A Lesson from Reporting on Rape

In case you missed it: Rolling Stone magazine published a story about campus sexual assault that featured a victim named Jackie whose account turned out to largely untrue, prompting the Columbia Journalism Review to issue their report that analyzed how and why seasoned journalists could be led astray.

Reporting on rape and sexual assault is extremely tough. There are few other crimes where the victim is left so deeply traumatized, and a journalist trying to interview a rape victim has to gingerly navigate the minefield of that raw, emotional injury while also getting the details of what they need for their story. In an effort to not cause them more harm, you may not press hard enough for the facts. Or you may inadvertently veer in the opposite direction;  not read them correctly and press too hard. It’s an enormous challenge to remain dispassionate in the face of someone’s palpable pain, and I’ve come to believe that empathy accomplishes much more because it motivates you to try to illuminate the injustice and tragedy of this crime. Finally, a  reporter’s own personal experiences can sometimes cloud their judgment if they become triggered themselves.

Any journalist who frequently tackles trauma reporting and tries to do so in a responsible way will at some time or another fail in their endeavor. It’s called being human. The failure might not be of the magnitude or in the public’s eye like the one in Rolling Stone–it may be known only to you and the subject–and might be of a different sort, but a failure nonetheless. The thing is to learn from it.

I had one such lesson burned into my memory (and rightly so) by a female military veteran whose case I was covering for the series Betrayal in the Ranks, an investigation into military sexual assault and domestic violence I co-authored with Miles Moffeit at the Denver Post.

Miles and I were in the midst of writing, and I needed a document from the victim in question. On deadline and in full efficiency mode, I left a brisk message on the answering machine of her home phone with the details of my request. The response I got hours later was blistering, and I will do my best to paraphrase it here:

“So I just got home, and it was a good day and I was in a great mood, and then I hit the button on my answering machine and out of the blue there’s your goddamn message asking for that fucking piece of paper for the story. And now standing here in my hallway you’ve yanked me back to that memory, and there’s nothing I can do to get rid of it now.”

I’ve never left a specific message for a victim since. If I need information, I will call or email and simply ask in a general way for them to call me when they can. If it’s urgent, I will indicate that it is, but I won’t dive into details of what I need on the message. I save that for an actual conversation, where I then do what I used to describe to my students as “wading in and out”: You wade into the murky water of their pain, slowly, holding their hand as you go. You then extract the detail you need, and together you carefully wade back out.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was tagged on a thoughtful post by Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, about the challeges of reporting on rape. I’ve copied his full message below:

What is most important about the Rolling Stone controversy: It’s an outlier. Investigative reporting on institutional complicity in the coverup of sexual assault is one of the major innovations in American journalism in the last 15 years.

Think about reporting on clerical sex abuse by Walter Robinson, Sacha Pfiefer, Kevin Cullen and others on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team; the pioneering investigations of sexual assault on college campuses by Kristen Lombardi and colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity; the Denver Post’s revelations of rape in the U.S. military by Miles Moffeit, Amy Herdy and others; Rachel Dissell’s recent work in the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s recent exposes on untested rape kits.

Each of these far-reaching investigations involved very sensitive reporting on victims; careful corroboration and confirmation of highly emotional stories; and meticulous documentation of various institutions’ role in coverup. In all of these investigations, reporters had to negotiate very carefully with deeply traumatized rape survivors, and develop a thorough method and ethic for reporting on their claims.

These reporters all understood both the unique challenges in interviewing survivors of private, deeply stigmatized rapes; and the very high stakes, for all involved, in getting the story right.

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