By Brandon Griggs
Years from now, when we look back on 2015, what will we remember?
Maybe it’ll be the tiny body of a drowned migrant boy, face-down on a beach in Turkey. Or the swagger of Donald Trump, carpet-bombing his rivals on a debate stage. Or crowds of Americans straining for a glimpse of a humble Catholic leader in a white robe. Or the bold femininity of Caitlyn Jenner, gazing back at us from the cover of Vanity Fair.
Here are our choices for the most buzzed-about news stories of 2015. They weren’t all necessarily the biggest or most impactful stories, especially in a year that had the U.S. reopening its embassy in Cuba, a newly belligerent Russian President Vladimir Putin, attacks on Planned Parenthood and earthquakes in Nepal that killed more than 9,000 people.
But these were stories that raised issues, sparked debate and prompted conversations that lasted weeks, even months. They outraged us, inspired us, saddened us and engaged us. For better or worse, they kept us talking.
Which of these 15 stories kept you talking in 2015?
Paris attacks and the growing threat of ISIS
ISIS was carrying out attacks and beheadings across the Middle East at an alarming rate this year. But then came the November 13 rampage in Paris, which killed 130 people and plunged the City of Light into temporary darkness. The attacks pierced the heart of a favorite European capital, sparked anti-Islamic fervor, shook up the U.S. presidential campaign and raised new fears in the West about ISIS’s ability to strike anywhere.
Donald Trump dominates GOP field
When the year started, Jeb Bush was seen as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, and Donald Trump was a tycoon-turned-reality TV star. But by midsummer, Trump had soared in the polls atop a crowded field, buoyed by lavish media attention and a restive electorate weary of career politicians. Despite a string of outrageous comments insulting everyone from women to Muslims, Trump has surprised pundits with his staying power — portending an unruly GOP nomination fight in 2016.
Migrant crisis engulfs Europe
Hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and other countries poured into Europe, straining services and sparking tensions with EU citizens wary of the flood of outsiders. Many desperate refugees died crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats, a tragedy driven home by widely circulated photos of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey and put a grim face on the crisis.
Racial unrest over police killings roils U.S. cities
The #BlackLivesMatter movement, galvanized by last year’s fatal shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, found no shortage of new grievances in 2015. Riots shook Baltimore in April after Freddie Gray died in police custody, and Chicago protesters called for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation following the release in November of a graphic video showing police shooting a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times. Those incidents and others spawned protests against police brutality in cities across North America.
Confederate symbols banned after Charleston church massacre
The South was forced to re-examine its stormy past after nine African-Americans were gunned down inside a Charleston, South Carolina, church in June by a white man who said he had hoped to spark a race war. The shootings renewed long-held debates about Confederate symbols that many view as racist and led officials to remove Confederate flags from South Carolina’s capitol, the Ole Miss campus, New Orleans and other places across the South.
Supreme Court affirms same-sex marriage nationwide
The tide in the U.S. had been turning in favor of same-sex marriage for months, but in June, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry nationwide. Many same-sex couples rushed to marry in the 13 states where such unions had not been legal, prompting cheers from supporters but protests in places like rural Kentucky, where clerk Kim Davis became a hero to some conservatives by refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
White House brokers controversial nuclear deal with Iran
In July, the White House announced an agreement with Iran that will ease economic sanctions against that country in exchange for new limits on its ability to develop nuclear weapons. A focal point of President Obama’s foreign policy, the deal marked a historic thaw in relations between Iran and the U.S. while drawing blistering criticism from Israel and Republicans in Congress. Its effects, still unclear, will probably ripple across the Middle East and beyond.
The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525
When a German jetliner crashed in the French Alps on March 24, killing all 150 people aboard, mystified experts first blamed pilot error or a possible equipment malfunction. But then the chilling truth emerged: Pilot Andreas Lubitz, possibly suicidal, had locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit, ignored radio messages and deliberately slammed the plane into a mountain. The crash unnerved fliers everywhere, led to changes in airlines’ policies and sparked a global debate about how to monitor the mental health of pilots.
Nations strike landmark climate-change accord
In December, representatives from 195 countries adopted a historic agreement to abandon fossil fuels and reduce emissions with a goal of limiting global warming by less than 2 degrees Celsius. The world’s first accord on climate change, the agreement came as data show that 2015 is almost certain to become the hottest year on record. Though some skeptics said the deal didn’t go far enough, Obama called it “a turning point for the world” and a major step toward embracing clean, renewable energy.
Mass shootings renew terrorism fears, debate over guns
In the deadliest mass slaying in the U.S. in three years, a heavily armed married couple opened fire December 2 on a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. The rampage, on the heels of mass shootings in Louisiana, Oregon, Colorado and other states, revived a long-standing debate about limiting access to assault weapons. The assailants were found to be radicalized Muslims inspired by ISIS, stoking new fears about Islamic extremists and domestic terrorism.
Americans flock to see Pope Francis
Millions of Americans packed the streets of New York, Philadelphia and Washington in September to see and hear Pope Francis, who charmed audiences in all three cities with his gentle humility and compassion for the less fortunate. His six-day tour — the first papal visit to the U.S. in seven years — included meetings with political leaders and a giant open-air Mass but also extraordinary visits to a homeless shelter and a prison. For the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, it was a triumphant trip.
Caitlyn Jenner and the rise of transgender identity
In a much-watched TV interview in April, former Olympian and reality star Caitlyn Jenner told Diane Sawyer, “Yes, for all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” Six weeks later, Jenner unveiled a new look, and name, on the cover of Vanity Fair. Her high-profile transition, along with transgender story lines in TV (“Transparent”) and movies (“The Danish Girl”), inspired other trans men and women while educating millions about the fluid nature of sexual identity.
NFL, Tom Brady sacked by ‘Deflategate’
This story had almost everything: scandal, celebrity and the biggest stage in American sports. The New England Patriots and their star quarterback, Tom Brady, were accused of using underinflated footballs to get an advantage during a playoff game in January, a scandal that carried over to the Super Bowl. The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell benched Brady for the first four games of the 2015 regular season, but a federal judge vacated the suspension. The saga dragged out for months, another black eye for a league already facing controversy over chronic brain injuries to its players and domestic violence.
NASA makes major discoveries on Pluto, Mars
In July, NASA’s Horizons spacecraft completed humankind’s first fly-by of Pluto, snapping photos and making surprising discoveries — such as the presence of towering ice mountains — about the distant dwarf planet. To reach Pluto, the probe traveled for more than nine years and 3.6 billion miles. Two months later, NASA announced that it had found evidence that water still flows across the rocky surface of Mars, a potential breakthrough in the search for life beyond Earth and future “Martian”-like colonization of the Red Planet.
Online photo of “the dress” sparks global debate
Blue and black? Or white and gold? A seemingly frivolous question posted to Tumblr about the correct colors of a random dress consumed the Internet in February, splitting people into rival camps and sparking conversations about optical illusions and colorblindness. Memes sprung up. Celebrities weighed in. “The dress” was 2015’s leading example of the social web’s mysterious power to spin an international dialogue around a trivial scrap of content.