ProPublica

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  • Pulitzer-Winning Reporting Highlights The Challenges Of Reporting On Rape And How The Media Can Do Better

    During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, ProPublica And The Marshall Project Won A Pulitzer Prize For “An Unbelievable Story Of Rape”

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN

    During Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), ProPublica and The Marshall Project won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting in “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” Their work not only highlighted the challenges of investigating cases of rape and sexual violence, but also demonstrated how the media can cover these issues with better compassion and higher quality reporting.

    In December 2015, T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project cross-published “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”, documenting “the tale of a serial rapist and a young woman convicted of lying about what turned out to be a very real, harrowing assault.” The report was released as part of an  extensive collaboration between the two organizations, a partnership that ProPublica called “something of a model for 21st Century journalism.” It was this high-quality journalism that earned them a Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting in April 2016.

    In “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” Miller and Armstrong documented the experience of Marie, a woman who was assaulted and then wrongly charged with a misdemeanor for filing a false report of rape. They juxtaposed Marie’s experience with the more successful investigation of a series of similar rapes around the suburbs of Denver, CO, ultimately revealing that Marie’s assault was the first of many by the same attacker.

    Investigating and reporting on rape and sexual violence are challenges for law enforcement and journalists alike. On February 26, the radio show This American Life featured “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” and host Ira Glass described investigating sexual assault cases as “like a game of telephone” in that “one misunderstanding begets another misunderstanding … until something that is not true spreads to an entire community of people and somehow hardens into the truth.”

    In “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” Miller and Armstrong demonstrated how these challenges impact law enforcement’s ability to investigate sexual violence. They argued that unlike in other investigations, in rape cases, “the credibility of the victim was often on trial as much as the guilt of the accused”:

    Those investigations often boiled down to an issue of consent. Had the woman said “yes”? They were tough for cops and prosecutors. Juries were hesitant to throw someone in prison when it was one person’s word against another’s. Rapes by strangers were uncommon — about 13 percent of cases. But there was still the issue of the woman’s story. Was she telling the truth? Or fabricating a ruse to cover a sexual encounter gone wrong?

    In that way, rape cases were unlike most other crimes. The credibility of the victim was often on trial as much as the guilt of the accused. And on the long, fraught trail between crime and conviction, the first triers of fact were the cops. An investigating officer had to figure out if the victim was telling the truth.

    Despite this skepticism, false rape reports are a statistical minority -- representing only between 2 and 8 percent of cases. In fact, according to research by the Rape, Abuse &Incest National Network (RAINN), 68 percent of rapes go unreported to law enforcement. A 2014 report from the White House Council on Women and Girls argued that belief in the myth that false accusations are prevalent “may help account for the low rates” of rape reporting and subsequent arrests.

    The media’s handling of rape investigations is hardly much better. In a 2013 article, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) noted that common mistakes journalists make in reporting on rape include employing “leading language, scant statistics, and a whole lot of victim blaming.” In many other cases, one advocate explained, “the victims are considered guilty, and the rapists are considered innocent.”

    Jennifer Vanasco wrote an article about an example for CJR in response to “dismal” coverage of the 2013 Steubenville rape case -- in which two football players assaulted a 16-year-old girl who had passed out at a party. Despite a visual record of the assault, the media narrative centered on “showing the boys more sympathy than the victim,” Vanasco argued. Her message was simple: “there is only one thing to say to the media: You know better.”

    Right-wing media in particular have been especially adamant in their campaign of misrepresentation about the severity of sexual assault in this country. Beyond disputing the veracity of campus sexual assault statistics, right-wing media figures have called reporting on statutory rape “whiny,” claimed sexual assault victims have a “coveted status,” blamed feminism for encouraging sexual assault, and said attempts to curb sexual assault harm men and constitute “a war happening on boys.”

    The original reporting on Marie’s case exemplified a similar failure to cover the matter with compassion. For example, as Armstrong explained on This American Life, “reporters chased [Marie’s case]” and were eager to sensationalize her apparent deception. The show quoted a news anchor saying, “Police in Lynnwood now say a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a stranger made up the story.” “At least three other stations aired similar stories,” Armstrong said.

