuzzFeed had a banner year in 2016, publishing vivid features, dropping seminal scoops during the presidential campaign, and bringing fake news to the fore of the public debate. But no work was as eye-opening as Chris Hamby’s investigation of how corporations use an opaque legal process buried deep within international trade agreements to extract cash and concessions from governments around the world. It perhaps best exemplifies how BuzzFeed carries on the newspaper tradition in the digital age.

‘How does the path of a bullet change a life?’

The 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas, which left 16 dead and 31 wounded, was among the first of its kind. Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff tracked how a survivor who lost an unborn baby in the attack has been unable to escape its shadow in the 50 years since. It’s a story about dreams denied and coming to terms with uncontrollable twists of fate—but also about hoping for better things. Do not miss it.

Fahrenthold 451

Too many takes have been written on David Fahrenthold’s noble work this year to add anything new about the Washington Post reporter’s attempt to track Donald Trump’s charitable giving—or lack thereof. But in sum: Fahrenthold represented the very best of the journalistic ethos in 2016. Merry Christmas, you filthy animal; here’s hoping for more of the same in the new year.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.