2017 Dart Awards: Roundtable Discussion Transcript
This year's Dart Awards went to The Salt Lake Tribune for its coverage of sexual assault at Brigham Young University and Transom.org for “A Life Sentence: Victims, Offenders, Justice and My Mother. The 2017 winners' roundtable featured Jay Allison and Samantha Broun from Transom.org, and Erin Alberty and Rachel Piper from the Salt Lake Tribune. A full event transcript is now available.
Bruce Shapiro: Now comes my favorite part of this evening, and also in some ways one of my favorite parts of the whole year of projects and programs we run here at the Dart Center; the chance to sit down with master reporters who have taken us into places that probably none of us as news consumers ever wanted to go, yet needed to go. That's at the heart of the craft of reporting on trauma This is a reporter to reporter conversation, and for the last 23 years these conversations have propelled forward, I think, innovation and new ways of reporting. The strength of this years' winners build on the work that other Dart award winners have done and journalism in the future will build on what you guys have done.
This winner's round table is telling hard stories behind the 2017 Dart Award winners. We've got two members from the two Dart Award winning teams here, we have Jay Allison and Samantha Broun from Transom, Erin Alberty and Rachel Piper from the Salt Lake Tribune. The purpose of this round table is to showcase the winning work, explore what's involved in undertaking stories, whether about personal or institutionally trauma, and the ethical and craft challenges. As I said, this is for journalists, including the next generation of journalists in this room, to learn from you and your work.
Each speaker is going to talk for about five minutes and say a little bit about, well, whatever they want to talk about really, and what was involved in creating this remarkable work. I'll then frame a few questions, get the conversation going, and then we'll go to the room and have a chance for more of you to engage. It does strike me, at the top, that this year's winners have a few things in common. The most obvious is that both involve sexual assault and gender violence at their core, but that's the least of it in some ways. Both of these stories involved inquiring into the nature of evil, either the individual evil of a psychopathic perpetrator or the institutional evil of an educational institution. Both go way back in time, and follow the ripples of trauma up through the present day. Both stories involved enormous challenges in making horrific events tolerable for your reader/listener and also making compelling stories on subjects people would often prefer not to think about and both stories also take us under the hood of big belief systems.
In the case of Brigham Young University, it was a courageous encounter with how religious faith shaped and distorted an institution's moral compass, and in the case of the Transom piece, how a society's belief system about crime and punishment was affected by this kind of an event and how we contend with it now. So big themes, as well as specific journalism challenges.
I'm going to ask, I think, the Salt Lake team to go first, I don't know which of you wants to take the first five minutes or if you just want to, if you want to take 10, however you want to go.
Erin Alberty: Ok, I'm Erin Alberty, I'm from the Salt Lake Tribune. I figured I'd just tell you a bit about this story, I don't know if everybody read them, there were several that we entered and there was also, I mean, this was a pretty small amount of the reporting we did in the past year on this topic so there's a lot to it.
I had heard first, I want to say in a court filing about this possibility that BYU was investigating honor code violations in conjunction with sex assault reports or suspicions but it was kind of obliquely talked about there. Now, to understand what this is about you kind of have to understand the honor code at BYU. BYU is pretty famous for its honor code; it's very strict compared to maybe what a lot of other schools have, it's not just about academic integrity, or 'don't cheat on your test', or 'don't plagiarize anything'. The honor code forbids students from drinking coffee and tea and alcohol, illicit drugs. It regulates when male and female students who aren't married to each other can be in each others homes. Men and women who aren't married to each other aren't to go to each others bedrooms, there's certain times of day where they aren't supposed to be at each others homes. Importantly to this realm of coverage, it bans premarital sex and all, in the honor code it's called 'all sexual conduct.'
So there is a lot to it, there's a lot of prongs of it and so I had heard in the course of trying to gather, string around this topic that people had worried that just the fear that somebody would be investigated for one of these conduct issues would prevent them from reporting sex crimes against them. I was struggling to find people who had made such reports and I wasn't sure if it was just an in-theory concern or if it was actually something that the school might do. That all changed about a year ago when a student got up during a campus event for sexual assault awareness month and said, "I was sexually assaulted and this school has investigated me and they're punishing me," and directly confronted the Title IX coordinator--Title IX is, I mean I know I'm speaking at a college here so I guess everyone probably already knows what it is but it's the office that handles sex assault complaints--and confronted the director of that office and said, "what do you want to say about this?"
The Title IX coordinator got up and said, "We're aware that the honor code has a chilling effect on reports," but she said that the school does not apologize for that. So when that was talked about suddenly many sources became available and much easier to identify. I looked on various social media avenues, I had already joined some social media groups that were private in hopes of learning more about this topic, so that helped. That was on a Thursday afternoon, and by Monday morning I think I talked to about a dozen current and former students at BYU who said they were sexually assaulted and had very different accounts about what had happened. We're a local newspaper with local competitors on a local story, we were not at this point looking at this as like, 'oh this is something we'll study for a year and then we'll write our perfectly tailored series,' we were like, 'oh my god, I think KUTV is on this too,' so we were moving kind of fast and trying to get the first story out.
