2019 Dart Awards: Roundtable Discussion Transcript
This year's Dart Awards went to Michigan Radio for two episodes of "Believed" and to NOLA.com | The Times Picayune for "The Children of Central City." Honorable mentions went to Radio Canada International – Eye on the Arctic and to The Star Tribune. The 2019 winners' roundtable featured Eilís Quinn, Reporter, Radio Canada International – Eye on the Arctic; Brandon Stahl, Reporter, The Star Tribune; Richard Webster, Investigative Reporter, NOLA.com | The Times Picayune; and Kate Wells, Reporter, Michigan Radio. A lightly edited discussion transcript is now available.
Bruce Shapiro: This is my favorite part of the year, where I get to sit down with reporters who have met extraordinary journalistic craft and personal challenges and have them walk through it a bit. I am joined from one side of the table to the other by Richard Webster from NOLA.com Times-Picayune, Kate Wells from Michigan Radio, Eilís Quinn from Radio Canada International Eye on the Arctic, and Brandon Stahl from the Star Tribune.
I'm going to ask each of them to show a little bit of video and talk a little bit to introduce us to this work, to the projects that you did, maybe a little bit about how you got there, what some key challenges you faced. And after we go through everybody, I'll ask a few questions to get the conversation going, and then we'll go to the room.
Richard Webster: Thank you. I just want to say I'm here because I lost a coin flip. So anyway, this project started, basically Jonathan and I had a grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism to look at how trauma impacts the health and wellbeing of children growing up in Central City. Central City is a neighborhood in New Orleans that deals with high rates of poverty and violence. Just to give you a little taste, there was a survey taken of children in Central City: one out of five had actually witnessed someone being murdered, four out of 10 had seen someone being stabbed or shot, and more than half know someone personally who has been killed.
So there are three basic challenges that Jonathan and I started off with, and then Emma, Brett, and Haley faced in doing this project. The first one was gaining the trust of the community. The second was gaining the trust of the team, and the third was connecting with readers who might not care about black kids in poverty and violence. So, when trying to earn the trust of the community, the challenge that we faced, and that's something that the journalism industry as a whole faces, is that we were a team of white reporters going into a majority black community. We were asking them to trust us, to confide in us, to invite us into their homes and basically tell in great detail some of the worst moments of their lives. There was no real easy way for us to go about overcoming this.
What Jonathan and I decided to do was first embed ourselves in the community. We used a portion of our grant money to rent office space in Central City, and we basically worked out of that space every single day for four months. The next thing we did was we interviewed community members; pastors, civic leaders, and residents, non-profits; these were off the record interviews. They were basically what we call listening sessions. They introduced us to the community, basically letting them know our sincerity and also highlighting that what we wanted to do was allow the community to shape the reporting. We weren’t coming in with preconceived notions.
Another thing we did was we asked what mistakes previous reporters had made when writing stories about Central City. And what they told us was that we should not focus on one child; we should not put the entire weight of trauma on a single boy and girl. And that shaped the entire project from that point forward. Also, doing these listening sessions, we were introduced to the A.L. Davis Park Panthers. To quickly paint a picture of this team...
A.L. Davis Park is where they practice. This is a park in the middle of Central City, and it is not a nice park. It is not a mediocre park; it is a park known for drugs, gangs, and shootings. There are still big, brown patches in the middle of this park from 14 years ago when they put FEMA trailers after Katrina. The team is not a well-oiled machine with a roster full of talent; it is a ragtag bunch of players; nine and 10 year olds, most who had never played football before. They were practicing in jerseys borrowed from other teams because they were too poor to afford their own.
So basically, the question is: "Why did we decide to focus on this team?" And that leads us to one of the challenges, that great stories, the ones that have the most impact are the ones that create an emotional connection with the readers. And this team allowed us to do that, it allowed us to connect with people who might not care about black children going through poverty and violence. But when they saw the amazing photos that Brett Duke took; you see these adorable little nine and 10 year old boys in these big helmets and these oversized pads and this brilliant video that Emma Scott took of these kids goofing around and laughing and just running around being children on a football field.
The readers would be able to see their own children. They would be able to see themselves as children. And so football created that universal connection that was so important to get over that obstacle. And it allowed us to frame what is also a difficult and many times tragic topic in a positive light, and that's something that Jonathan and I made a point do at the outset of this. So we were able to talk about this and show a dedicated group of parents who came together, formed a football team to make their children's lives happier, healthier, and safer.
The main thing is that none of this would have been possible if we did not earn the trust of this team. They were completely wary at first, and we had to overcome that. Typically as journalists, I think that we sort of want to report every single story and tell it as long as possible, and oftentimes our editors tell us, you know, "This is the wrong way to go," and oftentimes they're right. But with this team, there was an embarrassment of riches. I mean, sometimes, looking back, it's amazing how lucky we were to be able to find this one football team and have all these amazing stories, and it was impossible not to tell them.
So basically, there was this football team, and we had to tell these stories: a story such as DJ Jubilee, Jerome Temple; he is one of the founders of bounce music in New Orleans. I don't know if you know it? He was also the coach of the team for 14 years. During those 14 years, he lost 28 players who were shot to death. That is a list that he keeps with all of their names written down, carries it everywhere he goes. Also the story of Shawn Scott, who is the current coach; he lost a brother, a best friend, and a cousin to gun violence, and yet despite his own trauma, he and his wife decided to put this team together to try and save the next generation of kids.
And then Brennan Jacques, who is a former player on the Panthers, he lost two brothers and a nephew to gun violence. The nephew and the brother also played on the Panthers; they were part of that list of 28. Brennan was sentenced to five years in federal prison for drug dealing. He was one of the major traffickers of drugs in New Orleans. At the time, he had a young daughter, and basically when he got out of prison he said, "I can't do this anymore." He went to college, graduated at the top of his class; he's now a math teacher and a basketball coach at one of the high schools in New Orleans.
So again, none of this would have been possible if the team did not trust us, and they were understandably wary of us at first. You know, why would two reporters and then a videographer, and then a photographer, want to focus on a team of nine and 10 year olds? But we persisted, and what we did is we went to practice every single day, every single week, from 5:00 to 7:30, in addition to weekend games, and we started off as being outsiders. Then we graduated to being sort of minor annoyances, and then sort of blended into the scenery, and eventually, we got to the point where they saw us as being dedicated to telling important stories; their stories, in an incredibly sensitive way.
At that point we sort of became part of the team, and they trusted us; they confided in us; they invited us into their homes. When they invited us into their homes, it enabled us to get footage that we're about to show you; not yet though. This footage you're about to see right here: Emma shot it; Jonathan reported it; Brett was there taking photos. It is of Jerone Luckie, who at this point I think was about 14 years old. He is performing a rap that he wrote for his mother, who eight years ago was murdered while him and his younger brother; they were about seven and three at the time, slept in the next room. So, this is the video.
Bruce Shapiro: You know, one of the things that was so striking there was the depth of your immersion, and now we're going to go to immersion of a different sort. Kate, you had to immerse yourself in this particularly challenging story. Talk a little bit about the Nassar story. Give us five minutes worth of foundation on this.
Kate Wells: Fill at least five minutes that have been allotted to me. All right. So, Believed started actually several years ago. I had the luxury of being able... It's right in front of me... Let's see if I can do it... So, Believed actually started several years ago.
Here's when you probably met Larry Nassar. It was 2017. When you probably met Larry Nassar, it was probably in something like this, right? Here he is at the sentencings. This is when all of the news coverage was really national. I remember sitting there in the airport and suddenly for the first time the New York Times shows up next to me; I'm like, "Oh, we're getting attention now."
This had been going on for two years, this case, starting with one woman coming forward and getting essentially just absolute hatred from the community in many ways. They really loved this guy, and you also saw all of these incredible women, more than 150 come up and speak at these sentencings and really face this guy. All of it seemed like the power dynamic was totally with them and that this dude right here... You would never fall for that dude, right? None of us would, and I remember watching this news coverage and feeling like I did with the Jerry Sandusky case, where you're just horrified that anybody allowed this to go on for so long.
And so we've finished the national news coverage, and while the news coverage I did for NPR was basically, the host asked me like, "It sounds like it's really bad. Is it really bad?" and me being like, "It's really bad." But it didn't make it human to you, right? That's so distant; you're never going to be the parent; you're never going to be the kid; you're never going to be the person who falls for the bogeyman, but that's how these things keep happening. So we finished... The national media kind of moved on, and I had this feeling of enormous guilt that I had, we had all screwed this up to a certain extent, because it was just going to happen again. You can look at this guy and feel completely and totally superior in knowing that you would not fall for this.
So I sat there through all of this trial and courtroom and so did so many other reporters thinking, knowing from the details that we knew, I would have fallen for this guy. I never, other than in small moments with my husband, found a way to be able to say that in coverage. These women were so powerful and incredible and emotional that you were just like, "Well of course I believe them." I've never met someone who says, "If a sexual assault survivor came to me, I would be very dubious", like we all think that we would believe. So the first thing that we then set out to do is to get you to try to forget this guy, right? Because when this happens over the last 20 years, you're not meeting that guy, you're meeting this guy:
Audio Clip: You have to protect your athletes. You have let them know that we care. You have to not let them know, but let them feel it, let them understand it, let them breathe it; it's there. It's not just a pat on the back. You know what I mean? It has to be sincere- and you screw up once with one of those gymnasts and it'll spread like wildfire. If you do something where you break their train of trust, you're done.
Kate Wells: That's Larry Nassar in a podcast from several years ago called GymCastic talking about why he was so different, why in this incredibly brutal sport, he was the guy who saw your kid, right? And as the kid, this person sees you; they're not your parent, they're not your coach, they're not yelling at you. They're genuinely on your side. So with each of these women and so many more, men interacted with him; they were interacting with that guy: Larry Nassar was the Olympic gymnastics coach; he was the MSU coach, but he was also beloved.
There are women who are victims of his who still love him and explained to us that it's like when you love... The one woman, Trinea Gonczar, you heard her episode says, "The only way I can explain it to my husband is it's like what I imagine it must be for the parent of kid who goes into a school and shoots it up. You hate what they did; you can't wrap your mind around it, but you have loved them your whole life, and there is a part of you that will always love them."
So we had to make that person clear for you, right? We had to show you first off, Larry, not Nassar. We had to show you this baby-faced trainer helping Kerri Strug off the Olympics; this white, goofy, East Lansing dad who would give you a Skittle if you were injured and was just a part of your life. He showed up to the ER sometimes if your kid got injured... If you were one of his patients or gymnasts and you got injured in something else, the parents would still call Larry and be like, "Trinea has been hurt in something else; we just need you to be there." He was your advocate.
That was episode one, right: Larry Nassar, the nice guy. Introduce you in a different way, and then two, we wanted to put you in the room when these survivors come forward and try to report what happens, and it goes wrong, because again, we all think we would do it right. But these stories and these details about how police missed it, or how the school missed it, or how parents missed it; the details and specificity of those are really important. What we strove for with each episode was trying to play essentially that room for you.
This is Brianne Randall. On the left, you see her when she was about 17 when she saw Larry Nassar and was sexually abused by him. This is her today, and we went through each specific detail; everything we could get our hands on about that police investigation. We got to talk with police and use her mom and recreate this moment as much as possible to make you feel like everyone in that room was a human; nobody was a monster, except for Larry Nassar. That's how these things can go wrong; you don't need a conspiracy in order to miss this...
The other thing that made all of this possible is these incredible sources. Others have talked about wanting to create this intimacy and this human connection with somebody. We had to call up these survivors after Larry Nassar had been sent to prison and after they'd done all these actual media interviews and be like, "Hey, we're making a podcast. We would like to come to your homes and meet your children and your families and spend a ton of time with you, and also we want you to walk through in very graphic detail the worst thing that possibly happened to you." And you know what? They said, "Yes."
I still don't know why some of them did, but they let us in. This is Rachael Denhollander with her three kids. We got to spend the day with them, and that allowed us to be present and say that this is not just the stereotype of a survivor; beaten down, but brave and courageous and still powering through. These are people, and each and every single one of these women gave us that kind of time and gave us that graciousness, because as cliché as it sounds, they genuinely think that if people understand this case, it will help us stop this earlier the next time, because there will be a next time, and they know that better than anyone... That is the last slide.
