In a year marked by terrorism, gun violence, war refugees and debates over the Confederate flag, religious freedom and gay marriage, 2015 could long be remembered as the year the press wore its heart on its sleeve — or at least aired its opinions on Page One.
The Jan. 7 terrorist attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s Paris newsroom, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people, including the paper’s editor-in-chief, set the tone for an advocacy press that frequently used the front page as its soapbox.
The 10 newspapers singled out for special recognition this year were notable for their emotion and boldness; the ability to provoke sympathy, joy and outrage; and an unfettered willingness to overstep boundaries. They initiated debate and pulled readers into the discussion. They hung tough when their controversial decisions were challenged by a worldwide audience. Some made it to our daily Top Ten list, some did not. They were the epitome of a free press and stood out among a crop of outstanding front pages.
A week after the brutal killings in Paris, Charlie Hebdo’s Jan. 14 edition featured a caricature of a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding a “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) sign. “Tout Est Pardonné” (All is Forgiven) was the headline. It was a risky decision by a defiant, grieving staff known for its crude wit under constant death threats. The weekly’s past cartoons of Islam’s holy prophet had been the provocation for the mass murders. “We will not give in,” said Richard Malka, an attorney for the newspaper. “The spirit of ‘Je Suis Charlie’ means the right to blaspheme.”
Fed up with inaction on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was dividing the state, The Indianapolis Star issued an eye-catching demand to the Indiana Legislature. “Fix. This. Now.” the paper demanded, a position that not only got the country talking about the law but also prompted debate about whether the front page was the appropriate place for the Star’s editorial. A revised religious freedom law went into effect July 1 and specifically prohibited discrimination against anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Four days after nine black parishioners, including the pastor, were killed inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., The Post and Courier dedicated its full front page to the victims of the mass shooting. In brief descriptions, and without using a single photograph, the newspaper succeeded in putting faces on the victims — giving them substance, telling their stories and elevating them from mere personas to accomplished citizens and sympathetic human beings.
The day after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, several newspapers published the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, on Page One. In the Virginian-Pilot, the opinion was the story — the headline (“No Union Is More Profound Than Marriage”); the tagline (“It Is So Ordered”); and all the text in between. The result was a stunning front-page display where powerful words sent a transformational message that came across loud and clear.
After decades of impassioned debate over the Confederate battle flag, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a law that removed the flag from the State House grounds. The mass murder June 17 of nine black parishioners inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church precipitated the new law. In a July 10 ceremony in Columbia, the flag finally came down. In a front-page editorial that included a large image of a battered flag, the Aiken Standard looked past the decades-long controversy, declaring “Time to unite, heal in the Palmetto State.”
The day after two Virginia journalists were shot to death during a live TV broadcast, New York’s Daily News found itself in the middle of a public firestorm. Unlike many news organizations that refrained from showing the graphic video, the tabloid published three stills of the shooting in progress from the killer’s perspective. The Daily News, who in 1928 famously published a Page One execution in progress, defended its decision. “The images … are, we believe … a definitive part of the story, however disturbing. … We feel passionate about strengthening gun control, imploring politicians to improve mental health services, and highlighting the extraordinary scale of daily gun violence. That’s why we published the images.”
Europe’s escalating migrant crisis was brought to stark light when front pages around the world published shocking photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed ashore a beach in Turkey. The disturbing images of the Syrian boy, who along with his mother and five-year-old brother drowned while trying to sail to Greece, brought the migrant crisis to the world’s doorstep and sparked debate over whether graphic photographs of one of the youngest victims of the crisis should have been published at all.
On Oct. 1 in Roseburg, Ore., Umpqua Community College became the latest scene of a mass shooting at a public institution in the United States. This time, 10 people were killed and seven injured. “When Will It End?” Salem’s Statesman Journal asked on Page One, a question that conveyed an equal sense of urgency and frustration. Along with the question was commentary by the paper’s executive editor, who took a stand on mass shootings that seem to have become routine: “We agree. Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said.
The terrorism that killed more than 130 people in Paris and injured hundred others Nov. 13 was unprecedented in the City of Lights, which began the year with the mass murders of 17 people in five terrorist attacks in a single day. Paris daily Libération mourned the victims of the unspeakable slaughter by going pitch black, publishing a front page bereft of words or headlines that beautifully captured the world’s somber mood.
The last time The New York Times published a front-page editorial was in 1920 to protest the GOP presidential nomination of Warren G. Harding. Nearly a century later, America’s “gun epidemic” forced The Times to move the debate to Page One, calling it a “national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.” Said Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.: “Even in this digital age, the front page remains an incredibly strong and powerful way to surface issues that demand attention. And, what issue is more important than our nation’s failure to protect its citizens?”