In that first story we focused on four cases where we had opportunities for some background reporting, where there was documentation of the school's actions in several of these cases. We had all these other interviews with people that, especially where the school was concerned, they started to collaborate with each other as far as the action they experienced at that point. So that turned into examining several different parts of this, one, and I think the most prominent one to me initially was just the basic public safety question: 'what does it mean for a community when people don't feel like they can make a crime report without being punished for some other thing?' and, 'what exactly happened in these investigations? What factors were taken into consideration?' And then I think probably the last big topic that I looked at, I was actually surprised to have found as many sources as I did on this one, but, how this plays out specifically for LGBT students at a school where homosexual behavior is banned.
So that gives you the outline of what we did and what we looked at. There were a number of really revelatory law enforcement questions that came up in this coverage too, it wasn't actually part of our entry but we discovered that in one of these cases a county sheriff's deputy who was acquainted with the suspect in the case had given this woman's entire police report file to the honor code office. There was a recorded interview that police did with him where he talks about how he wanted the honor code office to deal with her. He was charged with witness retaliation and then a few days later the county attorney asked for the charge to be dismissed. We have a pending lawsuit over the internal affairs records that we're told will explain why, but we don't know why yet. We learned that BYU's campus police which is a state certified police department, used its access to law enforcement records database to get information from a student's sexual assault medical report and gave that information to the honor code office. We have a pending look at how those databases were being used by campus police and what that means for victim and witness privacy, there's a lot of issues that come along with that.
This spun out to a look at other schools in Utah. I don't even know how much time I just talked, I really hope that wasn't too long.
BS: It's probably about right. Rachel?
Rachel Piper: Yeah, Erin left me a good starting place. Our entry was specifically for BYU and the various issues there. One thing that we talked about that is still sort of an issue in Utah--you know, our reporting spurred a lot of change and the university instituted a lot of changes sort of as a direct result of our reporting: Amnesty for people who come forward to report a sexual assault from the honor code is something that they plan to implement. They've separated the Title IX office from the honor code office, but there's still sort of a perception in attitude that goes beyond policy, that a lot of victims and advocates are still worried is going to be an issue. It's really easy to change policy, it's not easy to change attitudes. That's something that, you know, has dogged sexual assault reporting for decades: "It's 2017, we get the idea that sex assault's bad, we get it, why are you still writing about rape?"
We saw in our reporting that there were still so many attitudes about sexual assault and consent and accountability, you could tell these stories were really needed. To have Brigham Young University say that these changes were needed and that people had been done wrong by them was really powerful in our community which is dominated by the Mormon religion which, you know, in its core says that sex assault is wrong and that the victims are not to be accountable for that but in the culture that is definitely not something that a lot of people think. I talked to people who were assaulted decades ago at BYU and have never told anyone. For a couple people I was the first person that they ever told that they'd been sexually assaulted. In some cases it took them decades to realize that they had been sexually assaulted because it's just something that people don't talk about in Utah. At BYU it's institutionalized, the idea of, "what were you wearing?" Because there's a dress code, and if you're wearing a low V-neck, maybe you wanted to be sexually assaulted. That's something that people who are trained in Title IX and university employees, this is the kind of questions they were asking students.
As we did this coverage we did expand it beyond BYU, we wanted to talk to as many people as possible, we wanted to talk to people who had positive experiences, because that's part of journalism too, getting both sides, such as people that have had positive experiences with the LDS church and with their clergy. We also found people at other colleges in Utah who had experiences where they reported and their reports languished or were disregarded. Part of our series, we didn't enter in this one, we just had so many, we literally had dozens of stories on sexual assault last year. We had no idea it was going to be a series. At another school there was a student who was accused of assaulting four different women who all went to the police and to the school, and he was never charged, was not even contacted in some of the reports. Of the women, two of them dropped out of school because they felt that they couldn't be safe on campus, and he went on to the NFL and they continued to feel shamed about what had happened to them. Another reporter, Alex Stucky (SP) got those police reports and contacted the women.
Sex assault is so shameful and the imperative thing is privacy and dealing with it privately but these women had wanted someone to talk to, had wanted someone to tell their story and have justice brought to them. Alex did that, and after we ran those stories the prosecutors reopened the cases against this young man and an additional 13 people came forward to say that they'd also been sexually assaulted by him. He's been charged with seven sexual assaults in Utah, and that trial is ongoing. We didn't come to this with the idea that it was going to be a series and we kind of were, not going by the seat of our pants, that sounds...we spent a lot of late hours in the office not seeing our families, arguing over things, making sure we had made all the right ethical calls. We'd talk to a new person, find a new idea to explore, a new facet of this that we hadn't thought of.
There's a lot of perception that these are sob stories, you know? 'When is the Tribune going to be done telling these sob stories.' All of these women and men that Erin talked to, their story has affected their life and affected the people around them and there's a ripple effect to trauma. It's in our communities, and I think that these stories and the effect that they had really helped to illustrate that, and it's great that there's an institution that recognizes this too.
BS: Well, thanks. Sam? Jay? Which of you wants to go first?
Samantha Broun: I'm a radio producer so I wrote down what I want to say, hope that's okay?
