Tips for reporting and telling stories with traditional and new tools, including “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark.

DuCille-_Tyvek-suit-100

Hysteria or proper precaution — a conversation with Michel du Cille

Michel Du Cille

Michel du Cille (Photo by: Julia Ewan/TWP)


Kenny Irby interviewed Washington Post photographer Michel du Cille about his work in Liberia covering the Ebola virus, but before we get into his work, we will address Syracuse University’s decision to disinvite the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner from its S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Fall Workshop.

Each side stands firm that they were considering what would be best for the students on the campus of Syracuse University.

Last Thursday, du Cille had “cleared the 21-day monitoring window for Ebola and was symptom free,” when Syracuse officials told him not to come to the journalism workshop.

It is “pandering to the hysteria of ignorance,” said du Cille. “The most disappointing part of this bad decision is the disservice to the fine journalism students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. What a missed opportunity to teach future media professionals how to seek out accurate hard facts; backed up with full details about the Ebola crisis,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Lorraine Branham, Dean of S.I. Newhouse, told Poynter via email that what du Cille “has not made clear in his criticism of us is that he was not coming to Syracuse to show his work from Liberia or discuss the Ebola crisis. If he were, I might acknowledge that my students missed something — that would have indeed have been a missed opportunity. But this workshop had nothing to do with Liberia or Ebola. He would have critiqued portfolios and reviewed student work.”

For Branham, the decision was more about the general greater good of the university then her personal position. Branham told local media on Friday that if it were just about her she would welcome him into her home for dinner and not fear for her safety.

“This was a tough call but I still believe it was the right one for us,” said Branham. “We did not make this decision lightly. We did so after talking with health officials and local medical doctors who suggested we exercise ‘an abundance of caution.’  A primary concern for us was the issue of the incubation period. While du Cille had not shown any signs of infection by the 21st day — the same day he was schedule to visit Syracuse — we knew that some people have a longer incubation period.”

The issue of how long the incubation period lasts is an open question, said Branham, who sent articles to back up her claim, including one from The Washington Post.

Poynter: How and when were you informed that you were being disinvited to the Syracuse workshop?

Du Cille:  I flew in from Atlanta and headed up to Cap Hill to photograph Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Thomas Frieden at a noon hearing. Got a text from home to call Bruce Strong.

Poynter: Was Nikki, your wife, disinvited as well? (Nikki Kahn is also a photographer with the Washington Post)

Du Cille: By the time I received a phone call from Bruce Strong the SU University leadership had already been in direct meetings before directly discussing with me…It seemed they did not want hear debate from me. Both Nikki and I were disinvited.

Poynter: Why do you think that the hysteria around potential Ebola contamination is so high?

Du Cille: It is a number of things. The mistakes centered around early control of the virus; the mounting deaths in West Africa; the misinformation by some of our own media colleagues; an irrational hysterical public; And I’ll have to say there is a great deal of xenophobia especially, from political leaders.

Poynter:  What alternatives might you have offered if given a voice in the process?

Du Cille: I would have offered to speak publicly about what I saw; offered personal detailed accounts on how the disease spreads. I simply would have offered the University an option to present an informational public forum. There had to be better ways to deal with their fears.

Girl with Ebola

Pearlina stands at the screen door while others talk outside on Sunday, September 21, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. Pearlina’s mother died in an ambulance on the way to Redemption Hospital two weeks ago; the child was rescued by Katie Meyler and is being care for by the NGO called More than Me. Pearlina is under observation for signs of Ebola.
Photo by Michel duCille / TWP

Poynter:  How did you draw the Ebola assignment in Liberia?

Du Cille:   I volunteered. I love working in West Africa and thought the Ebola story was historic. I didn’t want to miss it.

Poynter: Tell me about your research and preparation for this assignment.

Du Cille: This was my fourth trip to Liberia. I had great familiarity with the people and region. I also read everything I could find about Ebola.

Poynter: What precautions were you able to take in advance of your journey?

Michel du Cille in his Tyvek suit.

Michel du Cille preps in Tyvek suit; Liberia Sept 29, 2014.
while on assignment covering the Ebola crisis in Liberia. (Photo By: Katie Meyler)


Du Cille: Beside the normal medical prevention vaccines and meds, I consulted with photojournalists who had recently been there: John Moore and David Gilkey, both had just finished rotations. They advised me to get Tyvek suits, good gloves and masks, rubber boots.  They warned that vigilance on washing hands and spraying was critical.  But I also read everything I could find on how to get out of the suits to prevent contamination.

Poynter: Tell me about your biggest challenge will covering this story. Was it physical or mental?

Du Cille:  It was mental … I believe that the world must see how horrible and dehumanizing are the effects of Ebola. After eight trips to the African continent, I never tire or complain about the harshness of life. To me each journey there is an almost spiritual experience. I guess partly because I relate so well to the West African way. Growing up in Jamaica was very much the same; the cadence, body language of the people are pretty very similar.

Poynter: Was there a similar story that prepared you for such a risk?

Du Cille: No, nothing in my 40 years as a photojournalist was ever like this.

Poynter: Were there other international journalists covering this story?

Du Cille: Yes, but not the usual hordes. It is expensive and dangerous.

Poynter: How did you care for yourself and your gear during this assignment?

Du Cille: Vigilant cleaning and spraying with chlorine solution. The new Liberian handshake is elbow-to- elbow bump and no touching of any kind.

Poynter: Tell me about the frame of mind of the people that you met at the church on that Sunday morning?.

Du Cille: Strangely they were upbeat and almost normal. I expected sadness and emotion. I think after years of war and struggle, Liberians just focus on survival.

Poynter: What’s your most vivid memory now that you are back in the U.S.?

Du Cille: Sadly, I photographed a very ill woman who I presumed was too far gone. She was bleeding from the mouth. That situation really touched me. Her family arrived with their arms, feet and torso wrapped in plastic. They seemed so desperate. (Du Cille wrote a piece about the photograph for News Photographer, which will appear in its next edition. )

Poynter: How did you prepare for the multimedia requirement and what gear did you use most?

Du Cille: I did Instagram as much as I could and a small amount of video with my Nikon gear.

Poynter: Do you have any advice based on your lessons learned for visual reporters as the coverage continues?

Du Cille: Yes. Don’t go if you are not prepared to take the risks. It is different from bullets and guns. A simple dab to wipe your eye could get you infected.

Correction: Previous versions of this story spelled du Cille’s last name inconsistently. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment

Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014

jill_screenshot

Here’s a peek behind the curtain of a televised debate

In the next two weeks, candidates from 11 hotly contested elections will face each other in statewide debates. Candidates in nine other states faced each other in debates already this month. In these days of the tightly scripted message-of-the-day campaigning, debates might be the closest voters get to hearing unscripted viewpoints.

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.24.44 PMMy Poynter colleague Jill Geisler, a veteran journalist in her home state of Wisconsin, moderated one of those high-profile TV debates last week. Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced Democrat Mary Burke. Walker is sometimes mentioned as a 2016 presidential possibility, but he has to get past Burke first and the polls show it is a tight race. The debate focused on typical fare; jobs, increasing minimum wage, social issues including abortion and health care, especially involving health care for women.

Geisler said a key to a successful debate lies in part to holding the candidates to strict time limits and even having the power to cut a long-winded candidate’s microphone off (which happened in the Wisconsin debate.) The Wisconsin debate also included a rule that can allow the moderator and journalists to try to force the candidates to deliver specific answers.

Jill: When I agreed to serve as moderator, I proposed the addition of a “moderator’s option” of an additional 30 seconds each in the event a topic called for it.   Both candidates’ camps agreed. (The negotiations around debate formats are fascinating, by the way. Right down to coin flips for order of questions and who gets to stand where.)  When the campaigns agreed to that proposed “moderator’s option,” we used it to press for specifics.

For example, the topic of Wisconsin’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. A panelist asked the candidates what they felt the state’s minimum wage should be. When only one of the two gave a number (Burke proposed raising it to $10.10 over a multi-step process), and Gov. Walker talked about aspiring to create jobs that pay much more than the minimum wage, I exercised the moderator’s option to follow up with Gov. Walker on a request for a specific number.

I asked Geisler how the journalists on the debate panel decided what to ask:

Jill: In our case, the journalists were aware of the subject areas their colleagues on the panel intended to cover. This was done to avoid duplication of effort and provide the greatest possible array of subjects. Because we live in a world today in which candidates throw around “facts” that are often in dispute, the panel and I agreed on the goal of asking well-researched, fact based questions that, whenever possible, cited non-partisan, verifiable sources.

Al: How did you go about selecting questions that people really want answered?

Jill: We discussed our goals – serving the greatest possible number of voters with specific answers. Then we discussed issues where there were clear differences between the candidates. We also discussed issues in which candidates had, until then, refrained from providing specifics on their platforms. We also wanted to respect the fact that there are issues of statewide importance and some that are hotter in the area of the state from which we were broadcasting. That’s how the topic of sand mining found its way into the questions.

Do televised debates matter?

It may very well be that televised political debates do little to change voter behavior. But lots of academic research shows they do have value. The main value of political debates, researchers say, is that voters learn new information about the candidates, especially important for newcomers to the political scene. The FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver says in presidential debates, the challenger nearly always has the most to gain, and sometimes does gain from the exposure. Mostly the gains, Silver says, come from undecided voters, not from the other side. Why? Debate watchers tend to see what they want to see, and debates tend to affirm what they already believed about candidates.

John Sides, writing for Washington Monthly, pointed out that even the most famous TV debates may be misunderstood. The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 is often cited as a game-changer after Richard Nixon sweated profusely and Kennedy calmly answered questions. Sides points out:

In Theodore White’s famous recounting of the election, Kennedy appeared ”calm and nerveless”while Nixon was ”haggardlooking to the point of sickness.” Two Gallup polls suggest that after the debate Kennedy moved from 1 point behind Nixon to 3 points ahead, although it is difficult to know whether that shift is statistically meaningful. Both Stimson and Erikson and Wlezien find that Kennedy’s margin after all of the debates was only slightly higher than his margin on the eve of the first debate. Moreover, any trend in Kennedy’s favor began before the debates were held. Clearly 1960 was a close election, and many factors, including the debates, may have contributed something to Kennedy’s narrow victory. But it is difficult to say that the debates were crucial.

Absent any big gaffes or headline producing news from the candidates themselves, which are rare in televised debates, the moderator can become news.  Viewers critique whether the journalists are too soft or too tough on candidates.  Geisler said she didn’t want to become a focus of any post-debate chatter so she even had to consider what to wear.

Jill: I met with the panelists several times for some terrific brainstorming in which we talked about potential topics and how to frame questions fairly. Then there were the usual production details that TV folks sweat over — writing my opening remarks to set a tone and share the rules so things were transparent to the folks at home, working on camera angles and lines of sight for countdown clocks, determining how the panelists and I would use the “moderator’s option” to press for more details, and even how I’d make sure that I had a decent “back of my hair day” because the moderator is seen from behind in so many of the wide shots, and I didn’t want anything regarding my clothing or hair to be a distraction. And one more thing: although my wardrobe has quite a few red and blue jackets, I chose pink, so no one would presume a political message.

A 2013 Washington Post story pointed out that a wide range of factors including post-debate spin can heavily influence debate watchers. The Post’s story points to a number of studies that showed how different network commentators affected who people thought won a debate. And there were other more subtle factors that come into play, including how good-looking the candidate is on TV.

John Wihbey at the Kennedy School has compiled a list of studies on debate effects, and many study factors that one wouldn’t think would have any impact at all, like what television setting a voter is using. But these things do matter, at least a little bit.

Several studies suggest that a candidate’s appearance during the debates could have a big impact. MIT’s Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson have found that attractive candidates disproportionately benefit from debates, with new support coming especially from less informed voters. The College of Wooster’s Angela Bos, Bas van Doorn and Abbey Smanik found that HDTV hurt John McCain in 2008, with viewers reacting negatively to his appearance on higher-resolution screens.

 

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.25.09 PMEvery election season, it seems, there is one final question that journalists turn to to reveal something personal about the candidates. Over the years panelists have asked candidates if they know the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. I have seen journalists ask candidates what their favorite “drink” is. In one especially memorable debate the first candidate said gin and tonic, the rest of the candidates said milk or orange juice and left the first poor sucker hanging. In the Wisconsin debate, the journalists asked the candidates to say something, anything nice about the other. I asked Jill what the journalists were fishing for:

Jill: I think it might be seen as the antithesis of the very negative advertising in today’s races. It’s a check to see if the candidate can rise above the rancor, however briefly.

But in our case, the question also served a very practical purpose. Debates involve tricky timing. The moderator has to end the questions in time for closing statements from both candidates. But what do you do if there’s only one or two minutes left before the time you have stop in order to get to those closing statements? You need a question that, in fairness, does not require a complicated answer. So during our debate prep, when one of our journalists told me he’d thought of asking such a question, I asked him to keep it ready in case we needed it. It turned out, we did. I told the candidates we had only a short time left before their final statements and could only fit in one with a brief reply. So “can you find something positive” was asked. Now you know the inside scoop.

Read more
Tools:
0 Comments

Monday, Oct. 13, 2014

dreamstime,bigstock,fotolia

Here’s what journalists miss when they don’t leave the office

Today let us pay tribute to reporters who, in their quest for a good daily story, boldly defy the Production gods and do the unthinkable: Hang up the telephone and leave the office.

Granted, doing a “phoner” often seems like the only recourse when your responsibilities for the day include preparing a story (or two or more) for multiple platforms, posting to social media, and any number of other special projects.

But rare is the story done by phone that successfully transports the viewer or reader to that place where they actually can experience something.

Joy. Pain. Anxiety. Relief.

The stories I remember best created an opportunity for me to experience an emotion, a realization, a sense that I was there. And the reporters who created those opportunities had one thing in common: they were there.

It was just before 2 p.m. on a recent Friday when Doreen Carvajal, a reporter based in Paris for the New York Times, received an email from the city of Paris. She immediately dropped the story she was working on.

She also left the office.

The email announced that the city of Paris was taking steps to unlock the hundreds of thousands of padlocks that lovers from all over the world have attached to the railings of the city’s famous Pont des Arts bridge.

“I headed to the bridge,” Carvajal wrote to me, “in search of brides in satin and lovers.”

Here’s the story she found. Take a read.

Carvajal, with whom I worked at the Inquirer, sent me her story after I invited reporters to send me stories they had reported and produced in a day.

“I wrote it at a cafe with wifi because I had no time to return to the office from the Pont des Arts,” Carvajal wrote. “I quickly settled on my characters (my favorite: a street cleaner with a green broom) and wrote.”

For me, Carvajal’s story was an invitation to remember the times I stood on the bridges that span the Seine. Her characters, the details she chose, the quotes she selected—all combined to take me to that bridge.

Her story apparently touched a lot of people. It climbed the Times Top 10 emailed list, and was shared more than 2,000 times through the NYT Facebook page.

Her decision to leave the office clearly paid off.

Kevin Jacobsen also left the office. He volunteered to cover the homecoming of the 114th Transportation Company from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. Jacobsen, an anchor and multimedia journalist for KBJR 6 and Range 11 in Duluth, MN, was working on three hours sleep (he had anchored the 10 p.m. newscast) when he made the three-hour drive to the reunion of a Twin Ports family just outside the Twin Cities.

“I arrived knowing who I would be focusing on,” Jacobsen wrote to me. “I also knew the framework: Morning can often come too soon, but it was clear, for these families, that being reunited with their loved ones couldn’t come soon enough.

“What would eventually happen though, no one could have planned for.”

And he wouldn’t have seen it if he’d reported the story on the phone.

“I mic’ed the mom of the returning soldier and asked her a couple of quick questions. I shot some b-roll while waiting for the arrival. I also made sure to roll on the mom to get little bits of (natural sound) as the anticipation grew.

“Once the troops arrived and were relieved of their duties, my story became even more clear. The mom had seen her daughter walk in, but lined up on the opposite side of the room. Once the troops scattered, the mom lost sight of her daughter.

“I managed to quickly catch up with the mom and follow her as she frantically searched for her soldier. Those last few seconds before the two were reunited seemed like hours. You could feel the anxiousness. My goal for the story was to try and let that ‘search’ video breathe.”

Here is Jacobsen’s story.

If Jacobsen’s goal was to make me feel the anticipation of the soldier’s mom, he succeeded. His video and audio captured moments we’ve all experienced—when the wait, even if it’s only a few minutes, can seem so much longer. We saw the mother wandering through the crowd and the jerk of her head toward a possible sighting. We heard her squeals when the soldiers arrived, her clipped, breathless voice during the search, her muffled gasps of joy when she pushed her face into her daughter’s arms.

And because Jacobsen helped me experience the wait — a wait he didn’t expect when he was planning his story — I found myself sharing the mother’s joy when the moment of reunion finally arrived.

Jacobsen said his story was “well received.” I guess that means I wasn’t the only viewer who got a bit emotional.

Here’s one last daily story that benefitted from leaving the office.

AJ Dome works for KVOE Radio in Emporia, KS. His news department consists of AJ and his news director. Dome decided this “fun” story — a journey with a local businessman across the Flint Hills in an electric golf cart — would brighten up the station’s newscast.

Here’s his story.

As I listened to Dome’s story, I imagined finding a story like this in a newspaper or on the evening news: a business or lifestyle feature about electric carts and the people who use them — away from the golf course. What I don’t know is how many reporters would take the time for a 35-mile ride in an electric golf cart over rough terrain to get that story.

Dome explained why he did it.

“I was taught by my high school newspaper teacher,” Dome wrote to me, “to appreciate getting out of your comfort zone, to actually go places and see things. It’s so easy to make phone calls or do a Google search, but much more meaningful if you set foot somewhere, and ask a person a question face-to-face. “

I told Dome I appreciated that he included details in the piece that helped me feel like I was on the ride with him — the unexpected road closings, the stares of passing motorists. I told him I could have used a few more details about what he saw and heard as they drove; and a mention of whether they successfully approached (as the story suggested they might) some unsuspecting wildlife.

But most of all, I told him I appreciated that he got in the cart and took the ride. He said he heard from a good number of listeners who appreciated his effort, too.

“When I talk with other young reporters,” he said, “I encourage them to get comfortable shoes, and wear them out by going where the story is.”

Great advice, Dome — who, by the way, is just 22 years old.

Here’s to you, and to a long career spent outside the office. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment

Thursday, Oct. 09, 2014

letters

Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two.

When I fight this anxiety, when I advise writers to “Fear not the long sentence,” my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas.

Care must be taken with the long sentence of course, the care of craft, because mastery of the long sentence is an arrow in the quiver of almost every writer I admire. As always, the exercise of craft begins not with technique but a sense of mission and purpose. By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:

  • To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
  • To create a catalogue or inventory.
  • To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.

Let’s test an example of each, beginning with this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Herzog by Saul Bellow:

The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters’ cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows;  villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color.

Think of yourself as riding northeast on a train through Connecticut, as is the protagonist in Bellow’s novel. You chug along slowly (with a seven word sentence); then accelerate (with 31 words); by the time you reach your highest speed  (50 words), you are rattling between the landscape and the seascape with the detritus of civilization flying by you. With that longest sentence, the author takes us on a journey. We see what he wants us to see in the order he wants us to see it.

There is a bit of an inventory in Bellow’s sentence, a list of things that fly by you on a moving train. That effect is magnified in this controversial sentence that begins David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

I describe this 88-word sentence as controversial because I have found it listed among the best and worst sentences ever written, and it does convey a look-at-me quality that some critics find self-indulgent. But make believe, for a second, that you love it. Take a ride across a symbolic American landscape, populated by (count them) 19 species of weed and wild plant – each with a wonderful name – all headed for the verb “invaginate,” DFW’s pregnant synonym for “enclose.”

Take a journey, review an inventory, or, if you prefer, follow the path of an argument. Consider this example from Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ describing a plan of action immediately after the Kennedy assassination:

No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability – to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head – and to legitimize the transition:  to prove that the transfer of power had been orderly, proper, in accordance with the Constitution; to move, in the eyes of the world, any taint of usurpation;  to dampen, so far as possible, suspicion of complicity by him in the deed; to show that the family of the man he was succeeding bore him no ill will and supported him, than the attendance at this swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow.

Caro has proven countless times that he understands the power of a short sentence. His description of the second that changed LBJ’s life forever – and America’s — during the motorcade through Dallas is told in a single sentence, serving as a paragraph, just six words long:  “There was a sharp, cracking sound.”

Contrast that to the 115 words in the example above. Notice that it contains the two qualities we have already described as characteristic of long sentences. It takes us on a journey of sorts, not across a landscape now, but across a plan of action. And it contains an inventory, not of physical objects but of a set of purposes. It adds a final element though, and that is a body of evidence. The case is framed early and late in the sentence: that the best way to show the peaceful transfer of power in America was by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy at LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony. Every word between those frames is designed to persuade.

From my study of the long sentence, I have concluded that:

  • It helps if subject and verb of main clause come early.
  • Use the long sentence to describe something long.
  • It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
  • Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
  • Use the long sentence as a list or catalog of products, names, images – saving the most important for the end.
  • Long sentences need more editing than short ones.

By contrast to some famous sentences written in the 17th century – “sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” as novelist W.G. Sebald described them — contemporary long sentences seem modest in their ambitions: to take the reader on a little journey of discovery amidst an endless sequence of 140-character bits of language. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment

Monday, Sep. 29, 2014

memofmurder-front-100

CBC’s effort to uncover bodies in an alleged 58-year-old triple murder

On Wednesday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship evening newscast dedicated 15-and-a-half minutes to a single jaw-dropping story.  It is the story of a horror that a woman said she witnessed 58 years ago and spent decades trying to get someone to care.

Courtesy CBC

Courtesy CBC

Three years ago, my church pastor called to say he knew a woman who desperately needed a journalist to help her. The pastor said her story might seem to be outlandish and unbelievable, but asked me to give the woman a chance. He believed her, he said, beyond the shadow of a doubt. In more than 40 years of working in journalism I have come to understand that the most unbelievable stories can be true and when they are, they can be blockbusters.

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

 

So I sat down with Glenna Mae Breckenridge, who lives in Ontario during the summers and, like lots of Canadians, lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, during the winters. Breckenridge told me that in July 1955, somebody killed three Aboriginal teenage boys on a farm an hour north of Toronto. I asked her how she knew. She said she witnessed the murders herself when she was a young girl. She said she knew the killer and she knew where the bodies were. She told she had not been able to get authorities to believe her.

Breckenridge needed a journalist who would help her. Somebody who knew the Canadian legal and police system, somebody who could tell the story to the world, somebody who had the resources to stay on the story for however long it took to find the truth.

I called CBC correspondent Paul Hunter, who is one of the best journalists I know. Hunter is at home in war zones and earthquake debris. He travels the world reporting on the biggest stories and the worst of human misery.  And yet, even in the worst situations, I have always noticed his reporting reveals a heart that has not hardened.

“Cold case stories are almost always inherently fascinating,” Hunter told me.  “The very idea something could go unresolved for so long, while a key player in it had insisted for years that an answer was there for the finding is, in my books, journalistically irresistible. I also felt personally for Breckenridge. She seemed broken by her many years of not being heard. I thought spending a little time looking into it (largely on my own time) was the least I could do, given her sincerity and level of despair.”

For three years, he chipped away at the story between covering wars and politics and disasters. Paul Hunter and a producer, Ghazala Malik, combed government records, even found a video deposition from 1996 when Breckenridge, after years of therapy, was able to recall enough details that she told police her story of the killings.

“His first call when you directed me to him, my gut told me he was listening and hearing what I was saying,” Breckenridge told me about her first call from Hunter. “And there was a form of empathy that helped me relax and thus show some trust-not easy for me — but he never challenged me or pushed me beyond what I needed to say or what he apparently felt was enough for the moment. He  kept the conversation short and I knew he had heard all. For me, I usually was very careful when talking to a man especially a man in a powerful position. He said very little, and I knew he knew what I was saying.”

Hunter said Breckenridge told him the same shocking story she had told me.  She told him, on camera, that her father was the killer. And that her father buried the teens below the floor of a pig pen inside of what is now a large barn on the family farm. Breckenridge told the CBC the story of how, she said, her father had repeatedly sexually abused her and that during one attack a teenaged farm hand saw one of the assaults and tried to intervene. Breckenridge said her father killed the boy with a pitchfork.

She told Hunter that the next day, two more teens came looking for their friend and her father killed both boys with a shotgun. But claims are one thing, proving the claims would be much more difficult, maybe impossible.

The CBC's Paul Hunter listens to Glenna Mae's story.  (From CBC)

The CBC’s Paul Hunter listens to Breckenridge’s story. (From CBC)

Hunter explained the mountain of problems that he  faced: “The incident in question happened in 1955. No bodies were found by police. No boys were ever reported missing. There was only one witness [Breckenridge] and a father [now deceased] who had denied everything to police. Her family had sided with the father and was no help to us. Police we spoke with acknowledged their difficulties in the initial investigation, underlining a truth about police work in general – not all crimes can be solved. As well, access to the farm where it all happened was complicated. The family had sold it to a new owner who had no interest in Glenna Mae coming by and — potentially — discovering human remains on his land. For the longest time he refused to allow us on. At the point where I was beginning to suggest to Glenna Mae that she should prepare herself to abandon hope for finding answers, we made one last pitch to the current property owner and, long story short, he agreed to let us on, for a day.”

A ground penetrating radar machine records what is below the barn floor. (From CBC)

A ground penetrating radar machine records what is below the barn floor. (From CBC)

For that one and only chance to examine that barn floor, the CBC hired a ground-penetrating-radar operator to come to the pig barn. The operator, Hunter said was considered to be a world-class expert.  With Hunter by her side, she directed the GPR operator to the exact location where she said she witnessed the burials.

Breckenridge told me that after all these years, Paul Hunter was her only hope of finding the truth. “After 58 years of trying to be heard – no. It just didn’t seem to happen with all other avenues that I have tried. You guys listened and I knew I was being heard. A refreshing experience for me! You never showed aghast, you just asked more questions. It made me feel that I had the right to tell you my information that I had held secret for so long. Both you and Paul treated me as an intelligent, normal woman instead of being frowned upon as a dirty, little girl with a secret. Always respectful and that was new for me.”

The ground penetrating radar image of what may be three teenaged boys below the barn floor. (From CBC)

The ground penetrating radar image of what may be three teenaged boys below the barn floor. (From CBC)

After an hour of scanning the hard floor with his x-ray machine, the operator said he had found “three anomalies” about 5 feet in length a few feet below the floor. The images were consistent with human remains, the operator told Hunter. The anomalies showed up at exactly the location and depth Breckenridge insisted they would be. The images showed something where nothing but dirt should have been beneath that pig-pen floor. But while that’s compelling, it still leaves room for doubt.

“Did we find the truth? I think Glenna Mae found her truth,” Hunter told me. “As I underline in the piece, to be 100 percent certain there’d have to be a dig and DNA testing, and we didn’t do that. We felt we should report what we’ve found and, at least for now, leave it at that.”

Paul Hunter could have thrown up his hands years ago. But he told me early on he often found the best stories from the most unlikely witnesses that others ignored. This story, he said, taught even a veteran journalist like him lessons, “Don’t give up! Diligence pays! And a good story is a good story is a good story. And as well, it was a reminder that it pays to be upfront and fully transparent with people when it’s a long-term project. I give Glenna Mae credit for being patient with our logistical challenges and as well with the long-term nature of investigative pieces. It can be difficult explaining to those outside the industry why you can’t always ‘get it on tonight’ but the truth about process (boring as it may be to some!) has a funny way of easing the anxiety for those we involve in our stories. It was also instructive in finding ways to tell stories that are outside one’s comfort zone. This piece wasn’t so much about a potential crime, as it was about the idea of memory and truth.”

We don’t know if the police will ever reopen an investigation. Breckenridge’s father died five years ago. But when the CBC dedicates so much airtime and effort to gather and tell a story on the CBC’s main evening newscast, there could be enough attention on this case that the case cannot sit unresolved even if nobody could be held accountable if those anomalies are bodies beneath that floor. Since there were no missing person reports, and the new owner of the farm doesn’t want the disturbance of having his barn dug up, this story may be at an end.

But within minutes of the story airing, viewers took to Facebook demanding action.

This story cannot end like this,” a reader wrote CBC News’ Facebook page. “I was utterly shocked, and appalled at the way this story ended,” another said. “Thank you to Paul Hunter for the respectful reporting of the story,” wrote another.