Bruce Shapiro: All right. And we will come back to it; I see so many questions in that. Eilís, you made a commitment not only to a story but to a place, and a place not on many of your listeners' mental maps, barely even on a geographical map. How'd that happen and why?
Eilís Quinn: First of all, just so you know the context in Canada just before we even get into the geographical stuff is the situation in the First Nations Métic and Inuit communities in Canada, in many cases it's like third world conditions. There's been a lot going on in the country, I'd say the last five to 10 years, where we could say the country's trying to have a reckoning with this. Their current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has talked a lot about reconciliation with indigenous peoples as one of his main policy platforms.
In Quebec, the problems where I'm based... There is a commission that was in place to go for a period of two years to look at the relationship between First Nations and Inuit communities and government services in Quebec. There was an investigative report from Enquête, which is an investigative reporting show, and they found in certain indigenous communities, police had been allegedly taking sexual advantage of some of the First Nations women in these communities. So there was a huge spasm of discussion in Quebec about this.
That's sort of the background, but in my reporting in the Arctic; I report all over the Arctic. In the different Inuit communities, what I've been hearing and seeing from people is that despite all these headlines in the south, all of the attention through these commissions and political discussions, that in the communities, things are not changing and in some ways are getting worse.
In Nunavik, this is the Inuit land-claimed region of Quebec, and this is a map of the 14 Inuit communities in Nunavik. They're all fly-in communities, and there're no roads, and Kangiqsualujjuaq, that's within the red circle on top, that's where last year, March 19th, 2018, a young man was murdered.
This is Wakeham Bay. You can see the community on the left; this is a community of around 700 people. That's what the community looks like on the ground.
This is the Adams family. Robert Adams was stabbed to death. He's the young man third from the left with the giant smile. As I said, over these last two years, I've been trying to find a way to bring these stories about; how people in the communities are not seeing what the headlines in southern Canada are saying. Does it reflect what their experiences is?
The problem is, even though I have people that contact me when I'm on reporting trips in the north, people contact me by Facebook to denounce what they're seeing in their communities. The huge, huge problem with these stories is that in these tiny isolated communities, the social cost of speaking out is enormous. I have no problem for these kind of delicate stories about granting people anonymity, but the problem is these communities are so tiny, even if you give people anonymity, people know who they are just by the circumstances.
So this has been a frustration of mine for the past two years, but then this man, the father, Bernie Adams... It was in April 2018, so just a few weeks after Robert had been stabbed to death... I got an email; it was two pages, almost all caps, and I did not know this family before, saying, "My son was murdered." There was a tiny brief about the arrest of the accused in the local media outlet, and he was going through not being able to have mental health services, the conditions of his son's body when it came back from the coroner, the justice system; it was a huge e-mail, all caps. So I contacted him immediately, and he said, "Look, I want to talk. I want to go on the record, and I want to talk about all of this."
We had long discussions over a period of weeks, and the cost of reporting in the Arctic is colossal and enormous. When I spoke to my Editor-in-Chief Soleïman Mellali, who’s not here tonight... I had booked an hour with him to try to get him to take on the story. I spoke to him for five minutes and he said, "I don't need to hear any more; we're going to find a way to do this."
If anyone has been in Montreal, the [French 00:25:36], the French language public broadcaster; it's a huge tower, 30 or more floors, and Soleïman went up in the tower to speak to the bosses and the managers. Sometime he came down and said we had a go for the project. But all during this period; it was many many weeks, and I spoke to Bernie Adams and his other family members about what this would mean for all of them, why they wanted to do it, managing expectations... I don't know if we'll have a discussion later about that.
The thing that he kept saying to me is that all of the other issues that have stopped people from talking to me before... He said that his son was murdered, and that there was nothing anyone could do or say that would hurt more than that, and he just wanted the truth to be out there, so that's how the story came to be.
Bruce Shapiro: Well, thank you. Brandon, you and your colleagues have always had a sort of opposite reporting problem. You're taking on a subject that many people think they know; they think we know what the shortcomings of the system have been around sexual assault, and we live in the Me Too era, and there's a lot of stuff out there. And yet, you found an investigative direction and ripped the lid off a huge scandal in a huge degree of justice in your state. Tell us about the project, how it happened.
Brandon Stahl: So, first I don't have any images I think, so it's just going to be me talking for five minutes. The story started in the fall of 2016. I had come back as an investigative reporter, and they had dissolved our investigative team... Our editors... Our stories, our projects are going to come from the beats. I was placed on a court beat. One of my first stories just happened to be about, I was at a sentencing for a rapist, and the survivor gave just an incredibly moving impact statement, just telling her story and it was this moment of courage. You don't see courage often in real time, and I just opened up to the story, 30 inch story.
That prompted a phone call from a woman by the name of Abby Honold, and she asked me if I was going to go to the sentencing for her rapist. I was planning on doing that; I had no idea who she was, and then eventually, a few days later, she told me her story. She was a University of Minnesota student. She was at a tailgate party having a few drinks, meets this guy that she barely knows by the name of Daniel Drill-Mellum. He was kind of a well-to-do student; he was an intern for a senator, intern for a governor, came from a wealthy family.
So she kind of knew a little bit about him, and he was like, "Hey, you know what, we're almost out of booze; let's go back to my place and get more," and he violently raped her, and I believe it was about the course of an hour. She immediately reports, and the story she begins to tell me is that from the moment the police got there, she started to feel blamed. She was told by police and paramedics on the ambulance, "You know, you might not want to tell your parents about this, because this is really embarrassing." She goes to the emergency room and gets an exam and the investigator walks in and says, "Just so you know, this isn't going to go anywhere. This is just he said, she said; he said that you wanted this."
So the case goes nowhere. He was arrested initially but he's released. She is in incredible panic. Eventually she's able to find another investigator from another department to investigate the case. He finds more victims; this guy turns out to be a serial rapist. He is convicted. This is an incredible story all on its own. In reporting this story, what I learned from advocates and the police was that what happened to Abby was not at all unusual in the way that she was treated. This is very commonplace for sexual assault victims. What was unusual was that she got a conviction. I was told that that's incredibly rare, that people could believe it in this case.
So that raises the pretty big questions: Is that true? Is there any data? We first looked to see was there data? Anything that showed us, okay, from start to finish, what is the conviction rate for these cases? We know that most sexual assaults are not reported, and we learned quickly, no, that data does not exist; nobody's tracking that anywhere in this country, so we had to do it. We reviewed a little over 2000 case files by the time we were done with the project. We requested them from over 28 seats around the state, and we started putting them into a database.
We were looking for very basic things. Was the case assigned to an investigator? Was the suspect interviewed? Was the victim interviewed? Very basic... We had this idea, well, we're going to look at was there a trauma-informed interview or something like that. We realized that they don't even do basics. We found that I think every one out of every five cases was never assigned an investigator... I'm going to pull your numbers up ahead... Three out of four cases were never sent to prosecutors; prosecutors never saw them, never saw the light of day.
When prosecutors did see the cases, even if there was a thorough investigation, they often weren't charged with them, even when there was cases where DNA evidence was found; the suspect confessed. They weren't charging these cases. So ultimately, less than one out of every ten cases resulted in a conviction. So that was the data side of it; those are numbers. What we needed were people. We needed stories to tell that went along with this. At first, it was, "How are we ever going to do something like this?"
We knew the key to this was going to be we couldn't do anonymous stories; we just couldn't do this. Abby Honold, when she initially told us her story, she was willing to go on record, and she was photographed, and we were kind of in the midst of the Me Too movement. And I think, we were also talking to survivors about what we were trying to do, that when we approached them or they approached us, they were not alone; that the way that they were treated, that the way that their case was handled, this is systemic. This is happening across the state, and we want to show that. Would you be a part of that?
If they didn't want to be a part of it, if they didn't want to talk to us, if they didn't want to be photographed, that was fine. We let them know that "You are in control as much as we possibly can." We tried to be as accountable and transparent as much as we could. You know, it was kind of nice; we basically did the opposite of what the police and prosecutors did when we spoke with them. And you could see-
Bruce Shapiro: Whatever the cops did, you just did the opposite of that.
Brandon Stahl: Right. I know. I mean, you see some of the cases we had these interview transcripts, and they were asking very direct, like, "Why did you do this? What did you do then? Why? Tell me. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me." Just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And as we found, that's the exact opposite way of what you should be doing when you interview an assault victim. You need to have trauma in mind. You need to understand that when they have gone through this trauma, they are not thinking or remembering in a way that we expect them to. They're remembering things out of order. They're not remembering certain details that you would... "How could you not remember that detail?" Because they're not focused on it.
We were very much asking open-ended questions. We stayed away from the whys and the whens, and "give us these details." There's a time and place for that. In the end, really we wanted them to feel like they were telling and sharing their stories with us. In the end, I think we had a lot of women who said and told us after that they felt quite empowered by sharing their stories, that they felt like for the first time, somebody listened; somebody believed them. These were women who were reporting their assaults to the police, so that was really quite powerful.
The series itself resulted in a great deal of reform across the state. There are currently several bills going through the legislature that... I think that one that is thought is going to pass would basically create a working group to rewrite our sexual assault laws in Minnesota. That just blows my mind because there are so many cases and so many times where it's just too difficult to bring charges or to bring cases. Every state has a police licensing board, and this board says, "Okay, when a cop shoots somebody else, here's the steps that you need to do to investigate the case. There's 17 quote unquote model policies. There's not much for sexual assault until we came along. They drafted and passed one because of us, so every agency in this state; 400 plus agencies in this state now need to follow the protocol set by this board when they're to investigate sexual assault.
That's just two of the many, many changes we've told about. So, I think my time's up.
Bruce Shapiro: With all of these we could go on and on and on. I'm going to ask a handful of questions about data and sources and methods, and then we'll go to the room, because I know that there's a lot of interesting questions about all of this... One of the big challenges I know that I've experienced in reporting, that our students here at the school bring up again and again, and that all reporters encounter...
When you're dealing with the deeply vulnerable people that all four of you worked with, is this question of partly what you said Eilís about managing expectations: it's about managing your own boundaries with sources who may on the one hand be resisting participating or may throw themselves at you a little too much, or who may run hot and cold on their participation; who may be willing to disclose some things but not others; who may think of you as a friend when you're going to work with them.
What were a few of the challenges that you faced in managing sources beyond the need to be transparent and clear, which all of you emphasized? What were some times when it got tough; examples of how it got tough, and strategies that have worked for you on these projects, in not only getting trust in the first place, but maintaining it; maintaining boundaries... kind of doing the job, part of the job. It's all a very tough part.
Richard Webster: With our project I think it was unique because... Well, I don't think it's unique because you spent two and a half years doing yours... It was just our presence and our dedication and just letting them know why we were there. I mean, they were completely aware. So the wife of the team... and this is a story that Jonathan wrote... She was a cousin of Telly Hankton, who was the drug kingpin in New Orleans.
He is serving several life terms. He was the number one most wanted person in the city. So she has a very unique relationship with the media. Her family in her eyes was unjustly demonized. So she saw the press coming in and immediately she thought, "Okay, this is going to be two more guys coming in here just to rip our family apart." But just us being there, and sometimes we would just sit at the practice, and we're not interviewing people; we're just hanging out, letting them know that we're not there to interfere, we just want to have conversations. I don't know if this is answering the question, but I mean it was just being determined and persistent and making them comfortable with us.
Bruce Shapiro: Instead of just showing up... Really showing up-
Richard Webster: Yeah, I mean, we had a list of all the parents on the team, and we went down and then we called them; we met them. We got a lot of no’s. There were probably twenty-odd kids on the team, and we interviewed maybe 10 of the families. Some of them just wanted to have nothing to do with us.
Bruce Shapiro: Were there ever times when people came to you for stuff that you couldn't do?
Richard Webster: What do you mean?
Bruce Shapiro: Well, what were the boundaries? How do you go from being the reporter to being so woven into the fabric that you're-
Richard Webster: We made decisions about certain things not to report. There was a time when we were at the practice and the coach Scott and his brother, who would hang out, they got into a fist fight in front of all the kids. It was a big thing, spilled out into the street, but one of the assistant coaches was really good. He had the kids sit down. He's like, "Don't you look over there. Anybody who looks over there is running laps." He's like, "They're grown ups; this is what they do. They're going to work it out." And then after they fought, Shawn and his brother came back and they're like, "This is okay." Sure, that's like a cool little anecdote, and you can say, "Oh yeah, you're in the field, and it's dangerous and stuff," but it didn't serve any purpose and it would just hurt them. There's other things that we could mention, but it would not serve the story.
