Tag Archives: Betrayal in the Ranks

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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Right Now: Tell Congress to Do the Right Thing by Military Sexual Assault Survivors and Pass the Military Justice Improvement Act

Do you want to help survivors of military sexual assault? Then take a moment to read this, and then click on the link to contact your local representative in Congress and tell them to vote for the Military Justice Improvement Act.

Few people want to get involved regarding the issue of rape. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such an ongoing crisis in our country–it’s got crippling stigma attached to it, and shame, and victim-blaming. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in our military.

invisible warI’m on the email list for director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, the creators of the outstanding documentary, “The Invisible War,” a film about the crisis of sexual assaults within the U.S. military. I’m interviewed in the film because of my work covering the issue, primarily the series I coauthored at the Denver Post called “Betrayal in the Ranks.”

Right now, the Invisible War team is sending out this call for action. Please read it, and please respond. If you visit this website, it means on some level you care about this issue. So please take the time to do something about it.


From Kirby and Amy:

It’s been a busy few weeks here in our Los Angeles office, in Washington, and across the country when it comes to sexual assault. As we watch the conversation unfold and expand in the news, we know there is so much more to do to make sure survivors everywhere get the justice they deserve.

Let’s start with Washington, DC. This week the Pentagon released their annual survey on sexual assault. The report was damning.

It found:

  • Less than 3 of 10 service members have enough trust in the system to report a crime.
  • Two-thirds of those who did report an assault say they faced some form of retaliation, and
  • The number of service members willing to put their name on a report decreased when compared to last year.

This is unacceptable and exactly why Congress must pass the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) and fix this broken system.

Our men and women in uniform deserve better. They deserve justice. And this week Congress has a chance to see that they get it. Before the end of the week the Senate will vote on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This gives them another opportunity to do the right thing and pass the MJIA. Take a minute now and send Congress a message that it’s past time to deliver justice for military sexual assault survivors.

CLICK HERE and tell Congress to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act today.


But it’s not just the military, or Congress, that has work to do.

When we toured the country to screen THE INVISIBLE WAR we visited dozens of college campuses and met with thousands of students and began hearing stories from survivors of campus sexual assault. Like the stories that inspired us to make THE INVISIBLE WAR, their stories were powerful, poignant and we realized, all too common. We knew we had to take action.

So we began work on another film, this time to shine a light on the epidemic of campus assault. We’re honored so many courageous survivors and advocates have trusted us to bring their stories into the light, and we are thrilled to share that our new film, THE HUNTING GROUND, is premiering next month at the Sundance Film Festival.

The #NotInvisible community has been an incredible source of support for survivors of sexual assault — in the military and beyond. We hope that THE HUNTING GROUND will create a space for a new community to come together. And we hope you’ll be a part of that conversation too.

Together, we can help ensure that no survivor –- whether a service member or a student, has to stand alone. Together, we are #NotInvisible.

Thank you for all you do,
Amy and Kirby


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A Mother Who Lost Her Daughter to Rape Searches for Answers

How awful to know that your daughter was raped, and that her attacker was someone she was supposed to trust.

Now imagine being told that after all she had endured, your daughter killed herself, and you’ll know what Suzie is going through.

Suzie contacted me after reading a blog I posted to this website about The Invisible War,  a gripping documentary about the crisis of sexual assaults within the U.S. military. I’m interviewed in the film because of my work covering the issue, primarily the series I coauthored at the Denver Post about sexual assault and domestic violence in the U.S. military called “Betrayal in the Ranks.”

But back to Suzie–here’s part of what she said:

“My daughter was sexually assaulted 3 times in her 3 and a half years in the Army. Twice on American soil, once during her year being deployed in Afghanistan. It culminated in her taking her own life after being told she was bi-polar or borderline personality disorder… She said they wanted to get rid of her and not the rapist. Please help me find truth for all of these men and women whom have had to endure what our own HOMELAND SECURITY could have prevented!!!! God Bless!! I AM NOT FINISHED WITH THIS!”

Her tragic story drives home this point: Whether a rapist is stalking women on the streets of Denver or within his own military unit, we’re enabling him as long as we allow our systems to put victims through hell for reporting their assaults.


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