The best and worst journalism of 2015

December 8, 2015
Illustration by Jeff Drew Pictures

It’s been a standout year for journalism—and a disappointing one. CJR discussed the most important media stories and trends of 2015, good and bad, compiled below. 

The Best Journalism of 2015

Aylan Kurdi

Turkish photographer Nilufer Demir’s September 2 images of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi illustrated the toll of the Syrian refugee crisis in ways other coverage could not. The bleak photographs crisscrossed social media and impacted the international debate. Like the 1970 photo of a napalm-burned girl showing the collateral damage of America’s war in Vietnam, and the 1993 image of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese child capturing that country’s famine and unrest, the pictures of Kurdi crystallized broader hardships. No other form can so poignantly illustrate human tragedy.

Covering sports leagues as institutions

Sports journalists are often denounced as cheerleaders, and often rightly so. But the balance of coverage has shifted to the point that fans can no longer avoid viewing sports as social institutions and sports leagues as corporate empires. That’s been helped along this year by ESPN and Sports Illustrated’s reporting on NFL damage control, and Deadspin’s exposes on how football star and alleged domestic abuser Greg Hardy weaseled out of punishment. Other stories have probed college athletic spending, former sports stars’ struggle with mental illness, and drug abuse by youth athletes. While the closure of Grantland struck a blow to the idea of sports journalism as a form of cultural criticism, that ethos has indeed established a beachhead.

Bill Cosby’s accusers

Sign up for CJR's daily email

New York magazine’s moving portrait of 35 of the comedian’s alleged victims was powerful  because it did what past coverage did not: It allowed the women tell their own stories. This group “testimony” makes the patterns among the episodes painfully obvious, if not impossible to miss. It also allows for more relatable anecdotes that make plain how a powerful man took advantage of girls and women trying to make it in his industry.

“Failure Factories”

The Tampa Bay Times’ ongoing series on five underperforming elementary schools tells a story that national media is less likely to cover. Part one dissected how the local school board’s dysfunctional management has perpetuated systemic racism and turned these schools into academic embarrassments. Subsequent installments analyzed violence, teaching, and discipline at the institutions, among other angles. The project, framed with slick visuals and interactive graphics, is stunning in its totality. The work provides yet more proof of the continued value of beat reporting in an era of cutbacks at local news organizations.

A deep look into Warren Buffett’s mobile home empire

The Seattle Times’ and Center for Public Integrity’s joint investigation into a Berkshire Hathaway-owned homebuilding company punctured Buffett’s public image as an altruistic billionaire. Buffett was forced to defend the firm from charges of predatory sales and lending practices at a shareholders’ meeting in May, later conceding that its customers’ default rate could be much higher than previously reported. The Times-CPI project was referenced as Congress debated new regulations for the mobile home industry—a refreshing reminder that a local newspaper, backed with nonprofit firepower, can still drive national discussion.

Grace under pressure

After two of their colleagues were murdered on air on August 26, journalists at WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia, were able to summon sufficient composure to continue reporting the story. The violence was particularly heartbreaking given that the perpetrator was a disgruntled former employee—and that victims Alison Parker and Adam Ward were dating and engaged to other colleagues at the station. Such resilience requires no small amount of courage, and it’s worthy of no small amount of admiration.

Making science more accessible

NPR’s Invisibilia strikes all the right notes in overcoming the challenges of both explaining science and finding a narrative thru-line to keep its audience engaged. The wildly popular podcast—it knocked Serial from the top of the iTunes charts—explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior. In probing the idea that social expectations influence personal outcomes, for example, it tells a story of how a blind man, encouraged by his mother, learned to use echolocation to identify his surroundings. It’s at once miraculous and backed up by emerging research on the human brain. Such tales of scientific wonder are in short supply.

“Inside Assad’s Syria”

The Frontline documentary ventures into regime-controlled regions of the war-torn country, providing a rare glimpse at daily life on that side of the civil war. PBS’ reporting highlights Syrians with a keen sense of self-awareness: Though they understand Bashar al-Assad is imperfect, if not despotic, they also believe that he’s their best bet for security. It’s a jarring reminder that, in any conflict, most people are driven by simple motivations of keeping their families safe and lives intact. For them, picking sides in a bloody political battle is a requirement, not a choice. 

John Oliver’s acts of journalism

An entertainer—not a journalist—has found the most consistently compelling and informative mixture of entertainment and journalism. John Oliver’s humor allows “Last Week Tonight” to devote extensive segments to dense topics, dropping knowledge on his HBO audience (and millions of YouTube viewers) in subjects including infrastructure, standardized testing, and the Canadian elections. An April report on government surveillance included a sitdown with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Oliver is no journalist, but he consistently commits acts of journalism. 


The Worst Journalism of 2015

Brian Williams’ memory

Whereas Oliver, a comedian, has found the right balance between entertainment and journalism, Williams, a journalist, showed the danger of that mixture. The former face of NBC News spent six months in anchor-desk purgatory for repeatedly “misremembering” an Iraq war episode, and potentially others as well. Williams has since been rewarded with a breaking-news gig on the new-look MSNBC, though it’s unlikely he’ll be slow-jamming the news any time soon.

Breaking coverage after mass shootings and police brutality

Any mass shooting or instance of police brutality is a difficult situation for national journalists parachuting in. Despite their frequency, however, media coverage hasn’t seemed to improve over time. The mistakes are basic: misidentifying suspects; adhering too closely to one side’s account of events; unfairly describing the backgrounds of those involved; misreporting violence by protesters in events’ aftermath; and many more. The onus is on journalists to ensure that national attention doesn’t overwhelm their better editorial judgment. Unfortunately for all of us, we’ll no doubt get another chance. 

Millennials as a symbol of American decline

Crafting doomsday Millennial scenarios has become something of an artform. There are apocalyptic predictions of how the generation’s use of technology leads to moral decay, doubts they can handle adult political discussions,” and lectures on entitlement and disengagement. Reporting and commentary too often veer away from actual differences of this generation—in demographics, in education, in economic prospects—to focus on already tired social tropes. A more useful starting point would be to focus on how young people are using new technology to do young people things. Until then, we’ll swipe left. 

On the other hand…

Millennial-focused outlets’ interviews with President Barack Obama this year both failed to distinguish them from old media and highlighted shortcomings of their current offerings. Vox’s exchange had little edge to it; Vice’s showed that it’s more establishment-leaning than it lets on; Mic’s aggregated half its questions from the audience; and BuzzFeed’s was paired with a viral video of Obama making funny faces in a mirror, an advertisement for the president’s signature healthcare law. Of course, the presidential interview is an unforgiving format. But these discussions didn’t challenge Millennials’ worldviews in any meaningful way. And that is a concern: Media’s role is not only to mirror the community it aims to represent, but also provoke that community with new ideas. 

The year of Trump

First, political media underestimated the reality TV star. Then, they coddled him for traffic and ratings. The spectacle of his candidacy has sucked media attention away from more legitimate candidates who might challenge him. Now, Trump’s support appears so well established—and so removed from mainstream analysis of his antics—that even strong coverage won’t make a dent. Arianna Huffington, whose eponymous site classified Trump coverage under its “Entertainment” tab, this week walked back that decision. “We are no longer entertained,” she explained. Political media made their own bed, and they’re now sleeping beneath Trump-emblazoned sheets.

Islamophobia after acts of terrorism

Most Americans are not familiar with Islam. And media have tended to capitalize on that with  fear-mongering and unfair lines of questioning after Islamist terrorist attacks. Journalists at various outlets have misreported “no-go zones” in Europe, asked a Muslim human rights lawyer if they support ISIS, asked an American mayor if she’s afraid of the Muslim citizens in her town, and emphasized the religious background of suspects rather than the violent act they committed. The worry is that such reactionary coverage will influence policy makers to take drastic measures under the guise of popular fears. And that threat is very real, if Trump’s candidacy is any indication

Gawker’s high-water mark

The tabloid’s cynicism reached new heights with a July 16 story on a married Conde Nast executive’s botched rendezvous with a gay escort. The story had no value to readers, and Gawker’s business executives voted to remove the post amid widespread condemnation. The company’s top two editors resigned in protest—a principled, if perplexing, last stand. And the site has since attempted to carve out a “nicer,” more politics-focused identity. Gawker’s envelope-pushing has long been its main course. That sensibility won’t be forgotten when the annals of early 21st century media are compiled. But July’s story showed that Gawker, too, could be humbled—even the Internet has its limits. 

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.