We're not there to uncover stuff like that. We were there to report on what they were dealing with living in that community.
Bruce Shapiro: Kate, you're dealing with highly traumatized families and individual young women. There may be differences within the families about what they want of you or how they perceive the story. How did this relationship with the sources thing play out for you in boundaries, expectations, any of that?
Kate Wells: I think it differed based on socials, and I bet we can all say that. We talk about Rachael Denhollander. If you know a face from the Larry Nassar case, that's probably it. These women had spent two and a half years at that point telling her story and trying to get somebody to care about it, and were then cross-examined. We basically just turned on a tape and she was like, "I will take care of this." But there were two major challenges that I still don't know if we handled totally correctly. I think there were a couple people whom I did blur the lines. I don't know really what else to say about that. There is one case that's still going on legally involving other people, related to the Larry Nassar case, and I just don't cover it because-
Eilís Quinn: Do you blur the lines in terms of friend/journalist or-
Kate Wells: Yeah-
Bruce Shapiro: So there is a line that you drew. You decided, here's an individual you're somehow too close to and you-
Kate Wells: I would be fascinated to hear more reporters talk about this, and I think I'd love to know how other people handle this. These are women who, you don't just know them; you know their kids. You have kids the same age. In our cases, we were pregnant at the same time throughout all of this. They call you at one o'clock in the morning when they're feeling suicidal. They talk to you about issues in their marriages. Are you going to not take that call? What are you going to do?
At a certain point I realized that with one of these women in particular, I just couldn't pretend to be objective about how her legal case was going to play out, so I didn't. I think the main other ethical thing that we came across was, it is really not fun to have to... especially with Kyle, who was abused starting at age six in Larry Nassar's basement; her family didn't believe her and believed Larry Nassar when he said that hadn't happened. Fact checking her story is an experience I'm glad to not have to go through again. We were lucky because there were some documents we were able to get some public records out of that. Pressing a young woman about how she was abused and how her parents reacted and then trying to put her through a fact check of that was new ground for us.
Bruce Shapiro: Eilís?
Eilís Quinn: Two things come to mind. I just want to say, Kate, I totally agree with you. I wish there was more discussions in journalism about blurring the line, especially when you're doing projects on a long-term basis; I totally agree with you. For Death in the Arctic, there was two things. Initially, one of the things that was very easy is that these initial questions about asking people to mind these painful experiences... because the father approached me, and by the time he had spoken with me, he had already done the emotional work, the work with his family, so I didn't have that.
But two ethical things that did come up... I've been doing this for a long time and one of the things I go through, especially in terms of fact checking and especially in areas of trauma, before the reporting project even starts, I explain especially in communities like in the Arctic where journalism isn't understood, I explain what it is and I explain fact checking before the project even starts. And I say, "It doesn't mean I don't believe you." I explain why we do it. I say, "It also protects you once the story is out," because if there's something just a little bit off, people can dismiss the whole story. I have very thorough discussions before the project even starts.
For me, the huge ethical issue was, Robert Adams was stabbed to death, and initially I wanted to really do a portrait of the whole community and how the social issues, everything is intertwined. I don't remember if I mentioned it earlier, but the suicide rate in Inuit communities is 10 times higher than in southern Canada. The same weekend that Robert was stabbed to death, there was a suicide. There was another attempted murder. There was an alcohol-related ATV accident. I really wanted to untangle the trauma; how you have the family of the accused, the family of the victim, and really talk about the whole ecosystem in the community.
The biggest ethical decision when I was in the community is how to respect that Adams family's right to tell their stories and everything they needed to tell, but also respect the families that didn't want their story told, that were uncomfortable with media being there. The challenge is that everything is intertwined. I can't get into certain very specific things because in these small communities it's so easy to identify people, but just generally, what do you do if someone in the community should be answering for some of the things that a certain family experiences? But what do you do if it's one of their children that's committed suicide? It becomes so overwhelming, and it's very hard to have discussions because there's so little of this kind of work going on in those communities; it's very hard to untangle those issues.
Bruce Shapiro: Who did you talk to about this? How'd you work it out over time?
Eilís Quinn: I have a very, very valued colleague from when I worked at the Canadian Press, the newswire service; it would be like the Canadian AP. I have actually two colleagues from there that I talk to about this kind of issue a lot. I also have sources in the north that I speak to about this stuff; not people sources from stories, but people that I've known over the last 10 years. The thing is every community is so different. You can report from 18 communities, but as I mentioned before, they're all isolated, fine communities, so the ecosystem is completely different. So I'm still trying to feel my way through that, but you try to find a way to tell the story without that, but I still really believe that walking with this family was the most important.
I just wanted to say the other thing that's very different when also working cross-culturally, is like I said, one of the reasons that the family approached me is because they felt that the headlines are misleading in terms of the reality on the ground. When it came to when the text was lawyered, and there was stuff that I had to take out.
Even though Mr. Adams said that he was never mad at me, I know he was mad at me because he said, "You know, I trusted you with this, and you're exactly like the coroner who's sending my son's body back in the condition that it was." The justice system that cancels that whole thing, the mental health services that they say they're going to get and that never come... That was also very difficult for me to see that I was causing them the same pain that they had come to me to try to illustrate. That was difficult on a personal level.
Bruce Shapiro: Brandon, how about you? We really are thinking about the very difficult question of managing the relationships with people-traumatized sources, and in this case, person after person after person who's victimized and re-injured. On one end, you at least have that sort of methodology of "Whatever the cops said, I'll do the opposite." But, expectations, boundaries, verification; all of that is a messy scoop. How did you handle that piece?
Brandon Stahl: To go back to doing the opposite of what the police/prosecutors would do... One of the complaints that they had was that they just were never contacted by police. They were never contacted by prosecutors, and we made sure that we did that; that we were constantly communicating with them, answering questions whenever they had them. I would end every phone call that I had with, "What questions do you have for me at this point?" to make sure that they felt like anything they had, any concerns, anything like that, that we were answering for them.