    Beyond difficulties with the process and substance of reporting on rape, there are demographic concerns. A 2015 study by the Women’s Media Center found that reporting on rape and sexual violence cases “is significantly skewed toward the bylines and voices of men.” Researchers found that men wrote “55 percent of sexual assault stories,” and were attributed “48 percent of the quotes” while women wrote only 31 percent and had 32 percent of quotes (14 percent of the stories did not have bylines, and 21 percent of the quotes were either from people whose gender was unclear or from organizations). These gender disparities had an  impact on the quality of stories as “a higher proportion of male journalists used quotes about the behavior of or impact on the alleged perpetrator than did female journalists.” Conversely, “Women journalists interviewed alleged victims more often than male journalists, and a higher proportion of women journalists wrote about the impact of the alleged attack on alleged victims.”

    Recognizing these demographic challenges, Miller and Armstrong were careful to solicit the guidance of their female colleagues. Joseph Sexton, senior editor of ProPublica, explained that “in both our organizations are women in senior positions of authority and judgment.” He said the copy editing was done by “a woman who had tremendous thoughts and to whom we turned at the end when we were evaluating exactly how to tell, and at what level of detail, the final chapter in the story, which is the rape of Marie.”

    In an accompanying piece to “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” Miller and Armstrong outlined their journalistic process and methodology for reporting Marie’s story. They emphasized the importance of journalists basing their work on primary sources -- both documents and interviews -- and on specific statistics about rape and sexual violence. According to Miller and Armstrong, any “words or thoughts attributed to anyone in this story are drawn from these interviews or documents.”

    Sexton further underscored the importance of journalists relying on primary source documentation and interviews during a discussion on the ProPublica podcast. According to Sexton, until Miller and Armstrong’s piece, “no one had spoken to Marie.” He argued that although journalists have a role to play, “the person who deserves credit for telling this story is Marie.” This intentional centering of the survivor, with compassion and consent, was essential to the overall quality of “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”:

    JOSEPH SEXTON: The story had never been told. No one had spoken to Marie, the victim, and in many ways one of the heroines of the story. The cops had never been identified by name who had mistreated her and then charged her. The story of the two female detectives from Colorado -- one can often see them as competitive, differing jurisdictions, who came together and put aside rivalry and did the best investigation possible -- their story had never been told. So it was certainly not going over familiar ground. Almost every word of it was new and harrowing and important.

    And, while I am touched to be a guest on the show and I know Bill feels similarly, sometimes journalists talking about how a story comes to be and how they put it together can seem a little overly self-regarding. The person who deserves credit for the telling of this story is Marie. She’d waited a long time to tell it and it took an awful lot of courage and fortitude and trust to do it.

  • Fox Dismisses Video About Systemic Racism As "Dumb," Instead Highlighting Complaints From "Outraged" Parents

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY & DAYANITA RAMESH

    Fox News levied a series of complaints and attacks against a Black History Month video by the African American Policy Forum that portrays the barriers of institutional and historical anti-black racism. Fox ignored the substance of the video, which was shown to students at a Virginia high school, and instead focused on complaints that the video is "trying to make students feel guilty for being white." Fox's diatribe against the video underscores a long-standing pattern of shortsighted race coverage at Fox and in mainstream media.

  • This Powerful Reporting Uncovers The Reality Of Racial Segregation In Schools

    "A Story Of The Staggering Educational Inequality We Are Willing To Accept"

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Last year, reporting from The New York Times Magazine's Nikole Hannah-Jones showcased a disturbing trend in American K-12 education: the resegregation of schools across the country and its negative impact on all students and communities. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it's worth revisiting Hannah-Jones' work for WBEZ's This American Life program, and her previous reporting on modern-day school resegregation for ProPublica and The Atlantic.

    In April 2014, investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones published a comprehensive exploration of racial resegregation in an Alabama city school district previously under a federal desegregation order. The report, released as part of an ongoing ProPublica series in collaboration with The Atlantic, focused on the state of segregation in American society and coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education civil rights decision outlawing racial segregation in schools.

    The three-part series featured images from historic segregation efforts, submissions from students detailing their own experiences with racial segregation in schools, an interactive timeline on the trajectory of integration efforts nationwide, a short companion film, and in-depth reporting focused on the first-hand experiences of a black family in a highly segregated district in the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The project's editors at ProPublica described its scope:

    The presentation includes: Hannah-Jones's extraordinary 9,000-word article; a beautiful and arresting collection of photographs taken by students in Tuscaloosa high schools; a partnership with Michele Norris's "Race Card Project" and NPR's Morning Edition; an interactive timeline tracing the arc of segregation, integration and resegregation; a feature that will provide the first-ever opportunity for readers to look up whether their districts remain under federal desegregation orders and just how integrated their school districts are today; and a moving, short documentary film by the award-winning Maisie Crow.

