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.