And then we would be asked the question of, "Hey, could we read the story before it goes to print?" And, "No, but we can read the quotes and the context of quotes, so you won't be surprised about what's in there. We are going to call the suspect. We are going to call the witness in. We are going to call the police. You need to know that that's coming. If you don't want that, tell us now, and we won't do that, but we won't write about your case."
So they were constantly up front with them in trying to be as transparent as we possibly could with our survivors. I think there were a couple of cases where I was asked to maybe get involved in a case that wouldn't have been ethical, but it was easily handled because we were just so up front with them. I think our video journalist, Renee, actually spent a lot more time with them because of the work that she was doing did have a couple of situations where survivors were, "Can you take me to this event?" or something to that effect. I think, again, we were just very up front with them saying, "Look, this is our role as journalists, and we can't do that and still be ethical and still have a series of stories that we point to and say, 'We did this in an ethical way'," and they totally understood that.
Bruce Shapiro: I'll come back with a couple more, but let's go to the room now. Line up at the mic. I just remind any of you that this is being videotaped, so don't say anything you wouldn't want either your grandmother or your grandchild to see, as it will be there forever.
Audience Member: Hello. This question is for Mr. Webster. I just wanted to say I actually worked at one of the schools that you covered in your story. I used to work at Phillis Wheatley. I learned things from this story that I didn't know, and I was a teacher to a lot of kids, and so that was very impressive to me. Thank you for writing that.
My question for you is: How did you get into contact with the school and persuade them to do a feature about one of their teachers, and was the school happy to work with you, or were they a little bit hesitant and you had to persuade them a little bit?
Richard Webster: This seems like a planted question because this is a whole story. It's actually a better answer than my previous answer. All right, I'll make this really quick. It was a whole ordeal with Brennan. So, Jubilee told us about Brennan. He said you got to write a story about this guy; he's amazing. We interviewed Brennan; great interview. We walked out just like, "This was one of the best, most shocking interviews. His story is just unbelievable."
Right before we left the interview, we said, "Well what does the school think about this, man, you... like five years in federal prison, and here you are?" And he's like, "Oh, they don't really know." So then it's like, "Aww, like what do we do?" So I went back to Brennan... Well first we went to the editor and we had a discussion, and the idea was: "Listen, you cannot go forward with this story if the school doesn't know, because he will get fired, or if the school doesn't fire him parents could rise up and they could be like, 'Get this guy out of here. He was a drug dealer.'"
So I go back to Brennan and said, "What do you mean?" And I could not go to him and say, "You need to tell the school," because if he got fired then that's a whole other ordeal. So basically told Brennan, "Listen, we really want to do this story. To do the story, the school has to know. We can't tell you what to do." So he's like, "Okay, okay. I'll think about it." He calls and he says, "Hey, listen. I told the school. Good to go."
Contacted him again and doing a second interview I'm like, "Brennan, what, you know, just what did you tell the school?" And he's like, "I got in a little bit of trouble." Anyway, long story short, he told the school a little bit. Finally, we are maybe weeks close to publication, and we really wanted this story because it was such a hopeful, amazing story. So we sat down with the principal and the idea was just to say, "Hey, listen. The story's coming out. These are all things that we're going to lay out in the story, and by the way, we're going to talk about him being in prison, and he was a drug dealer."
The school was amazing. They were just like, "We don't care. This guy is amazing." The school population of the kids that they deal with are Brennan when he was young, and they're like, "Who cares? He is amazing. The kids love him to death." That was a whole thing where we had to think about the last thing we wanted to do in all the stories was hurt the people that we were reporting on. You know, he turned his life around... five years in prison. There was one point he had five brothers; every single one was either dead or in prison. God, if the story came out and we talked about this, and it was like, "What would we do? Why would we do the series to get this guy kicked out?"
Anyway, Thank you... Did you know Brennan?
Audience Member: No, I was not aware that he worked at the school either, so that was also a surprise for me.
Richard Webster: Thank you for the question.
Audience Member: Hi, I'm a student at the J School, and first of all just want to say thanks very much for coming in and telling us about how these stories came to be. My question picks up a little bit from what you said, Kate, but I'm interested in hearing what everyone has to say. I feel like we spend a lot of time talking about how to gain communities trust and begin relationships, but I wonder how you end relationships because you are not going to stay with that school or that team or up in that community in the Arctic for rest of your reporting career, so how do you end those relationships or terminate them?
Bruce Shapiro: Great question for any and all of you.
Kate Wells: If it depends on your source, then I think you let them guide that. Kyle in particular was like, "And I'm done." You know, they just had been a huge media story. A lot of them had been in the national spotlight; they don't want to be defined by this for the rest of their lives. They are more than just this story. So when people like Kyle and even Brianne Randall... They were incredibly generous with their time... We would follow up with them; they were sort of like, "I'm moving on."
The answer to the others is that I don't know. We text. I don't usually do the reaching out, but when they do I respond. Also, the really nice thing about being a local reporter, as so many of you guys have gotten experience, is you don't leave. So a story like this where it's huge in Michigan and also has so many ramifications for one of our biggest institutions, Michigan State, keeps playing out and I can keep covering it and they're still very much engaged in it. It is in some ways a continuing relationship, and that has been really helpful for that reporting that we do then on: How does Michigan State move forward? Will some of these systemic issue get fixed? But, I don't know; what do you guys think of relationships?
Bruce Shapiro: Eilís, you don't live there-
Eilís Quinn: No-
Bruce Shapiro: So you really had to say goodbye at some point.
Eilís Quinn: The thing that I find is that not all people or sources want to continue the relationship with the journalist afterwards. I find a lot of times the decision makes itself. So part of like what you said, I go with what the people are comfortable with at that time. With this story I am working on a follow-up, so it's ongoing, but it's always with the source for me, at least personally, that decides that.
Bruce Shapiro: There are the bookends here. What would you say about this, you guys?
Brandon Stahl: Kind of piggybacking on that, it sometimes ends itself. But also, every survivor that we spoke with we told them, "Look, if you want to talk to us, contact us anytime. If you've got an update on your case," and we actually did get a lot of updates on their cases because some of them were real. It's kind of a mix of both I think.