    Hannah-Jones' reporting -- featured as the May 2014 cover story for The Atlantic -- connected the stories of three generations of the Dents, a black Tuscaloosa family, to the complicated realities of racial dynamics in schools across the country (emphasis added):

    Tuscaloosa's school resegregation--among the most extensive in the country--is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes. It is a story shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city's black elites. And it was blessed by a U.S. Department of Justice no longer committed to fighting for the civil-rights aims it had once championed.

    [...]

    In the hours after the parade, James Dent sat back in a worn wingback chair in the cramped but tidy house he and his wife rent in the West End. As dusk brought out the whirring of cicadas, he quietly flipped through a photo album devoted to D'Leisha's many accomplishments. She's the class president, a member of the mayor's youth council, a state champion in track and field. Later that night, she would be named homecoming queen as well.

    Dent never went to college. One of 13 children born into the waning days of Jim Crow, he took his place in the earliest of integrated American institutions: the military. He served four years in the Air Force, including a year in Vietnam, before returning to the West End to spend the next 40 mixing cement for a living. The work was steady, but the pay meager.

    Thin, with chestnut skin, and seldom seen without a Vietnam-vet cap, Dent is a reserved man, not prone to soapboxes. But after a long silence, he gently suggested that maybe his granddaughter deserved a little more than a 12-car salute at a brief and sparsely attended parade. When D'Leisha graduates this spring, she will have spent her entire public education in segregated schools. Just like he had.

    "I think about it all the time, and ain't nothing I can do about it," he said. "It ain't going to get no better." He said he just hoped she was learning as much as the city's white students were, then grew quiet again. If integration was going to prove so brief, what, he wondered, had all the fighting been for?

    Hannah-Jones' storytelling around the Dent family -- grandfather James, who attended segregated schools in Tuscaloosa; mother Melissa, who attended the high-achieving, integrated Central High School there; and daughter D'Leisha, a current student at the overwhelmingly black, failing Central High of the present-day -- wove through historical context about federal desegregation orders, local politics, and extensive research on the benefits of integrated education for black and white students alike. She concluded:

    For black students like D'Leisha--the grandchildren of the historic Brown decision--having to play catch-up with their white counterparts is supposed to be a thing of the past. The promise was that students of all colors would be educated side by side, and would advance together into a more integrated, equitable American society. Polls show Americans embracing this promise in the abstract, but that rarely translates into on-the-ground support for integration efforts.

    [...]

    A few months earlier, D'Leisha had talked about how much she looked forward to meeting people from different cultures at college and sitting in a racially mixed classroom for the first time. But her college hopes are thinner now than she'd expected then. As of this writing, they largely hinge on the tenuous promise of a coach at a small, historically black college outside of Birmingham, who has told her that the school will have a place for her despite her score. No official offer of admission has yet arrived.

    At the end of 2014, Hannah-Jones' work on school resegregation appeared again at ProPublica, this time focused on the segregation of the Normandy school district in Missouri, where Michael Brown had graduated days before his fatal shooting by a white police officer. This work informed more in-depth, first-hand reporting on segregated schools for a piece in New York Times Magazine and a two-part investigative series for WBEZ's This American Life program last summer. The series was entitled "The Problem We All Live With" in reference to a famous Norman Rockwell painting depicting Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white school in the South.

    The program drew from Hannah-Jones' scholarly expertise on and personal connections to racial resegregation in schools, then pivoted to report on starkly different desegregation efforts in Normandy (bordering the city of Ferguson, Missouri) and Hartford, Connecticut, where a school district was actively integrating and facing an uphill battle to gain support from local parents. The series also featured a smaller vignette told from the perspective of a black student taking integration into her own hands, and an interview with then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan conducted by Hannah-Jones and This American Life producer Chana Joffe-Walt. Hannah-Jones described the project as an effort to tell the story of Michael Brown's school district and "what happens to those children left behind" compared to students who are "given a chance to escape failing schools" (emphasis added):

    I teamed up with Chana Joffe-Walt, a producer for the radio program "This American Life," to tell the story of Michael Brown's school district through the students who remain there. It is a story of children locked away from opportunity, what happens when those children are given a chance to escape failing schools and what happens to those children left behind. It is a story of how powerful people decided to do something only when the problems of the worst district in the state were no longer contained. And above all, it is a story of the staggering educational inequality we are willing to accept.

    The first part of the series, framed around the death of Michael Brown, detailed an unintentional integration program instituted in his school district in Normandy, one year before Brown's death, when the district lost its state accreditation and students were allowed to transfer to neighboring, overwhelmingly white schools (emphasis added):

    NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I stumbled on this place by accident. I was watching the coverage of Michael Brown, almost a year ago, like the rest of America. There was one moment that I could not get out of my head. It's news footage of his mother, Leslie McSpadden, right after he was killed.

    LESLIE MCSPADDEN: This was wrong, and that was cold-hearted.

    HANNAH-JONES: She's standing in a crowd of onlookers, a few feet from where her son was shot down, where he would lie face down on the concrete for four hours, dead. And this is what she says.

    MCSPADDEN: You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. 

    HANNAH-JONES: I watched this over and over. A police officer has just killed her oldest child. It has to be the worst moment of her life. But of all the ways she could've expressed her grief and outrage, this is what was on her mind: school. Getting her son through school. Michael Brown became a national symbol of the police violence against youth, but when I looked into his education I realized he's also a symbol of something else, something much more common. Most black kids will not be shot by the police, but many of them will go to a school like Michael Brown's. It took me all of five minutes on the Internet to find out that the school district he attended is almost completely black, almost completely poor, and failing badly.

    [...]

    Schools in Missouri get accredited by the state. Almost every district is accredited, but if you're doing really bad, you get put on notice. That's called provisional accreditation. That's supposed to be like a warning, but Normandy had provisional accreditation for 15 years. That means there are entire classes of students, nearly all of them black, who came in as kindergarteners and graduated twelve years later without ever having attended a school that met state standards. In the St. Louis area, nearly one in two black children attend schools in districts that perform so poorly, the state has stripped them of full accreditation. Only one in 25 white children are in a district like that.

    The second part of the series, reported by Joffe-Walt, expanded on Hannah-Jones' segment by providing a contrasting story of the Hartford, Connecticut city school district which is using sophisticated marketing strategies to gain support from white parents in its efforts to prioritize racial integration in its schools (emphasis added): 

    CHANA JOFFE-WALT: When you drive around suburban Hartford now, occasionally you'll see a sign on someone's lawn that says 'I Heart Magnet Schools.' Neighbors will ask, 'Hey, where does your kid go on the bus every morning?' The few-minute conversation that follows is the most powerful marketing tool available. It's what Enid or any marketer dreams of: a conversation where one parent goes to another, 'Oh, I think I've heard of that place. Does she like it? Is it safe?' Neighbor to neighbor, white person to white person. It is the same potent tool that, three decades ago, helped create segregated neighborhoods, repurposed to do the exact opposite.

    [...]

    Hartford parents, right now, are frustrated for the exact same reason parents were frustrated with Hartford schools in the 1980s, when [civil rights lawyer] John Brittain sued: their schools are inferior. Magnet school kids do great. They go to integrated schools, and 80 percent of them pass state tests. Hartford public school kids go to segregated schools. Less than 40 percent of them pass state tests. Magnet school kids can explore space on the first floor of their school. Hartford public school buildings have gotten better, but they're not like that.

    For the 50 percent of Hartford families who can't get their kids into the beautiful, integrated magnet schools, things are exactly the same as they've always been. Only worse, because now there's a school with a planetarium down the block that they can't get into. That school with the planetarium, by the way? The environmental sciences magnet? It used to just be Mary Hooker Elementary before integration. It was just a regular public school. And back when it was a regular public school, it was almost entirely Latino, there was no planetarium, no Lego lab or butterfly vivarium. Those came when it went magnet. Those came with the white students.

    The argument against 'separate but equal' was never that separate schools couldn't be equal, theoretically. Just that it never, ever happens.

    "The Problem We All Live With," along with Hannah-Jones' previous work, brings the first-hand stories of students and parents to the forefront of America's ongoing racial conversation, and connects these experiences to data highlighting the failures of persistent segregation in schools and the complicated strategies used to address it. This powerful reporting, weaving personal experiences from different communities and generations with the facts of school segregation's lasting impact, warrants another look today.

  • Eight Veteran Economics Reporters Dismiss "Implausible" Jobs Numbers Conspiracy

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Veteran economics reporters and columnists are strongly criticizing conservative claims that the unemployment data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Friday was manipulated to benefit President Obama politically, calling such allegations "implausible" and "unfounded."