The story of what happened to my mother in September of 1994 was never something I shared frequently or easily, it was more something I would tell someone if we got close and I felt they needed to know in order to know me. I'd usually apologize a lot afterwards because it seemed as if I was letting people into a reality that really terrible things do happen, and to people you know, a reality that I was fortunate to avoid until this happened to my mom. I think I also avoided telling this story because no matter how much time went by and no matter how many times I had told it before, telling it again always felt like an out of body experience. Even though I knew it happened, even though I lived through the aftermath with my mother, I couldn't quite believe it. I couldn't accept what she had lived through, what she had survived. Here are a few things I learned:
Telling the trauma. One of the challenges was deciding which details of my mothers attack and her recovery to keep in, and which to leave out. For years my mother has been living with two huge plastic bins full of all sorts of things related to this event. Police reports, court transcripts, newspaper clippings and more. When I decided to do this piece, my mom passed those bins on to me. For my mom, every moment of the five hours she survived were important. I don't disagree, but as a journalist I knew we would lose our audience by putting in every detail. We needed to give an accurate recounting of what happened that night, one that my mother would ultimately approve of while not driving listeners away. Having Jay Alison as an editor/co-producer was critical in navigating this terrain. I trusted his guidance in what was important to keep and what would be okay to cut.
My own post traumatic stress. Lots of people told me that doing this would be hard, and they were right. Hardest of all was hearing again the details of what happened to my mother that night, and then hearing them repeatedly as I transcribed interviews, assembled the script, cut tape, listened to mixes. I spent many days practically immobile on my couch as a result. Revisiting difficult topics isn't for everyone. When I interviewed my brother for this piece, he said he doesn't like to talk about what happened. I've come to respect that point of view. While reporting this, I had stomach aches and nightmares. I locked my doors more, and one day I was even sure I saw Reginald McFadden, the man who attacked my mother, walking down the street in the small town where I live. Still, I know myself well enough to know what I can tolerate, and that not telling this story would be harder for me than telling it.
Trauma spreads and stains. I've learned a lot about trauma from doing this story. For example, that while trauma may morph in intensity and form, it never goes away. It was seeing how present the trauma is for my mother still, twenty plus years later, that made me finally pick up my microphone and go. Once I did, I saw how the trauma had spread and manifested in others. For example my brother, who while he doesn't like to talk about what happened, is obviously very affected by it. Or Charlotte McFadden, Reginald McFadden's sister, who told me about a recurring nightmare she has about her brother. Or Mark Single, the former lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. He sat on the pardons board that let McFadden out. He spent three hours talking with me. He cried several times. At the end of our time together, I asked him about talking with me...this is just a clip of the end of our conversation...
I'm wondering just, last couple questions, what it's like for you to talk about this again, and what it's like to talk to me about it?
Mark Single: It's hard. This was harder than I thought. Yeah, because I mean it's there, it's in my psyche, but when we talk about it and we become sharply focused on the emotions of what I was feeling at the time...wow, it's like it happened yesterday. It really is draining so I hope we don't have to go through this again, no offense. (laughter)
SB: My last point is that talking about it helps. Doing this story has changed things, at least for me. I mentioned earlier the two big plastic bins full of stuff my mother gave me when I started working on this story. They took up residence in my home office for nearly three years as I worked on this piece. Whenever I saw them, they would send a jolt through my system, a reminder of what happened, and that there was a story to be told. When the piece was finally finished and out in the world, I closed up the plastic bins and I brought them down to the basement, and I noticed for the first time that they had gone quiet. For all the difficulty in revisiting this traumatic event, one outcome--at least for me--is that I think I've truly come to face what happened to my mom that night in a way that I hadn't before doing this story. Despite how difficult it was, I feel less terrorized by what happened, and quieter on the inside.
Jay Allison: I'll just talk for a very short time. Transom and Atlantic Public Media are a little outfit out of Woods Hole, up in Cape Cod. We end up doing a lot of stories about trauma, it's not a traumatic place, I mean to look at it. We produce also The Moth up there, The Moth radio hour if you're familiar with that, and we produce This I Believe up there, and I'm working now with Frontline, the TV documentary series, and so many of these stories from the Moth stories to Frontline, the central defining stories in people's lives are often their hard stories. Your identity is forged in that crucible, and examining it and seeing what's there is what is kind of the foundation of drama and identity, so even though there's huge pain, I think everyone is trying to figure out what's the meaning, and then stories arise. Our job in these stories is to combine the narrative with the meaning. Make sure the telling of it is important, and I guess that's really just doing journalism, it's a way to rediscover and to fan our collective humanity, to look at these things and retell them and learn from them.
Another thing I'd say about this story that's a little different, usually you pitch a story or you get a pitch for a story. For this one Sam just came in and said, "Look, this happened, should we...? and I don't know yet what I want to say, but should we work on it?" It became, in a way, kind of a pure exploration. There wasn't a map about where we were going, there wasn't something we were reporting on, she just wanted to see where the ripples of this event extended. So it became a quest, which of course is a classic narrative structure. You can hear in Sam's voice in this piece, in the way she talks to people whether she's talking to a lifer in prison or Tom Ridge--the former governor of Pennsylvania and head of Homeland Security during the first iteration--or her own narration. She's always speaking in the same way, and it's driven by pure curiosity and intention and just wanting to know, which in turn makes you the listener want to know. So the story expands, and this became a big story.
So my third and final point is that, in terms of techniques, one issue with stuff like this is that in some ways you're handling toxic material. I know the Dart Center has information on this, good advice on how to handle it. Stand up and walk away from that picture sometimes, you know? The interview that Sam and Jeremy did, finally I said, "I think I should just take that away from you and I'll cut that." That was a huge relief because some of these things just bog you down, and you can't keep going with them. The voice of the perpetrator, McFadden, the same kind of thing as toxic material. So the safety of the journalist encountering this over and over and over again has to be considered. One outcome at the end of this story was, "are we going to meet the perpetrator?" Finally we felt it wasn't germane to the story, but also that we feared for Sam's safety in terms of physical and mental safety and head tripping and whatever kind of things might've occurred had that happened.