Richard Webster: Yeah, I think it's the same thing. I know that Jonathan keeps in touch with Shawn and [Dobashikha 00:56:36]. And Brennan, I'll keep in touch with him. Sometimes its just sending a text just because we care about these people. It's the hard thing about journalism, and sometimes you dive bomb these people's lives, and it's all you can think about, and then you move on. And then you're moving onto the next story of the next person or family, and that's all you can think about. Some people you just naturally keep in touch with, like friends or something, and then it just sort of peters out.
Audience Member: Hi, my name is Amy Meek. I'm a journalist. This is terrific that you got to really help me to know about the center of your work. Normally I'm not in the country, and I happen to be here. Thanks for sharing your stories. I have a lot of questions but I'll just ask one. I'm kind of amazed, Brandon, that you said that there weren't policies in place to deal with sexual violence. I've read about aftermath of rape in India, and so I've gotten lots of questions from editors saying, "Well, why doesn't this exist, like policies?" And I'll say, "Well, it didn't exist in Minnesota." And so the question for the panel is, after your reporting, did you see any other sort of impact of your reporting to change some of the systemic lapses? Brandon that's a great story line that you were reporting pushing those policy changes. The rest of you, did you find any changes? Then Brandon if there's anything more you want to say about how those policies are being enforced now that would be great.
Bruce Shapiro: You know, why don't each of the three of you talk briefly about impact and Brandon if you want to add, too, and then we'll keep it moving.
Richard Webster: So real briefly, the city council passed a resolution creating a task force that is looking at ways to have citywide impact on trauma. They're supposed to release a report in June. City council's going to take it up in August. The city council also passed recent resolutions; they're passing a resolution to sort of implore schools to utilize trauma-informed practices. Recently, there's a $750,000 possibly infusion of money into Tulane.
So it's basically resolutions passed to encourage school systems to look into trauma-informed practices. One is a task force to present proposals city-wide... $750,000... Real quick, and there was also a disappointment because we thought that after the story came out, the field was going to be fixed up and there was promises from the New Orleans Saints, and all of that fell through. I think it's also important to point out that these stories do not fix everything.
Kate Wells: Two really quick things, and nothing quite like, "And then laws were passed, and now there are no more serial child sexual abusers" or anything like that. Two things that I think we measured impact from: One, Believed is not a fun "Hey, we were really worried that nobody was going to be like, 'I would now like to listen to this podcast about serial child sexual abuse.'" A last point has 4.5 million downloads, and it hit number one on the iTunes chart last year, so people listened, and that's a large part in thanks to when you team up with NPR they can push that out. We've never been able to get that.
Two, the things that we were most stressed about this entire time while making it is that we were going to screw it up and that we were going to let these women down who had given us everything. I think the things that I will remember the most are letters we got back: one from a mom of these girls who had really just had some brutal comments made to her online on Facebook. One of those other parents who wrote to her had given those really brutal comments about like, "This is your fault. You clearly were so into your daughter's gymnastics career," actually wrote her back after listening to The Parents episode and said, "I'm so sorry. I didn't get it. I apologize."
The other thing that will always stick with me is there were a couple of people who had not come forward as Nassar survivors and still didn't want to. One in particular who said that she now has had her family and some coworkers listen to the podcast as a way of having them kind of understand the things she wanted them to know without her having to say, "I'm a survivor."
Bruce Shapiro: Eilís, anything else to add?
Eilís Quinn: Yeah, just in terms of the situation in the Arctic, all of these issues that are brought up by the Adams family, there's been so many reports in Canada written about this and nothing changes. I've mentioned that in the report. There's even been reports on... For example, we can take the justice system reports denouncing the lack of action on the reports written in the last 20 years.
When again speaking with the Adams family or with any time I'm doing this kind of work in Arctic, I do speak very honestly that it's not like in a movie where the journalist comes out and everything's going to change. But the impact that I was blown away by was the response. I got so many emails, and like really, really long old-school e-mails like we used to get in newspapers 15 years ago. People writing from other Arctic communities all across Canada saying that they wished they could do what the Adams family was doing; that if every family in every community in Arctic Canada could just go on the record about what it is.
In Canada, it's often isolated things: "Oh, the justice system doesn't work"... The fly up and justice system, the coroner... But the thing is, families aren't just dealing with one thing, it's all of this together; every part of society just doesn't work. It's like an everyday trauma, right?
What I just found most gratifying was having so many letters and people saying that the family inspired them. Even people from southern Canada writing and saying that they didn't understand; they thought the government gave Indians everything, and seeing that is what the government giving them everything looks like. I think we changed a lot of perceptions. I think a lot of people were gratified to see their stories reflected, and I hope more families will come forward to do a similar thing in the future.
Bruce Shapiro: Okay, so our time is really limited. I see there are one, two, three, four people who want to ask questions. If you could each ask a very short and focused question all in a row, and then you guys can sort of take whatever seems to make sense and can be answered in a short and focused way because we want to land the plane on time. So, go.
Audience Member: I wish to thank the Dart Center for its admirable and worthy mission. I'd like to congratulate all of the awardees and honorees, as well as your colleagues and your organizations. My question is addressed to Ms. Wells regarding Dr. Nassar. You are quite obviously a very empathetic person, but I wish to pose a hypothetical question which is not at all improbable: In the event that Dr. Nassar while incarcerated were to be brutalized, to be killed by his fellow inmates, to commit suicide, how would you personally react? And I don't say that in an accusatory way, but would you have any empathy for him, his plight as an incarcerated inmate in a very brutal system?
Audience Member: I have a question for any of you about what you all perceive the starting points of your viewers perception of survivors and who all in the circumstance is at fault. I know when I watched the film titled The Children of Central City, there were some outside voices speaking about, I think it's a quote to say "throwaway children," or "Oh, we just..." Many people assume that the children are at fault for their lack of being able to function normally. I'd like to think that we actually when we view stories like this again and again, we become more compassionate for someone's process. So why do each of you... What do you feel the need has to be for the starting point of bringing people along? I hope that's explained enough.
Audience Member: Yes, for Kate. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about with so many people coming forward, obviously there's bureaucracy, one department; you can look at something for a short time and they don't talk to another department. But what we can learn from this bizarreness of so many people speaking up and not being listened to? And quick, for Ms. Quinn... shocking in a way when you said you have to fly into this particular area. You could talk to us about traditional and modern times with this community that's cut off and how that kind of influences everything.
