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ProPublica’s Top 25 Stories of 2020

Our list of the year’s most-read stories contains deeply unsettling investigations from a deeply unsettling year.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Investigative reporting can require months, or even years, of work before it’s published; that’s ProPublica’s specialty. Our reporters go into the world, sometimes following a hunch or a tip; spend ages burrowing down a rabbit hole; and emerge having frequently uncovered deeply unsettling abuses of power. It’s why our work often falls outside the day-to-day news cycle.

But there was nothing regular about what happened in March. In just a few weeks, everything about the world changed. Our conference rooms went quiet as Manhattan’s offices emptied, and the general din of our collaborative newsroom transformed into a complicated web of group chats, direct messages, email listservs and more.

ProPublica reporters were knee-deep in investigative projects that were suddenly upended by the new reality. We adjusted. We set aside some stories and focused on the crisis at hand. We reoriented to be faster and nimbler. We pressed on with old investigations that the new world rendered even more urgent. In the face of a tsunami of lies, ineptitude and mishaps from those in power, we told the truth and didn’t hold back.

Now that 2020 has mercifully come to an end, we are pausing to take stock of what we have published and what has meant the most to you, our readers. We are sharing a list of the most popular ProPublica stories of the year.

This list is made up of the top 25 stories by readership on ProPublica’s site and across several publishing platforms. We’re a nonprofit, reliant primarily on donations instead of ad revenue, so we don’t chase pageviews and readership. But we’re proud when our important work is welcomed by a large audience.

The subject matter of the stories on this list is harrowing in its own right. Lizzie Presser’s detailed account from March of a doctor grappling with the violence the coronavirus inflicted on his patients’ lungs was an early reminder that the virus could attack anybody. Robert Faturechi’s scoop on Sen. Richard Burr’s timely and ethically questionable stock sales unleashed a wave of reporting into the financial dealings of senators who appeared to profit from inside information about the coronavirus while they downplayed the impact of the pandemic. Wendi Thomas showed that being an essential worker is effectively meaningless when nobody cares about your well-being. And there’s so much more, like a climate crisis and a renewed national focus on racism and its unending carnage. All while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fell apart in real time.

As expected from ProPublica, it’s not a happy list of stories. We are not the media source you turn to for distraction, laughter or entertainment. We tend to unearth deeply unsettling and upsetting truths, which was especially hard in a deeply unsettling and upsetting year.

So look to this list as a reminder of the abuses of power we hope to leave behind in 2020, the ones we know we must continue to track in 2021 and the limitless possibilities and hopes that come from finding the truth, especially from those who want to hide it.

I hope you read and remember these pieces — and learn a great deal from them.

  1. A Medical Worker Describes Terrifying Lung Failure From COVID-19 — Even in His Young Patients by Lizzie Presser, March 21

    “It first struck me how different it was when I saw my first coronavirus patient go bad. I was like, Holy shit, this is not the flu. Watching this relatively young guy, gasping for air, pink frothy secretions coming out of his tube.”
  2. Senator Dumped Up to $1.7 Million of Stock After Reassuring Public About Coronavirus Preparedness by Robert Faturechi and Derek Willis, March 19

    Intelligence Chair Richard Burr’s selloff came around the time he was receiving daily briefings on the health threat.
  3. Tracking PPP Loans: Search Every Company Approved for Federal Loans Over $150k by Moiz Syed and Derek Willis, July 7

    The Paycheck Protection Program includes about $659 billion in federally backed loans to small businesses, to be forgiven if used to prevent laying off workers. This database lets you search what’s been disclosed so far.
  4. Trump Races to Weaken Environmental and Worker Protections, and Implement Other Last-Minute Policies, Before Jan. 20 by Isaac Arnsdorf, Nov. 25

    The Trump administration is rushing to approve dozens of eleventh-hour policy changes. Among them: The Justice Department is fast-tracking a rule that could reintroduce firing squads and electrocutions to federal executions.
  5. Doctors Are Hoarding Unproven Coronavirus Medicine by Writing Prescriptions for Themselves and Their Families by Topher Sanders, David Armstrong and Ava Kofman, March 24

    Pharmacists told ProPublica that they are seeing unusual and fraudulent prescribing activity as doctors stockpile unproven coronavirus drugs endorsed by President Donald Trump.
  6. They Didn’t Have Coronavirus Symptoms Until After They Gave Birth. Then They Tested Positive. by Nina Martin, March 27

    The team at a top New York City hospital raced to stabilize a woman who hemorrhaged and developed breathing issues during her C-section delivery. Then they decided to evaluate her for COVID-19. She tested positive, a new study says.
  7. A Teenager Didn’t Do Her Online Schoolwork. So a Judge Sent Her to Juvenile Detention. by Jodi S. Cohen, July 14

    A 15-year-old in Michigan was incarcerated during the coronavirus pandemic after a judge ruled that not completing her schoolwork violated her probation. “It just doesn’t make any sense,” said the girl’s mother.
  8. Cellphone Data Shows How Las Vegas Is “Gambling With Lives” Across the Country by Marshall Allen, Aug. 18

    Las Vegas casinos, open for months now, are a likely hotbed for the spread of COVID-19. For many reasons, contact tracing has proved next to impossible as tourists return to homes across the U.S.
  9. Millions of People Face Stimulus Check Delays for a Strange Reason: They Are Poor by Paul Kiel, Justin Elliott and Will Young, April 24

    The IRS has had trouble getting money to people quickly because millions of Americans pay for their tax preparation through a baroque system of middlemen.
  10. Inside the Fall of the CDC by James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg, Oct. 15