Our structure was intimate and large. The policy versus the family, and always making sure that every detail served a purpose, and I think that's important because if you dig down too far into the trauma alone, first of all the audience can't bear it any longer and then also it loses its context. Bobby Van, the lead detective on this case is here by the way...(applause)...we have an amazing interview with him and there was, what, an 89 day manhunt. We considered if we should make this a serialized podcast, a multi-part thing, but we finally determined what the boundary is, what should this be, and should it be a single experience or should we follow all the rich veins of journalism and story. Bobby isn't even in the piece, which is too bad because he's great to listen to. Finally, I think one trick we found for how to get people to listen, how to keep it from being too hard, how stop people from going, "No, I can't, I don't want to hear that." I mean this is a story about your mom's rape and kidnapping and beating. Sam would talk to the audience, and just say, "Look, usually I just say my mom's the victim of a violent crime." That's what happens with trauma, you just put it in a box, but then she says, "but I have to tell you some details, it doesn't give me pleasure to, this is hard for me, it's going to be hard for you, I appreciate you listening." By bringing that audience into the effort, I think we kind of help them be able to experience the story. We almost gave them a timer, like, "not too much longer now, we're almost done. I know this is hard, it's hard for us, it's hard for you, and we'll get through it." That's it.
BS: Thank you. (applause) In case you didn't notice you have just attended a five-minute master class in telling difficult stories, thank you for that Jay.
There's a few students who are here among the diverse folks who are from an ethics class that I teach. I'm going to start out on that terrain and pick up on something Rachel said. You said that you're arguing late at night about ethics. For each of you as teams, what were one or two of the key, the most challenging, daunting ethical questions you faced? You don't necessarily need to have resolved them satisfactorily, but tell us about what you identified and how you found your way through it.
RP: One of our challenges with the story was with the LGBT students, because two of the subjects in that story had attempted suicide and survived. Several of the others had contemplated it. It was very relevant in their journeys, they had each explained very clearly in our interviews how the pieces fit together to end up in that place. While I was working on that story there was suddenly a big amount of buzz on social media, especially in Utah, about suicides or attempted suicides by LGBT Mormon youth. It was essential to the story, so first was deciding how much do we need to go there before we're introducing or exacerbating a contagion risk. When it was in different mediums it was coming up a lot. We had a lot of things to work on so I actually kind of put the brakes on that story for a little bit just to give it some daylight, some breathing room in the hopes that maybe we could go a couple weeks without this issue buzzing up again and see where it led to.
We were deciding how to approach this story knowing that throughout the year this had been brought up again and again and we'd had other stories about it. Normally if we're going to be dealing with suicide in a story we would have an info box that gives the hotline numbers and all the pertinent stuff. In this case we decided to make that info box the first sentence of the story because while each of those students that talked about that being part of their journey, it did get there, we didn't want it to seem like this was the inevitable outcome to being Mormon and gay and young. The two that attempted survived, and were very glad that they had. I mean each person described a recovery so I called each of the students back in that story just to talk a bit more about what their recovery was, talk about our plan to put that up top and would they be okay with us to say that there was a process of recovery so we could start with that, that we weren't going to start with the suicide thing without creating that buffer and that extra bit of safety at the top of the story.
I don't know if that was the best way to handle it, measuring word for word how you talk about it. I spent a lot of time on your tip sheets (laughter) on this one because I just did not want to make the situation worse. I would almost rather not do the story than make the situation worse, you know? So we spent some time on that, how to most intelligently and sensitively and carefully bring that into the story.
BS: And these are day to day, day in day out choices every time you pick up the phone you're making an ethical call. What were one or two that you guys faced in what was probably a huge minefield of ethical messes?
JA: We didn't, I don't think we thought about any. (laughter)
No actually I'm sitting here trying to think whether we, where we had to confront that partly because it was personal and we weren't taking responsibility for other people's lives. There was maybe a different role and so anything like that would probably fall on Sam.
BS: What about narrative ethics? What you thought about using or not using?
SB: I think we spent a long time--well one: thinking about how much of the story, what actually happened to my mom, how much of that to put in. Then there was always this question of how much of McFadden's story to put in. That was hard for me because I had personal feelings about that, I am both curious about his personal story and want to know it, and at the same time feel like so much is about him, why does this get to be about him too?
BS: Maybe take us into down a little further into one instance of something that stayed in or something that you cut, just one thing that shows the decision making you had to go through. Or Jay, anything come to mind?
JA: Well, we had a lot of information on him, on his childhood, on his previous crimes, so we finally really left a lot of that out because there's sort of a perverted interest in the perpetrator and they become kind of the star of their own show. He was a symbolic character in a way, in that he catalyzed political change because he was a nightmare figure to, particularly to white suburban America. He was the released con who became a serial killer immediately and preyed on innocent victims and therefore could catalyze political change that may have been lying latent waiting for that boogeyman to make that change possible. A lot of those changes have been terrible.
SB: It was also a fight to not typecast, right? Yeah. I didn't want to typecast.