Audience Member: Hi. My question is about reporting these kinds of traumatic, hard stories as either freelancers or students. When you come with a paper, there's a promise from your editor that you're going to publish the story if it's good enough. When you're a freelancer or a student, you're kind of balancing some uncertainty whether it's going to be published, and yet you have to gain trust and get a story and get something from them really. You're getting something that's hard for them and there's no guarantee necessarily of publication. So I was wondering if you had any advice for either freelancers or students who are trying to do these kinds of stories.
Bruce Shapiro: Okay. Great. Let's start with that question about Mr. Nassar but actually broaden it a little bit. Perpetrators; how do you think about.. All of you are dealing with very difficult stories of perpetrators? Very quick sketch on how you think about that.
Kate Wells: For me? We purposely didn't make this podcast about Larry Nassar. We purposely didn't make it about trying to look into the heart of evil and understand it and unpack it and why he had become this way. I think some of the people in this story have those questions and have their own theories about it. That wasn't what this was about; this was about: How is it possible for these women not to be believed?
Would I have empathy for Larry Nassar if he were brutalized in prison? That's a question I've never been asked. I would hope so as any human would for another, and more importantly than what I think or feel, I think part of what we hoped to accomplish with this was that they people who he victimized really do see him as a human, and that was part of why it was such a betrayal.
Bruce Shapiro: With that answered, we go to this broader question about survivors, just being mindful of the time. As I understood the question, you're all in some ways trying to change or affect public's perception of traumatized individuals and families and communities. Where do you think people are starting? Maybe where do you think you've hopefully left them? Deep mission question.
Richard Webster: Well, I mean I think when we started off, we didn't really know a whole lot about trauma and the impact it had physically, mentally; it's passed on through genetics. I think, and I don't know if this answers the question... I think the public as a whole maybe doesn't really understand that, and mental illness is a form of sort of mental health. It's still widely misunderstood and stigmatized, so I think that's sort of where we were starting off with that.
Eilís Quinn: I just wanted to say that in the context of this, these are incredible communities. The social life and the culture still revolves around subsistence hunting; incredible communities. The legacy of colonialism, and probably everyone's mind is shut when I said colonialism, but the rep that still exists... Everything they're doing... the suicide rate, lack of employment, lack of education, lack of mental health service... Everything... The justice system that flies up from the south... the colonialism; all that impact is still going on.
Just based on the letters that I talked about earlier, what I was really happy or what I tried to start with just saying like, "People are still living with all this; it's not over." Even about talking about reconciliation or whatever, but people are living this every single day, and it affects every part of life, every part of life.
I just wanted to mention briefly that for example in Nunavik, the first language is Inuktitut, their dialect of the Inuit language. So, even you know Quebec is a French province, people there speak a little bit of English. Even that aspect of it of people having to get service in a language that isn't theirs, so I hope that in the report you see that these colonialism, that people think and people say, "Oh, they should just get over it." But every aspect of society is still influenced by the system, and I hope that people see the impact that that has on individual people.
Brandon Stahl: I think we started from a place where these women were not believed to begin with by police, by prosecutors, and so we thought the readers weren't going to believe them as well. I almost think about the web commenter who would comment on a crime-type story, or somebody's acquitted and say, "Oh, well, look; here's somebody else making up a story." So we came from that place knowing that we have to fight against that. Select cases that we have really good evidence that something's wrong happened there.
Bruce Shapiro: I'm going to take a quick shot at this very terrific question about being a student or freelance journalist on these stories, and then I'm going to ask one closing thing for each of you.
There are a few people in this room who have been my students and therefore have heard me say this: The First Amendment doesn't care that you're a student journalist or a freelance journalist. There's no license that says if you're a student or a freelancer, you don't get to ask the questions, you don't get to do the story.
First believe that you are a journalist yourself when you're doing these stories; that's it, period. You're just a journalist. However, second, if there's one thing we could pick up from our colleagues here, it's the need for transparency. If you don't know if the story's going to be published, say that. If you're doing it for a class, say that. Be honest and transparent about where the story is. Whatever your status is, if you are transparent and honest people who want to trust you will.
Last question if I could get each of you to answer quickly; this is sort of a Dart Center question. All right? These are all professionally demanding, personally demanding, dark, difficult stories that went on for a long time. What were some things you did to take care of yourselves over the course of the story to manage whatever the challenges were along the way?
Brandon Stahl: Exercise. Time at home with my wife and daughter just completely vegging out, and just reminding myself that there's a purpose here; there's a bigger purpose, and if we can do this right we have a chance to make real change. That's what I was constantly going after.
Eilís Quinn: I'm not saying people should say that this would work with them, but I haven't found a way to do it during the story. I just want to be honest. I'd like to be badass and say I've figured it out, but I haven't. I try to take as good care of myself all the time so that when these projects come up, I'm starting from a place of strength. I just find with stories like this where there's all kinds of travel and where you have people calling you at 2:00 in the morning with all kinds of issues... I mean I just haven't found a way that during the process that I can do what I need to do. But I find if I do it outside of these projects in my life then when these projects come up, I'm operating from a position of strength.
Kate Wells: There's the crass, inside joke answer that my husband and I have, which is it's a good thing that I got knocked up when I did. Otherwise, I would have developed a drinking problem. That's just sometimes the honest truth in this is that sometimes it looks like watching Vanderpump Rules and drinking an entire bottle of white wine and falling asleep at the dinner table. But in reality, that feeling that... This is going to sound so cheesy, but these parents especially need grace and generosity that they've exhibited and that which they live their lives, after which you think you've been through that thing that would just destroy you. The honesty and grace with which they go forward and deal with this, just is the most life-affirming thing I've ever seen.
Richard Webster: I work in New Orleans, so I have a drinking problem. One, talking to my girlfriend, Amy, helps. The team; I love these guys more than anything. They are unbelievable. Every day I'm thankful for being a journalist. This is the greatest job, even when you're doing hard, awful stories that you carry home and you think about. Man, this is the greatest job. So even when it gets really hard, I'm just like, "Man, I would rather be doing nothing else in the universe," so that really helps. And then, yes, beer.
Bruce Shapiro: Okay. Please join me in thanking Richard and Kate and Eilís and Brandon and all of their colleagues for their great work. Thank you.