    Shortly after the BLS announced that the unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8%, former GE CEO Jack Welch tweeted, "Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers." Welch's tweet was quickly highlighted by the Drudge Report. Since then, conservative media figures, including multiple Fox News personalities, have tried to cast doubt on the new jobs numbers.

    Eight Economists On The Jobs ConspiracyBut experienced financial journalists at outlets like The New York Times and The Economist say the contention that the new unemployment rate is fraudulent is not based on any valid proof.

    "It is completely implausible to me that they would actively rig the thing to help Obama," said Joe Nocera, New York Times business columnist. "The guys are green eye-shaded career bureaucrats who have no particular vested interest one way or another in who wins the presidential election."

    Nocera was referring to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the unemployment rates and has no political ties to the White House.

    "They come out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you are going to cook them, how exactly would you go about it, it is pretty implausible that the career bureaucrats at the Bureau would cook the books for Obama," Nocera added. "Everybody likes a conspiracy theory, but it is hard to understand how they would do it."

    Jesse Eisinger, senior reporter for finance at ProPublica and a former seven-year Wall Street Journal reporter, agreed.

    "This is complete fantasy," he said about the claims of political influence. "It is yet another one of these right-wing denialist ideas. They're perennial ideas that government statistics are manipulated. These are flawed measures, certainly, but the flaws are not due to any partisanship ... These are done by reputable civil servants. There is almost no way that these numbers could be manipulated for political gain. It doesn't hold up in any way you think about it."

    Martin Wolk, executive business editor for NBC News Digital, also called such claims baseless.

    "I've been covering economics for a long time and I have been watching these reports come out every month and I talk to these economists and I think that those claims are unfounded," Wolk said in an interview Friday. "They do the best to present those claims honestly. I have never seen a pattern where the numbers consistently favor one party or another. I would defy anyone to find a pattern in those numbers that is politically motivated."

    Added David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times economics reporter and author of many books on taxes and business:

    "This claim gets made often. It has never been shown to have any basis in fact afterward during previous administrations."

  • NYT quotes Gulf of Mexico Foundation head without noting group's ties to oil industry and rig at center of Gulf Coast disaster

    Blog ››› ››› KARL FRISCH

    About half way through a piece in today's New York Times titled "Gulf Oil Spill Is Bad, but How Bad?" reporters John M. Broder and Tom Zeller, Jr. turn to the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation (GMF) for comment:

    "The sky is not falling," said Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Tex. "We've certainly stepped in a hole and we're going to have to work ourselves out of it, but it isn't the end of the Gulf of Mexico."

    The Times is sure to make note that Dokken is a "marine biologist" but what the paper didn't note is that the organization he leads has close ties not only to the oil and gas industry but to the very rig at the center of the ongoing Gulf Coast disaster.

    As Newsweek's Daniel Stone notes on The Gaggle blog (emphasis added):

    The piece quotes a fellow named Quenton R. Dokken, identified as a "marine biologist" and head of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, described as a conservation group. Except that describing the Gulf of Mexico Foundation as a conservation group would be like describing Focus on the Family as a pro-choice organization.

    Earlier this afternoon, ProPublica offered even more detail (again, emphasis added):

    At least half of the 19 members of the group's board of directors [5] have direct ties to the offshore drilling industry. One of them is currently an executive at Transocean, the company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded last month, causing millions of gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

    Seven other board members are currently employed at oil companies, or at companies that provide products and services "primarily" to the offshore oil and gas industry. Those companies include Shell, Conoco Phillips, LLOG Exploration Company, Devon Energy, Anadarko Petroleum Company and Oceaneering International.

    The Gulf of Mexico Foundation's president is a retired senior vice president of Rowan Companies Inc., an offshore drilling contractor.

    Meanwhile, Transocean hosted the group's winter board meeting in January and sponsored a dinner for the board of directors. Past board meetings have been hosted in full or in part by Anadarko Petroleum Company, Shell Exploration and Production, Valero Refinery and Marathon Oil Corporation.

    In an update to its original story, ProPublica's Marian Wang quotes the Times' Zeller claiming "space constraints" were at least partially to blame even though it was "probably always better to err on the side of full disclosure."

    Disturbingly, Zeller essentially dismissed concerns about the GMF's industry ties and never addressed the chilling fact that the group has ties to the very company that owns the "rig that exploded last month, causing millions of gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico" as ProPublica put it in its initial story.