BS: Yeah. An interview question for both of you. Both of your pieces involve extraordinary levels of trust involving people who have a lot to lose by telling their story. In your case, in the case of Salt Lake, there's so many characters who agreed to have their names used. That struck me, I mean sometimes you'll find one or two survivors but in your pieces there are a lot of folks who do, some folks who don't. You had to get an extraordinary degree of trust there. In your case Sam, you know, your mother is your mother but you also are talking to Tom Ridge, to McFadden's sister who has no reason to trust you particularly. As a craft matter, what steps did you take to win the trust and confidence of people on these difficult stories?
EA: I was pretty surprised at how open a lot of these sources were immediately. I remember one of the first conversations we had when we were first doing these stories was, "whoa, are we seeing the tides turn? Are people feeling like this is a safe experience to own publicly?" We were talking to mostly much younger victims, we were thinking, "is this where we're going?" That would be kind of a good thing that this isn't automatically treated as something to be ashamed of. Just talking, listening, letting them talk it out first and just seeing where they went with it, and I think, well for me, I don't know if it's a strategy, just taking it slow so I don't mishandle a detail, don't mishandle a sensitive moment. I think it was helpful to recognize in an interview when things were getting triggering, and them knowing that I could see that.
BS: How did you let them know?
EA: I didn't always know, but then it started becoming a bit more clear to me. For example in one interview I asked a question--the assault this woman was alleging was by somebody she didn't know--and I was trying to get a physical description of the guy to take to police to see what the story was, and I asked for the eye color, and she just blanched very visibly. The whole rest of the interview for a while she was starting to touch her face a lot and sigh a little bit between sentence and slump in the chair, and I said, "do you want to take a break, do you want to stop this, are you doing okay?" Sort of got non-committal (nods head). I said, "Can I ask, are you feeling physically ill?" Not in an annoying way, just being genuinely curious, and then her face just crumpled and she started to cry and I was like, "okay, I can see that." I think being able to say, "are you feeling sick?" just, she knew that I knew and it was understood that I was going to build that into my understanding of her answers so we could take a break and it didn't have to be this "no, let's power through an interview with a person who's so sick they can't sit up straight in their chair" approach, you know what I mean? That's one example, I don't know.
RP: Yeah, you mentioned that we used a lot of peoples' real names. We did have that conversation. When you're covering sex assault it's really rare to get somebody to tell you their story without it just being, "I don't want my name, anything associated with this." With these I think a lot of people saw that for so long they felt like they were the only one, and they saw these other stories and realized this isn't just me, this is happening to other people, this isn't something that I caused, or something that is unique to me. Over the months we battled with a lot of universities over privacy, over student records, and I talked to a campus safety expert who said that colleges tell people privacy is their ultimate concern, they'll never let these records out, this department will never tell that department about this, and often what ends up happening is that peoples attacks don't get reported to the right people. Privacy is not a protection, it's not guaranteed protection and I think people are starting to realize that, that this focus on privacy sometimes goes too far the other way and makes the victims feel extra shamed, you know? Like, "don't worry, we'll never tell anyone about this and you shouldn't either," kind of feeling.
I think that as people saw other women using their names and coming forward with their stories and being, you know there's always awful people in the comments, but for the most part people were respectful and saw that these stories had an impact that made them want to tell theirs too.
BS: I think there's also a generational shift, both among assault survivors and in journalism, we're finding people contending with the idea of using names, which for a while was something we would never do, in a different way. I have to ask this, because you bring it up; trolling? Probably all of you got negative comments, how'd you deal with it? Sam this is a very personal story for you, I don't know if you got negative social media stuff.
SB: We didn't get a lot, I think when it was on This American Life there may have been more. I think what I noticed more and I actually learned this today by looking at your website, I was like, "oh that's what was happening to me," was that--
BS: I really haven't paid anyone, this is not a condition of getting a Dart Award is saying nice stuff about us, okay?
SB: We got a lot of comments from other people who had had terrible things happen to them and I was so, at first I was like, "okay I need to respond to these," but I was literally so overwhelmed by them that I stopped. Some guy found my e-mail address somehow and he told this whole story about how he'd started dating this woman and how they started listening to this piece together and how she had to get out of the car and was sick and that she ended up telling him that something had happened to her and could she write to me. It was more I was extremely overwhelmed with what it brought up for other people.
BS: I want to circle back to what I asked you in the first place, which was about building trust, and especially with McFadden's sister, but even with some of the other characters, it's not an automatic, "yes."
SB: I think I'm in a very different position than you guys were because for me when I started doing this piece I had my list of names of people I knew I wanted to reach out to because I felt like I had been living with them in my head for 20 years, I had been thinking about Tom Ridge, I had been thinking about Mark Single, I had been thinking about Charlotte McFadden, and so when I made those phone calls this was a big event in those peoples lives too, and so when I would call and say who I was and who my mom was I think that completely broke something that might usually exist between a reporter and an interviewee.
JA: Yeah, I would say on Sam's behalf that once they met Sam and she sat with them, it was like they couldn't dissemble or keep her at bay, but Charlotte McFadden, I mean reaching Charlotte was near impossible, I mean that was just dogged reporting. She went to Philadelphia and just stood in front of the house and waited until she saw someone that looked like her and then came out and then Charlotte said, "no, I don't know."
SB: With Charlotte I started to cry, I mean I was so overwhelmed by meeting her that I started to cry and she finally said, "I can see you're upset."
JA: First she didn't admit who she was…
SB: At first she didn't, yeah.
BS: Trolling, guys? Back to you on that, did you...?