    How the world’s greatest public health organization was brought to its knees by a virus, the president and the capitulation of its own leaders, causing damage that could last much longer than the coronavirus.
  11. There’s Been a Spike in People Dying at Home in Several Cities. That Suggests Coronavirus Deaths Are Higher Than Reported. by Jack Gillum, Lisa Song and Jeff Kao, April 14

    Coronavirus death counts are based on positive tests and driven by hospital deaths. But data from major metropolitan areas shows a spike in at-home deaths, prompting one expert to say current numbers were just “the tip of the iceberg.”
  12. Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate by Akilah Johnson and Talia Buford, April 3

    No, the coronavirus is not an “equalizer.” Black people are being infected and dying at higher rates. Here’s what Milwaukee is doing about it — and why governments need to start releasing data on the race of COVID-19 patients.
  13. He Made a Minor Mistake Filling Out an Unemployment Form. Then the State Demanded $14,990 From Him. by Ava Kofman, Oct. 29

    State unemployment agencies are discovering errors in payments affecting hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans. Even when the agencies made the original error, they’re taking aggressive steps to get the money back.
  14. Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration by Abrahm Lustgarten, photography by Meridith Kohut, Sept. 15

    Wildfires rage in the West. Hurricanes batter the East. Droughts and floods wreak damage throughout the nation. Life has become increasingly untenable in the hardest-hit areas, but if the people there move, where will everyone go?
  15. Judge Won’t Free Michigan Teenager Sent to Juvenile Detention After Not Doing Online Schoolwork by Jodi S. Cohen, July 20

    At a hearing, Judge Mary Ellen Brennan denied a motion to release a 15-year-old from a juvenile facility. “I think you are exactly where you are supposed to be,” Brennan said. “You are blooming there, but there is more work to be done.”
  16. A Doctor Went to His Own Employer for a COVID-19 Antibody Test. It Cost $10,984. by Marshall Allen, Sept. 5

    Physicians Premier ER charged Dr. Zachary Sussman’s insurance $10,984 for his COVID-19 antibody test even though Sussman worked for the chain and knows the testing materials only cost about $8. Even more surprising: The insurer paid in full.
  17. Credibly Accused by Ellis Simani and Ken Schwencke, with Katie Zavadski and Lexi Churchill, Jan. 28

    This database lets you search through lists kept by U.S. catholic dioceses of clergy who they have deemed credibly accused of sexual abuse or misconduct.
  18. New Climate Maps Show a Transformed United States by Al Shaw, Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, and Jeremy W. Goldsmith, special to ProPublica, Sept. 15

    According to new data analyzed by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, warming temperatures, rising seas and changing rainfall will profoundly reshape the way people have lived in North America for centuries.
  19. You Might Be Buying a Hand Sanitizer That Won’t Work for Coronavirus by Marshall Allen and Lisa Song, March 6

    Sanitizers that don’t contain the CDC’s recommended minimum of 60% alcohol are flying off store shelves and listed by sellers on Amazon for outrageous prices. Here is what you need to know.
  20. Internal Emails Show How Chaos at the CDC Slowed the Early Response to Coronavirus by Caroline Chen, Marshall Allen and Lexi Churchill, March 26

    The CDC fumbled its communication with public health officials and underestimated the threat of the coronavirus even as it gained a foothold in the United States, according to hundreds of pages of documents ProPublica obtained.
  21. These Workers Packed Lip Gloss and Pandora Charm Bracelets. They Were Labeled “Essential” but Didn’t Feel Safe. by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, May 2

    PFS, which packs and ships jewelry and cosmetics, stayed open even as employees have tested positive for coronavirus. Some temporary workers say they quit over a lack of workplace protections, but agencies keep sending people to $9 an hour jobs.
  22. Two Coasts. One Virus. How New York Suffered Nearly 10 Times the Number of Deaths as California. by Joe Sexton and Joaquin Sapien, May 16

    California’s governor and San Francisco’s mayor worked together to act early in confronting the COVID threat. For Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, it was a different story, and 27,000 New Yorkers have died so far.
  23. This Coronavirus Is Unlike Anything in Our Lifetime, and We Have to Stop Comparing It to the Flu by Charles Ornstein, March 14

    Longtime health reporter Charles Ornstein says that comparing the novel coronavirus to the flu is dangerously inaccurate. Not one public health expert he trusts has called that comparison valid. Here’s why.
  24. In Desperation, New York State Pays Up to 15 Times the Normal Prices for Medical Equipment by Lydia DePillis and Lisa Song, April 2

    State data shows that New York is paying enormous markups for vital supplies, including almost $250,000 for an X-ray machine. Laws against price gouging usually don’t apply.
  25. How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing by Alec MacGillis, June 29

    Discount chains are thriving — while fostering violence and neglect in poor communities.

Image Credits: First row, from left to right: David Goldman/AP Photo, John Minchillo/AP Photo, Brandon Dill for ProPublica, Andrea Wise for ProPublica, Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, John Moore/Getty; second row, from left to right: Darren Hauck, special to ProPublica, Jeff Frost, Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press, Sharon Chischilly for ProPublica, ProPublica, Al Shaw/ProPublica; third row, from left to right: FeatureChina via AP Images, ProPublica, Anthony Behar/Sipa USA, Leonardo Santamaria, special to ProPublica, Jovelle Tamayo, special to ProPublica, John Moore/Getty Images; bottom row, from left to right: Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images, Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters, Lisa Larson-Walker/ProPublica, Bridget Bennett/The New York Times via Redux, Shoshana Gordon/ProPublica

Portrait of Karim Doumar

Karim Doumar

Karim Doumar is an assistant editor at ProPublica.

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