Ira Glass

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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.

  • NPR Adds Clarity To Discredited Disability Report

    Blog ››› ››› HANNAH GROCH-BEGLEY

    Under fire for a sloppy report that leaned on anecdotal evidence to make sweeping generalizations about federal disability benefits, NPR has edited portions of that report even as Ira Glass publicly defends the initial reporting.

    On March 22, Media Matters highlighted several myths and errors in a report from NPR's Planet Money about Supplemental Security Insurance, a federal disability program for children. The report drew further criticism, and more than 100 organizations that advocate for and support people with disabilities have signed a letter criticizing the piece, saying it "paints a misleading and inaccurate picture of the Social Security programs that serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with severe disabilities."

    On March 26, This American Life host Ira Glass responded to Media Matters' criticism by claiming he stood by his program's work, saying "our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors" and that "We know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."

    But while Glass publicly claimed to stand behind the story, Wired Business senior writer Ryan Tate has noted that the online text version of the radio program has been altered since its original posting.

    NPR has since said that the changes were made "for clarity after publication."


  • This American Life Criticized For Defending Misleading Disability Benefits Report

    Blog ››› ››› MIKE BURNS

    This American Life host Ira Glass has been called out by the Center for Economic and Policy Research for citing data with "limited relevance to contemporary policy debates" to defend his misleading report on disability benefits.

    Last week, Media Matters detailed how the report, which was also featured on the NPR programs Planet Money and All Things Considered, pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) -- a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities -- over the program's growth rate, qualification challenges, and successes it has had in reducing poverty among children with disabilities. The report was quickly picked up by right-wing media outlets who used it to advance the false claim that increased disability benefits indicate fraud in the system.

    Following harsh criticism that the report presented a false picture of disability programs Glass stood by the story, saying in a statement to the International Business Times that "our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors" and "[w]e know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."

    Now, CEPR Senior Research Associate Shawn Fremstad has taken issue with Glass' defense of the report, writing that Glass is trying to defend his initial report by telling a story about SSI that has "limited relevance to contemporary policy debates":

    Finally, Glass takes issue with an analysis that I did with Rebecca Vallas, one cited by Media Matters, showing that the recent rise in the number of children with severe disabilities receiving Supplemental Security benefits is largely due to economic factors. Glass says: "They [Media Matters] choose data from 2000-2009 to back up that claim.... As we point out in our reporting, when you look at a longer period of time -- at 30 years of economic data -- you see a different story."

    But neither Glass nor Joffe-Walt say what that "different story" actually is. Vallas and I have focused -- for example in this paper for the National Academy of Social Insurance -- on the trends over roughly the last 15 years because Supplemental Security's eligibility standards for children have been stable since then (the figure below is from this paper). Before that SSA's eligibility standards for children were expanded (in 1990 by a conservative Supreme Court that ruled 7-2 that SSA's regulations were much stricter than the underlying federal law) and then pared back somewhat (by Congress in 1996 after the Gingrich Revolution). In telling the story of Supplemental Security today, the primary focus should be on trends from recent history that represent a mature, stable program. If reporters want to also tell the story of the implementation and early history of children's SSI, that's fine, but they should be clear it is a much different story that has limited relevance to contemporary policy debates. They should also go back and read this 1995 Forbes Media Critic piece, "Media Crusade Gone Haywire," detailing the role that dubious sources and anecdotes fed the last major round of media hysteria on this issue.

  • Under Fire, This American Life Stands By Misleading Report On Disability Benefits

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVER WILLIS

    This American Life host Ira Glass is defending a recent report on his program in the face of criticism from those who say it painted a false picture of disability programs.

    On March 22, Media Matters detailed how the public radio segment, which also ran on the NPR programs Planet Money and All Things Considered, promoted several myths to criticize Supplemental Security Insurance over the program's rate of growth, hurdles towards qualification, and successes it has had in reducing poverty. The story drew further criticism from Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker, who said it "got some of the basics wrong," and University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak, who said it suffers from "facile extrapolation from the individual story to national policy."

    But in a statement to International Business Times, Glass stood by his program's work. He told IBT that "our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors" and that "We know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."

    Right-wing media outlets have latched on to the report, which also ran on the NPR programs Planet Money and All Things Considered, and used it to amplify their false message that increased disability benefits indicate fraud in the system.

    National Review praised the report as "brilliant" and the Washington Examiner offered it as evidence that disability benefits are "a voluntary life sentence to idle poverty." praised NPR "for reporting the truth--a truth that conservatives have been highlighting for decades."

  • This American Life Features Error-Riddled Story On Disability And Children

    NPR's All Things Considered Also Promoted Story


    Public radio program This American Life pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities. The piece ignored that the recent rise in disability benefits is tied to the recession and higher rates of poverty, that qualifying for benefits is difficult, that SSI encourages employment, and that the current program has significantly reduced poverty among children with disabilities.