EA: Well, I know different people have different thoughts on what in an online discourse is worth taking seriously and that the comment sections of a news article is ranked pretty low. I read through as much as I could, I mean we ended up with thousands of comments on a lot of these stories so it was pretty hard to keep up with everything but I was kind of like, "look, I know that the people who are involved in this are reading this, I know that rape victims in Utah are reading this, I know that they're all going to see what the community reaction is, I need to see what kind of blowback they're personally feeling right now." There were a lot of really supportive comments and then there were a lot of, "well if she didn't want to get raped she shouldn't have broken the honor code," kind of comments. "The honor code is there to keep you safe, this is what happens when you break it." So that hurt, and I know that for a lot of students who talked to me it was seeing their own relatives talk about this story on Facebook or whatever and seeing them say stuff like that that was just, ugh.
I had a number of students call in tears because they've been assaulted while they were a students at BYU and even if the honor code break was very not the kind of thing you'd probably not get in a ton of trouble for but it still was an honor code violation like, "I let the guy into my room to look at the computer," or something like that, and then seeing people that they loved and trusted and that that was their reaction, that that was pretty rough on a lot of the people that were involved in these stories.
BS: Were any of your personal accounts targeted for harassment in the wake of the story?
EA: I saw an entire blog post written speculating about the sexual history of one of these students, and one of the students ended up transferring schools after making a request for her honor code records and seeing a number of accusations lodged against her right after she had spoken to the media, so yeah.
RP: I think also we have a sports rivalry in Utah and BYU is on one side and the University of Utah is on the other, and we had a lot of really strange attacks, like, "they're University of Utah fans, that's the only reason they're doing this story."
EA: I have never had so many people accuse me of caring about football.
BS: Let's move towards questions from you guys. Let me ask one more round while people line up at the mic who want to ask stuff. I want to ask you though before we hear from the floor about self care. These are both hard stories and you did them for a long time. What are a few practical things you did to take care of yourselves. Sam, you brought that up.
BS: And in addition to therapy, anything else?
SB: I think just having people around who remind you to take breaks and go for walks and pull your head out of it.
JA: And there were crying days.
SB: There was only one crying day. (Laughter)
BS: And Jay, what about you? You're not exempt from this, you're looking at this stuff for a long time.
JA: Not like Sam and her mom, but I would say I got depressed after it was done. I had a job to do in it and I was supposed to be reliable and lean on-able and it didn't affect me a bit in the moment and after it was done it was like something just kind of caved a bit for a period of time, and then it was fine.
SB: I don't know if I was successful in self-care to be honest. I started taking classes at a Zen center, I mean not just because of that but because there's sort of an emotional build up. I hadn't really appreciated it until then. We worked on these stories for a while and I hadn't been working on it and I'm actually now our art and recreation reporter so that's a very different kind of beat.
BS: Talk about therapeutic.
EA: It's a really good beat in Utah. (laughter)
BS: The swag must be really good on that one.
EA: Well it is getting to go skiing for work for a day, it's not bad therapy. Then after the story started getting a lot of attention in recent weeks again a number of people have begun disclosing their sexual assaults to me again and not even to do with BYU, just friends and people that I know and I'm so glad that they did so I don't want this to be taken the wrong way but I am able to feel that cocktail of feelings coming back, the frustration that it happened, all the frustration that there was little for them that they felt they could do about it. The fear of making it worse in some way by responding in the wrong way. I had forgotten about it for a while because it'd gotten out of my bloodstream and now it's back in, it's recognizable.
RP: I didn't do anything for self-care. I try to disconnect, but that's the struggle with telling hard stories is, you know, "do I really want to do this? Do I want to do this every night, all the time? But if you don't what's the other option? I'm going to go write great press releases for blender companies?" No, I can't. I think sometimes seeing people's reactions to these stories was a little bit of a balm, to see that the story made a difference.
BS: Yeah, it's true. Questions from the room? Let me just say a couple of quick things: A. To all questioners, keep them short and to the point. We are being videoed for posterity so don't embarrass yourself or your grandmother or anyone else.
Audience Speaker 1: I have a question about BYU stories. You know that one of the newspapers had done the same type of story on campus rape, and it was refuted [referring to Rolling Stone magazine]. In light of that, can you just guide us through one of the cases as to how it originated and what steps you took to verify it, and what were the actions and reactions of the university establishment?
EA: I think probably the one that has been the most prominent and the one that was spoken about at the meeting where all these stories started to flood out, that student had made a police complaint, we had seen that. This was the one that lead to the witness retaliation charge involving the sheriff's deputy and a number of other things. The police had done an investigation and that case is pending. We reached out to the suspect but to no avail. Did we have correspondence about the school? Yeah we had some correspondence about the school's action. That was actually interesting, a lot of the students that I talked to that were disciplined had correspondence from the school about what their thing was and what was going to be done, the punishment.
BS: Let me ask this, did you encounter survivors who you had hoped to work with but who wouldn't give you the kind of verification access you needed? How'd you handle that?
EA: We talked to so many people that we couldn't put in the paper anyways, so we did what we could with it. A lot of students were pretty open to a lot of nosing around on account of Rolling Stone. Just saying those two words just suddenly, which I hate to keep piling on, but...
BS: It's an object lesson
EA: I didn't really appreciate how personally that had wounded a lot of these people, that felt that people would think that they were lying. So that's when the computers open up and you see the emails, the text message.
