10 powerful investigations for your year-end reading

A ProPublica investigation faults a new touchscreen in the crash of the USS McCain.
A ProPublica investigation faults a new touchscreen in the crash of the USS McCain.
Image: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
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It’s not just Oscar season. It’s also Pulitzer season.

December, it turns out, is the most popular month for publishing Pulitzer prize-worthy investigations, very likely because reporters and editors know a story must be published in 2019 to be considered for a 2020 Pulitzer.

This year appears to be no different. Some amazing journalism has dropped in recent days. Much of it could prompt real change and all could be strong Pulitzer contenders. Here are some of the best:

The Afghanistan papers. Appropriately compared to the explosive Pentagon Papers, this Washington Post investigation reveals candid assessments of the Afghan war by senior US officials—and details how they kept the truth from the public.

Poll location changes and closures harm voter turnout in Georgia. Voting-rights advocates have long suspected that the distance a voter must travel to their nearest polling station can affect turnout. This analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of how far all 7 million registered voters in Georgia had to go to vote proved those advocates were right.

How a flawed touchscreen set up a US Navy disaster. In this breathtaking walkthrough of the 2017 collision between the USS McCain and a huge tanker, ProPublica puts a new navigation panel squarely at the center of the crash, which killed 10 sailors.

Apps are tracking you—and Secret Service agents—wherever you go. The New York Times once again shows how easy it is for companies to track us with leaked data from apps and phones, especially with no federal law preventing such information gathering. The Times also provides a good guide to help you stem (but probably not stop) such creeping.

Do you see the methane leak billowing from this tank? The visuals in this story are stunning. Using a powerful infrared camera, The New York Times reveals how otherwise innocuous-looking factories in west Texas are actually spewing dangerous levels of methane. In the images the factories look ablaze with the greenhouse gas.

In Alabama, Republicans aren’t the Democrats’ real enemy. This excellent, three-episode report from Reply All explores how the real battle is between Democrats themselves and with the party’s history of suppressing black people.

Inside ICE detention centers: Deaths, sexual violence, hunger strikes. The USA Today Network examined thousands of documents and interviewed detainees. The result is a disturbing picture of life inside these detention centers. “A central theme identified by government inspectors was the failure of guards to grasp the difference between running a prison and an immigration detention center.”

The best data and the missing data around child abuse and neglect. Good data helps experts understand and prevent child abuse, and ProPublica and the Boston Globe have now published the most detailed public data available about children who died from abuse and neglect in the United States. They also called out states that provide no data at all.

In Illinois, schools repeatedly restrain children as punishment. ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune found thousands of cases where kids were improperly—and forcibly—restrained for reasons like being disrespectful, profane, or not following rules.

The overlooked danger of batteries on boats. While lithium-ion batteries have been restricted on planes for two years, a Los Angeles Times review of Coast Guard records found the agency repeatedly rejected similar safety recommendations. That is, until the worst maritime disaster in California’s history took place this fall.

This month also saw several follow-up stories from investigations published earlier in the year. Whether this is a Pulitzer strategy is unclear, though submissions for past winners and nominations show more than a few December follow ups.

Take advantage of this tradition to revisit the New York City taxi medallion reporting from the New York Times, poisonings by a team of Russian assassins also from the Times, the takedown of Intuit’s hard-to-find free tax services by ProPublica, and a deep analysis of how the opioid crisis evolved from the Washington Post. And while you’re at it, I’d be remiss not to mention Quartz’s (November) look into how Facebook is used in a scheme to trick conservative retirees out of their savings.

Keep an eye out for more great stories. The year’s not over, and the Pulitzer deadline is still days away.

If you are inspired by what you see and read, consider supporting investigative journalism with a subscription, donation, or membership. Here are the sign-up links for the outlets mentioned above: