Race, gender, identity politics and just plain politics were very much conversation drivers this year, from discussions of pop culture to protests in the streets. Here are ten stories from mostly mainstream outlets that we think actually made a sizable impact on how readers thought and viewed the world in 2015.
New York‘s extensive cover story on the Cosby women — with a now-iconic cover featuring these women next to an empty chair — was the result of painstaking reporting. Mostly, it showed the journalistic value of simply listening. “Each story is awful in its own right. But the horror is multiplied by the sheer volume of seeing them together, reading them together, considering their shared experience,” write Noreen Malone and Amanda Demme. “The women have found solace in their number — discovering that they hadn’t been alone, that there were others out there who believed them implicitly, with whom they didn’t need to be afraid of sharing the darkest details of their lives.”
The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration, The Atlantic
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ story for The Atlantic used the lens of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s decades-old report on the state of the black American Family to draw a picture of the way mass incarceration — a system he dubs The Gray Wastes — takes on families that is both wide-ranging and intimate. “Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens,” Coates writes.
Hillel Aaron went in-depth to profile some of the women behind Black Lives Matter, from the very first meetings after Trayvon Martin’s death was publicized until today. Hard work, strategy, sweat and negotiating all go into building activist movements, and this piece helps us understand the too-invisible labor and vision behind the year’s most important social force, as well as what makes it unique: “As a person who’s queer, who likes to play with gender, there’s been movements where I don’t feel like I’m able to show up as my full self,” one organizer says. “With Black Lives Matter, I am.”
The Women of Hollywood Speak Out, NY Times Magazine
Maureen Dowd spent time talking to bigwigs in the film industry and got an unbelievable selection of quotes about the different kinds of sexism that plague the industry, from hiring practices to casting decisions. Reading the piece felt like lifting a curtain of silence, exposing all the practices we knew happened in Hollywood but rarely heard discussed openly. “It’s kind of like the church,’’ Anjelica Huston told Dowd about the industry. “‘They don’t want us to be priests. They want us to be obedient nuns.’’
An Unbelievable Story of Rape, ProPublica
T. Christian Mille and Ken Armstrong, reporters at ProPublica and the Marshall Project, got together to investigate a “false rape accusation” in the Pacific Northwest — a recanted story that even led to charges against the accuser. But after a serial rapist was arrested, it turns out the accusation wasn’t so fabricated after all. Stereotypes about how victims are supposed to behave (and how law enforcement is supposed to react) are utterly punctured by this one story. It’s an absolutely crucial corrective to the narrative about how sexual assault looks in society.
The Big Secret of Abortion: Women Already Know How It Works, New York Magazine/The Cut
Attacks on Planned Parenthood, both metaphorical and literal, were a huge story in 2015. In this hard-to-read but incredibly important piece, Rebecca Traister explains why graphic scare tactics about “baby-parts” won’t change women’s minds even if they hurt Planned Parenthood politically. She explain all of the things women endure in the course of reproducing — from miscarriages and stillbirths to bizarre procedures and traumatizing pregnancies — that make us well aware of what abortion looks like, and support it anyway. “We know more about blood, innards, fetuses, and the babies they may become — in short, about life in reproductive bodies — than anti-abortion activists seem to understand,” she writes.
America Is Becoming More Liberal, The Atlantic
At year’s end, as demagoguery by Donald Trunp is beginning to scare Americans with a conscience, Peter Beinart’s article is a bracing counterpoint, arguing that the basically liberal coalition that elected Barack Obama is only growing stronger and the domestic policy conversation leans ever leftward. What’s best about the article is the line he draws from activism to politics: “And without Occupy, it’s impossible to understand why a curmudgeonly Democratic Socialist from Vermont is seriously challenging Hillary Clinton in the early primary states,” he writes, adding; “Hillary Clinton, having already vowed to ‘end the era of mass incarceration’ that her husband and other Democrats helped launch in the 1990s, has now met with Black Lives Matter activists twice. Bill Clinton has said he regrets his own role in expanding the incarceration state.”
Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace and The Price of Nice Nails, The New York Times
Amazon workers being punished for being sick, or having children. Nail salon workers in NYC being paid starvation wages and exposed to chemicals. These stories, reported by Jodi Kantor, David Streifeld and Sarah Maslin Nir, had a real impact. Amazon changed its parental leave policy; New York State began investigating nail salons. (There were also furious backlashes to both stories, which only proved their power.) Ultimately, but both stories forced us to hear the voices of the workers we take for granted, and maybe even our own voices or those of colleagues. With issues like sick and family leave and working conditions back on the political docket, the stories fit the zeitgeist. Caring about working conditions, whether they impact white collar or undocumented immigrants, and offering a robust and healthy challenge to capitalism are vital functions of the fourth estate.
Overkill: America’s Epidemic of Unnecessary Care, The New Yorker
Atul Gawande takes on the medicalization of, well, medicine in the New Yorker, nailing a wider, disturbing trend that so many of us have experienced in hospitals and the doctor’s office, and most worryingly, with terminal ill relatives. “Millions of people are receiving drugs that aren’t helping them, operations that aren’t going to make them better, and scans and tests that do nothing beneficial for them, and often cause harm,” he writes.