BS: That's actually quite interesting because one of the fears at the time that the Rolling Stone UVA scandal unfolded was that it would prevent people from trusting reporters, coming forward, and in fact it sounds like while we as journalists learned something from it, student survivors learned something from it and came to you a little bit more prepared to document their cases. That's interesting.
EA: Yeah, and willing to brainstorm, because you don't know what's back there when you start talking to somebody. There were some where it was just, "we can't move forward on this one, we just can't. There's just a mess here." I hope that answers your question.
Audience Speaker 2: I was curious with all your reporting what you found was the most common methods that Title IX investigators who have actual procedures to abide by, how they are able to bury or silence complaints or bury a case with the methods that they have at their disposal?
EA: I don't know that we can say that anyone was doing that intentionally, there were situations where certainly reports fell through the cracks, even after being brought to Title IX. There were allegations made at Utah State, University of Utah, the case of the multiple reports against one student that if you went to the Title IX office they would say, "you should report to police and not to us because if you report to us we're going to have to look into everything, it's going to be really painful for you, so go to the police instead."
Since our stories came out they've talked about having confidentiality so tight in place that someone who is under query is a responsible employee who would be responsible for passing along allegations of sex assault would not be able to talk about a repeat offender unless they got signed permission unless they got signed permission from every alleged victim which sometimes isn't possible.
BS: One little follow up on that, when things did fall through the cracks, if there are reporters looking into this issue on other campuses, of assaults falling through the Title IX cracks or whatever, what are the conditions or circumstances in which that seems most likely to happen?
EA: I mean the situation at BYU is such a different animal from a lot of what was going on at other schools. You handled more of the other school.
RP: Yeah, falling through the cracks. You might report to someone at _______ who might not write down everything, so then when that student goes to the Title IX coordinator and says something...during verification we said, "Do you have your Title IX report?" because the student under FERPA is entitled to get that. The student themself would go to Title IX and say, "can I have my report?" and the office will say, "Oh, we never made one because we don't make one until it gets this far in the process." That kind of allows the school as well to say, "we only had so many sex assaults last year."
BS: So that's a good example of the kind of thing to look for. Okay great. Thanks. Stephen?
Audience Speaker 3: Hi I'm a forensic psychiatrist here in New York, started my work with Vietnam veterans and worked in a prison with people accused of multiple serious crimes for a while. I want to focus on what you're talking about with your emotional reactions and what you did about them, as well as whether or not you used any mental health people as consults, both for yourself in what you're going through and for how you might approach the people you were talking to.
BS: Sam you talked a little about yourself seeking therapy but did you get any advice about how to understand these things? To what extent was mental health at the background of the reporting piece of it?
RP: Some of our sources were mental health experts who were able to give us perspective on how people handle trauma and what their responses might be like and also gave us advice. I talked to someone for a separate story and she said, "Make sure Erin is okay because I know Erin has been talking to a lot of victims." It's tricky though because we're not mental health experts and we can listen to these stories but we're not therapists and we can't let the women that we're talking to think that we are because that would be damaging to them. We have a purpose and it's different from how a mental health expert would bring to the conversation with them.
EA: I think going to other experts, especially law enforcement personnel that have worked on sexual assault, I mean I've talked to them over the years just in covering public safety but just how these interviews might go, that they tend to be not linear, there may be a lot of jumping around. The things that would be remembered and not remembered, that was helpful, that and doing interviews that didn't put people on the defensive. When it came to having somebody really visibly reconnect with their trauma, I wish that I had known more about what to do and I still wish that I knew more? I mean it doesn't come up as much in the outdoor recreation beat. (Laughter)
One of the things I was worried about just leaving the interview was I wanted to give them the out if they wanted to, but I was a little worried about being like, okay so what I'm just going to leave this person in Provo with this terrifying question of, "how long am I going to have to be punished by the color of my rapists eyes?" That doesn't seem like a good end, you know? I think in that case specifically I felt unequal to the task to be honest.
BS: Jay, Sam? Did you guys, what'd you think?
JA: Not for this piece so much, I did another piece with Kelly McEvers who's hosted All Things Considered, it was about her being a war correspondent and trying to figure out if she should stop. She had a daughter. She basically interviewed John Lee Anderson, Christiane Amanpour, Sebastian Junger, asking them, "should I stop?" She also interviewed her psychiatrist and record those conversations so everything was very transparent in terms of the effects of PTSD. Not just the risks of reporting, but also what was happening.
BS: By the way that piece is on the Dart Center website.
SB: The only thing I would add I think in the situation of my story what was different is that we all shared a traumatic event. I mean obviously my mom's experience was very different than anyone else's in the piece but that provided some common ground from where we started.
Audience Speaker 4: Hello, my question is about control over a story as a journalist, because you're always kind of taught not to give over too much control and yet in trauma journalism often victims have felt like their story has been taken away, so what you did differently during this process than you might have during other stories, and whether those conversation you had upfront.
SB: Again I feel like I'm in a different position because I've lived with the story for 20 years and I knew my mom's, I thought I knew, and I think I did know, her relationship to it. I was worried about her feeling like it wasn't told in a way that made sense to her and that felt correct to her.
BS: What was your, this is a weird thing to ask, but what was your contract with your mom, the way we have implied contracts with sources. Did she have veto power? Or did you just kind of figure you'd work it out?
SB: I think we figured we'd work it out. She did hear a nearly final draft and had thoughts about it, but I don't think we had a contract, did we? I mean we sort of had agreements going along about stopping if it wasn't going okay and those kinds of things.
