December is always marked by a run of fantastic journalism from news organizations across the United States. The flood of ambitious work nearly always coincides with the publication deadline for the Pulitzer Prizes (Dec. 31), as newsrooms gear up for journalism awards season.
Here's a quick look at some of the most ambitious journalism that's been published recently. If you know of a great project that I missed, let me know at email@example.com, and I'll add it to the list:
"Intake," by Rosalind Adams of BuzzFeed News
This 8,700-word investigation illustrates how Universal Health Services, a national psychiatric hospital chain, is making profits at the expense of patient care. It's full of anecdotes like this one, which raise questions about the company's motivations (questions the company responded to at length):
The counselor insisted on completing an evaluation anyway, she recalled. Had she thought about suicide in the last 72 hours? Allison answered yes: She had suffered a bout of depression earlier in the week and had been crying at work, the counselor wrote down. But she recalled explaining that such episodes were something she had learned to live with; she had recently changed medications, and since then the dark thoughts had passed, as they always did. Allison even remembered laughing with the counselor during the evaluation. Looking back, she said, 'my whole demeanor would tell you I’m okay.'
In her medical record, the counselor noted something similar: 'She always goes voluntarily to the hospital if her feelings of SI' — suicidal ideation, or thoughts of suicide — 'are too great but says she is not to that point. She stated today has been a good day and that her meds are probably balancing out.'
Nevertheless, the counselor told Allison they were going to hold her against her will. Her evaluation stated, 'Patient reported thoughts of suicidal ideation within the last 72 hours, thus she was admitted.'
Allison recalled being given just a moment to email her workplace and call her partner, who was expecting her home for dinner that evening, before being escorted onto the unit. 'I didn’t even think that being inpatient was even on the table,”'she told BuzzFeed News. 'If I would have known that, I wouldn’t have gone in there.'
The company set up a website to respond to the investigation, but its stock still took a beating:
— Matthew Zeitlin (@MattZeitlin) December 8, 2016
"Toxic Armories," by Rob Davis, Beth Nakamura and the staff of The Oregonian
This multi-part takeout from The Oregonian exposes a hazard lurking in many communities across the United States: armories, many of which are coated with a dangerous amount of lead dust. The newspaper published 12 stories examining the toxic armories from a variety of angles, soliciting feedback from readers and providing solutions to the problem. Here's the lead, which reads like a slap in the face:
In a former Montana National Guard armory where more than 20 workers got sick, lead-laced dust bunnies the size of tangerines clogged the ventilation system.
In two Oregon armories where parents unwittingly let infants crawl, the neurotoxin blanketed floors at levels as high as 10 times the federal safety standard.
In a Wisconsin armory classroom where pregnant women and mothers with infants learned about nutrition, the poisonous powder coated a desktop.
The Oregonian took special care to promote the series, producing teaser videos for social media to lure readers in. They also published a separate story crediting every staff member who contributed to the coverage. As one commenter said: "Wonderful journalism. Almost makes me want to subscribe to the Oregonian again."
"Heroin: Killer of a generation," the Palm Beach Post
This investigation from the Palm Beach Post lets images of the dead speak for themselves. Exactly 216 people died in Palm Beach County in 2015 from heroin overdoses, and the Post lists them all, alongside their faces, names and the places they died. Each picture is accompanied by a short profile that was written with material gathered through exhaustive reporting and digging through public records:
To compile life stories, reporters conducted more than 100 interviews with friends, family members and business associates. They scoured social media sites, as well as archived web sites, birth records, police reports and corporate, financial and property records.
About 400 photos were collected from families, obituaries and social media, predominantly Facebook.
When no other sources of information could be found for those who died, The Post relied on police and medical examiners’ reports of their last days.
A theme emerges quickly once you start scrolling through the photos: Opiates took the lives of many young people in Palm Beach County.
"They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals," Daniel Berehulak of The New York Times.
It's one thing to know men and women are being covertly murdered in droves. It's another thing to see their dead bodies lying unceremoniously in the streets, the result of President Rodrigo Duterte’s antidrug campaign in the Philippines. This project, which includes stills, text and video, makes the story real and personal in a way that words alone could not.
Disclaimer: The project includes raw documentation of 57 homicide victims. It's hard to look at. But it's very important.
"Bias on the bench," by Josh Salman, Emily Le Coz and Elizabeth Johnson of the Sarasota Herald Tribune
This project lays out in harsh, staccato language a serious problem in Florida. When it comes to sentencing, Black convicts are judged harsher that Whites by judges across the state. The investigation, which relies on data from the Department of Corrections, opens with a brief sequence that takes readers through a sentencing discrepancy step by step.
Here's the text (click through to the project for the full effect):
Allen Peters robbed a corner store. So did Jaquavias Sturgis.
Both were the same age. Both had juvenile records. Both went before the same judge.
Both scored the same points at sentencing.
Matching scores should mean matching punishment.
That's not what happened.
The color of their skin.
The project includes interviews with judges (who deny discriminating by race) and interviews with public officials who condemn uneven sentencing. Readers can also click through visualizations scattered throughout the piece that illustrate the problem. Midway through the story, readers are greeted by this video interview with Leroy Pernell, a law professor and former dean at the Florida A&M University College of Law:
"Suffering in Secret," by Michael J. Berens and Patricia Callahan of the Chicago Tribune
The Chicago Tribune fought through government secrecy to report this story, a heartbreaking exposé that shows how the state's developmentally disabled residents are being abused in taxpayer-subsidized group homes. This excerpt shows the lengths Tribune reporters had to go to find information:
To circumvent state secrecy, the Tribune filed more than 100 public records requests with government agencies. But state files were so heavily redacted and unreliable that the newspaper had to build its own databases by mining state investigative files, court records, law enforcement cases, industry reports, federal audits, grant awards and Medicaid data.
In this culture of secrecy, even seemingly benign records get shielded from sight. For example, the Tribune requested a state-funded PowerPoint presentation that included a list of needed improvements to community care programs, including group homes.
The state responded. Except for the word "Recommendations," the entire slide was blacked out.
The investigation also got results. As a result of the story, Illinois Human Services Secretary James Dimas ordered "widespread reforms to improve public accountability and streamline investigations." He said he will push for legislative changes to make group homes transparent, if it comes to that.
Correction: A previous version of this story credited Pat Beall with the Palm Beach Post investigation. In fact, it was a team effort from the Palm Beach Post's I-team.