How working with sexual assault survivors changed the way I think about journalism

Published on
December 28, 2021

Until I started interviewing survivors of sexual assault, I never thought of a source as someone I needed to protect.

In journalism school, reporters are taught to be conveyors of information. We interview people to gather facts, and then present those facts to the public in an accurate, balanced and digestible way. We have a careful process of selecting the most important pieces and assembling them for our audiences. 

The people who give us the information are not usually part of that process. And under long-held journalistic principles, they shouldn’t be. 

It’s a matter of influence. If someone has a specific goal in mind, say getting a candidate elected or a development built, they’re likely trying to sway the journalist to include things that promote that goal. A journalist’s reputation rests on their imperviousness to those influences. The public trusts us to print only the truth, without a hint of bias toward one party or another. 

But through my USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund project on sexual assault survivors and their interactions with the justice system, I’ve learned that there are situations where these rules don’t apply — situations where the source has been so harmed by people and institutions that getting information requires building a deep level of trust. And building that trust requires abandoning conventions and putting their needs first. It means giving survivors agency and influence on your work as a means of reducing harm. 

For CapRadio’s “After the Assault,” the decision to relax some traditional journalistic standards blossomed into a full-on collaboration with eight courageous women who I’ll refer to from here as the “survivor cohort”. One of them was the survivor who brought the idea for the project to CapRadio and who initially brought up the power dynamic inherent in traditional journalism. Her comments reinforced our belief that we needed to do things differently. 

We told cohort members we wanted to produce a solutions-centered journalism project that explored ways in which police, medical professionals and loved ones could better support survivors on their journeys toward justice, and healing. 

The cohort members shared this goal, and agreed to be storytellers for our project. But they needed certain accommodations, and the next year-and-a-half brought a series of very careful decisions about what compromises we could and could not make.

Here are all the rules that we broke:

1) We decided to believe survivors

It is difficult to tell someone that you have been sexually violated. When the person you disclose this crime to questions whether you are telling the truth or indicates that what happened was your fault, it can deal a devastating blow. Many of the survivors I interviewed had experienced these reactions, and it forced them to deal with the trauma of the assault largely on their own.

I couldn’t prove that any of the cohort members were raped. I didn’t know it for a fact. All I had was their word, and in some cases their police reports. In the cases I looked at, none of the perpetrators went to jail. 

The false reporting rate for sexual assault is somewhere between 2% and 10%, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. After interviewing these women and hearing about the immense pain they’d experienced, my editors and I decided to take a bold stance to believe what they told us, and to publish it. 

We did take precautions. We used phrases like “she says,” to make clear that information was attributed to survivors. We left out perpetrators’ names in order to avoid legal repercussions and to protect survivors from potential harm. But we continued to verbally assure survivors that we believed them. This approach is in line with recommendations from The Dart Center’s Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism.

2) We offered anonymity

The Society for Professional Journalists allows for anonymous sourcing when the source could face danger, retribution or other harm as a result of speaking with the press. Not all of the cohort members met this criteria — some just preferred privacy around such a sensitive topic. We made a decision to offer anonymity (first or middle name only, voice alteration) to every survivor we interviewed. 

And we found that over many months of meeting with and talking to survivors, most gradually became comfortable using their full names. They trusted that I would not publish details that would endanger them or put them in a negative light. For some, the process of telling their stories with their full names was a way to feel empowered. Some journalistic institutions say identifying survivors helps us tell more complete and relatable stories about sexual violence. But the moral of the story here is that it has to be the survivor’s choice.

3) We asked for informed consent

Journalists typically use three standards for information gleaned in interviews: on the record (you can use it with full attribution), on background (you can use it with no attribution) or off the record (you can’t use it). When I first started interviewing survivors, I had background conversations with them — for my knowledge and understanding only. When they were more comfortable, I turned on the recorder. I told them that I’d consider anything they said to be publishable, unless they told me it was “off the record.”

But I learned quickly that this strategy doesn’t work for people who’ve experienced trauma. Due to the way our brains record memories in a crisis, survivors of sexual violence may misremember details or become flustered while they’re telling their stories. They may speak from a place of raw emotion without realizing the potential consequences of publishing those statements. They may be feeling fully secure about their participation when they initially talk to a journalist, but in a less comfortable space by the time the story is in production.

For these reasons, I made a very unconventional choice to offer survivors “walk-throughs” of my draft podcast scripts and articles before finalizing them. For some, this meant reading my narration back to them word for word and playing them the audio I planned to use. This is virtually unheard of in journalism because it opens the door to sources trying to edit the work and therefore introducing their own biases.

But when it comes to cases like these, there is no one who can tell a story more accurately than the person who actually experienced the harm. And when journalists attempt to craft someone else’s narrative without that person’s approval, they can end up using terminology or sharing information that is inaccurate, offensive and even retraumatizing for the source. Making sure a survivor knows what’s going to be published (and in many cases what they’re putting their name on), is a process called informed consent. It includes telling survivors exactly where and how their material is going to be used. It’s highly unusual in traditional journalism, but I now feel it’s absolutely necessary for this kind of work.