You would have not been happy if I had done that?
BS: Okay, good to know. Okay, what about you guys, did you do anything differently than you'd usually do in terms of permissions and rules of the road?
EA: I think that we had a lot more conversations with the people in our stories than you normally would, it wasn't like dealing with a normal source you know, because the stories really were their stories from beginning to end. There was a little bit of that, not handing over control but handing over some aspects of that. You know our photographers here, we let them decide how much of their face they wanted to show, and how much of their name they wanted to use, and that was important because we didn't want to do the stories despite these women we wanted to tell these stories with them and tell the truth.
BS: So we have time for two more questions.
Audience Speaker 5: This is piggybacking off of that question, but it's involving informed consent. For these stories but also other stories you guys have done, how do you ensure your sources, especially in very sensitive situations, understand the risks and scope of the project that you're working on? It's something that I internally struggle with a lot.
SB: Usually the first thing I do when I sit down with somebody to make them feel comfortable and to orient both of us to why we're sitting there is to remind them, "I may have said it on the phone, but to say as a reminder, here's what I'm doing." To give them in that moment as much as I can the scope of the project which by them then saying, "ok" or asking questions or whatever I feel like is their consent to be part of that.
That was particularly hard with the politicians in this story. I would say they really wanted to know what my M.O. was before we started.
BS: They always do. But you know, you did do that even with your mom in the clip that we heard, you did kind of lay out again, right, to Jeremy, what you were doing, so it helped there you know? Any others?
EA: I went back to the sources a number of times because when I started this I was just trying to find people that had this experience and we were trying to find them very quickly. In many cases our first interview was done really having no idea what sort of story they would end up in. So a lot of returning back and making sure that they understood at the time, like right before publication, how their accounts would be used. We had some students who had real particular needs for confidentiality. With them I did go over the number of details I was using because you don't know like they know what would be exposing and to whom. Especially where they were still part of a community very close to the alleged assailant or where they were still exposed to possible honor code discipline it became kind of important. There were tricky moments with that, I'm not going to lie.
RP: Another thing I'd just add really quick is we usually would publish online before we'd go to print, so we'd give the sources a chance to, you know, "the story's up, check it out, make it sure we didn't mess anything up."
BS: So that's interesting, so you used the flexibility of online publishing as a kind of trial. You actually used it as a place where you could exercise a little control.
RP: Yeah. And that wasn't all of the intent, usually it was like, "we need to publish this before it's five o'clock at night, we want to have people see it." Not published on a Saturday. In one case there was a woman who had not wanted to be interviewed and we only used her police report until she went and saw the story online and saw that there were three other women who had reported the same man and then she called back and said, "I want to do the interview now."
BS: Okay. Closing question of the evening.
Audience Speaker 6: Alright. Hello, thank you all so much for your work. My question is, when you get to the end of the big project like this, a very heavy, long term project, how do you then move on both professionally and emotionally in terms of how soon do you start other pieces, do you do other pieces simultaneously, do you change genres, etcetera?
BS: Yeah, I mean, you know clearly Erin has significantly changed genre, but Sam, what about you? I mean this is the big one for you.
SB: Yeah, it was a relief to finish and it felt like my brain was reaching for this project for a long time where it was this thing I was spending so much time thinking about and working on. Then there's it going out in the world and in the case of this piece it was posted on Transom but then it got picked up by This American Life so it sort of has felt like there's been several births of it. I do feel done with it, and I have started working on another piece. That's hugely helpful.
BS: Can you tell us what it's on?
SB: It sort of was born out of this one and it's a piece I'm working on with Jay for the Frontline podcast and it's about the Supreme Court ruling which says that it's unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison. Reginald McFadden was a juvenile lifer, his sentence was commuted. In this piece I came to the conclusion that I do believe in second chances so this piece is following the story of one juvenile lifer in Pennsylvania and his process of being resentenced.
BS: Okay. Jay you mentioned that it was kind of, you felt depressed when this was over?
JA: Yeah, I mean I don't want to make too much of it but that's partly because of the weight of the material, it's partially also any time you finish something that you've been invested in heavily. I have the advantage, or disadvantage, of weekly deadlines. I have to turn out The Moth radio hour weekly, I have Transom, I have a public radio station we run, and lots of other projects so I can't stop. So that's maybe good.
BS: Do you have any little rituals you do when you're done with a big piece?
JA: No, I probably should. Now I think I should. Is that on your website?
BS: I don't know, I just made it up, so, you know...
JA: Yeah, write one up because I need it.
EA: This story has been the hydra for us. Every time we do one story that leads to seven more. Even though I'm on the outdoor recreation beat, this weekend I was on a camping trip in the desert with my husband interviewing a complainant in a rape case for a story that my editor has just sent me a text message about while I waiting for this to start. (Laughter) So we're not really done and Rachel can speak more to that.
RP: Yeah I think we're involved in three different lawsuits right now over records, police records and student records. Winning prizes this spring has sort of brought some of these specific stories and this topic back up again. It's still an issue, we're not even close to being done with it. When we wrote that first story last spring we didn't think, "Oh, here's the beginning of a nice series and we're going to sew it up at the end of the year and submit it for contests." We're still working on it.
BS: Okay. Thank you. So, let's thank again our panelists both for their insight and their work. Erin Alberty and Rachel Piper, Samantha Broun and Jay Allison. Talk for a few minutes, but that's it for the Dart Awards for 2017. Thank you all.