It’s also beneficial to reporting. When I ran sections of scripts by survivors, they gave me incredibly helpful feedback about tone and phrasing (example: I had described one survivor’s mental state in the immediate aftermath of her assault as “overwhelmed.” She told me the word she would use was “debilitated”).

I didn’t always do this correctly. While I tried my best to hold the hands of each survivor and make sure there were no surprises for them, there were things that fell through the cracks. With one survivor I chose to use details about her court case that were publicly available and independently verified, and that she’d previously discussed with me on the record. This was ethically sound according to journalistic standards. But I failed to absolutely confirm with this survivor that I could use those details in my finished product, and she said hearing them made her feel blindsided, and concerned about her involvement. My choices had caused her further harm, which was something the CapRadio team worked hard to prevent throughout this project. It was a hard-earned lesson for me, and unfortunately an additional stressor for her. Fortunately, CapRadio management responded quickly to further disguise her voice and substitute her name, so that the details in the piece wouldn’t make her feel so exposed. 

4) We asked for ideas

Cohort members did not want to be in the dark about what I was producing. Many of them had reported to law enforcement and had gone months anxiously waiting for updates, only to be told later on that their cases wouldn’t be prosecuted. To leave them out of the journalistic process seemed like a cruel replication of a power dynamic that had left them feeling devalued and enraged.

So we invited them to annotate the outline of our podcast episodes, which inspired some excellent ideas on their part and ultimately changed the arc of the series. We also asked them what they would ask law enforcement and other expert sources, which led to questions that I as a non-survivor would never have thought of on my own. We also let them ask each other questions in group recording sessions and encouraged them to interview their own loved ones, which generated some of the most powerful tape in the series. 

5) We became their allies

Journalists are supposed to keep a distance from their sources. It’s a golden rule. We’re not supposed to befriend them, spend non-work time with them, or do anything that would indicate an emotional investment. We’re supposed to stay at arm’s length.

I’ve done other projects on difficult topics (suicide, Black infant mortality). But I’ve never felt such a strong pull to my sources. The women I interviewed for “After the Assault” were so open with us, so real, so relatable. I found it impossible to maintain the level and detached demeanor that I use for news reporting. I had to show them some of myself, and I had to tell them that I cared about them. It was the only way to build the trust that generated the powerful content at the heart of the project.

At our monthly survivor cohort meetings, we always had a mental health counselor on standby in case the conversation brought anyone into a challenging space. When I interviewed survivors one-on-one, I let them pick the location and told them they could have a loved one with them. I let things happen on their timelines. These are all considered best practices by survivor advocacy groups. 

CapRadio’s community engagement director jesikah maria ross took a huge amount of care with these meetings. She started with a check-in, so we could gauge the emotional state of each survivor before we dug into potentially retraumatizing content. At the end of each meeting, we took a collective breath and shared quotes of healing, empowerment and resilience.

One of jesikah’s icebreakers involved having everyone in the room write down something that made them feel strong. They wrote things like “faith,” “self-compassion” and “nature.” I wrote “leaving home.” I was in the middle of a separation from a long-term partner, and I was drawing on the cohort members for strength — whether I realized it or not. Watching them speak up and fight for change after everything they’d been through made me feel that I too could get past my (much less significant) adversity and work toward a greater good. Their courage inspired me, and I told them so. 

That was the most open I’ve ever been with my sources. It felt strange in the context of my career, but important for the open and supportive environment that jesikah created in those meetings. It was a truly safe space for them, which is not something journalists typically create. Having that space in which to share stories turned out to be a major emotional support for the survivors, and the key to the best material in the series. 

6) The impact

I’m a journalism school graduate and former newspaper reporter who spent most of my life intent on being a neutral party. I still firmly believe that for some news stories it’s an absolute must. 

But the tenets of journalism also tell us to give voice to the voiceless. Practitioners of community-centered journalism believe that’s a flawed premise, because it assumes that certain communities don’t have a voice when in reality it’s just that they aren’t being listened to by those in power. As the media, isn’t it our responsibility to elevate their stories? Doing so requires a level of trust-building and partnership rarely seen in traditional journalism.

As one cohort member put it:

“So you invite the survivors in to tell the story, their story, right alongside with you. You share the power that you have with those who do not have the power … It could look like setting up an event and saying, come and tell your story. It could look like giving people microphones.”

And when we partner with those who don’t otherwise have a platform, we collect information that can help us or others make change. During the course of our reporting we met regularly with law enforcement, prosecutors and medical professionals throughout Sacramento County. We played them tape from survivors who had negative experiences with these systems. Already, representatives from the agencies we’re working with are making plans to incorporate that information — and maybe even our audio — into specialized trainings that could prevent harm for future survivors. 

I believe in these changes. I believe there is a way for institutions — including the media — to become more trauma-informed and better support survivors. I also believe that we can all do a better job of that in our day-to-day lives. 

So, I’m not a neutral party here. But if I tried to remain one, I wouldn’t have made an inch of progress on this story.