The Follow-up

Within 24 hours of the story airing, police told Paul Hunter they wanted to see the CBC’s evidence and reminded Hunter that unsolved homicide cases are never closed. And, police insisted, they did take Breckenridge’s original report in the 1990s seriously. They generated a thick case file and police did search the farm and found no evidence of buried bodies. But they did not use ground x-ray.

photo of Hunter holding up police file - Caption: In a followup report, CBC's Paul Hunter shows that police did investigation the 1996 complaint and generated a thick investigation file. Photo From CBC: The National

Photo of Hunter holding up police file – Caption: In a followup report, CBC’s Paul Hunter shows that police did investigation the 1996 complaint and generated a thick investigation file. Photo From CBC: The National

Police asked Hunter for his evidence to compare it to where they looked years ago and “decide what steps to take.” Hunter said police told him that if they look at the x-ray evidence and become convinced the data shows bodies, they may restart their investigation. And, of course, there is still the chance the x-rays picked up soundings of something else, not human remains.

In his follow-up report, Paul Hunter said Aboriginal leaders responded to the story by issuing a recall for families and community leaders to “think hard” about old tales from decades ago about boys who may have disappeared in 1955 and “were never heard from again.” Hunter reminds viewers that it may be difficult to know for sure if there were missing teens because there were many stories from the 1950s about runaways from residential schools and often there were no records of their disappearance.

Despite the ambiguous ending, Breckenridge told me she got what she wanted. “I wanted this story told, first for the boys who were murdered, so that other people who have witnessed a murder like I did can be strong enough to tell their story too. My biggest reason is I want people to know that those of us that have been abused can talk about it and get help. In this fast moving world, with all it’s horrors, I wonder if my story can make a change. I was always told in teaching that if you can change the life of one child, it is worth it. I felt a deep sense of relief and let out a breath ‘finally.’ I finally knew that my voice had been heard for the boys. Thank God.” Read more

Tools:
2 Comments

Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2014

J.D. Salinger

For Banned Books Week: An X-ray reading from Catcher in the Rye

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" as well as his volume of short stories called "Nine Stories."  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as his volume of short stories called “Nine Stories.” (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Earlier this year the editors of American Scholar published a dozen examples of “best sentences,” passages from classic literature worth saving and savoring. I was inspired by these and offered my own interpretation of what made them memorable. Now I’ve caught the bug and there appears to be no cure. With the blessing of Robert Wilson, editor of AS, I have chosen a number of sinewy or shapely sentences for X-ray reading, trying to understand what a writer can learn from each. (We’ll be publishing these exemplars occasion, highlighting the writing strategies that created them.)

Since this is also Banned Books Week, I begin with the first sentence of one of the most celebrated banned books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown, which also, I’m proud to add, happens to be my publisher. (Also thinking of moving to Vermont to become a recluse.)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (63 words)
– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger sacrifices his own language and mature insights (sort of) to turn narration of his novel over to a prep school student, Holden Caulfield, who came to represent the alienation of the post-World War II generation.

This is a carefully constructed text, of course, but it doesn’t sound that way. That’s the magic of it. It sounds like someone talking. How do you do that? You use the second person (“you”), contractions (“you’ll,” “don’t”), slang (“lousy”), intensifiers (“really”), verbal punctuation (“and all”), and mild profanity (“crap”). The cumulative effect is informal and conversational.

Of all his literary gifts, Salinger had a great ear for the spoken word and captures the idioms of his time in phrases like “how my parents were occupied” and “if you want to know the truth.” A double-edged razor hides in both phrases. The first one could mean (“what my parents did for a living,”) but “occupied” carries with it some negative connotations, as in the word “pre-occupied,” that is, distracted.

The second phrase “if you want to know the truth” is used mostly as filler in conversation, and yet the key word “truth” comes at the end, inviting the question of whether Holden is a reliable narrator about his own life story.

My favorite phrase here is “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” This feels like a mature literary allusion rather than the ramblings of an alienated teenager. Note the alliteration, the repetition of hard “c” sounds: Copperfield, kind, crap. Perhaps Holden sees himself as a Dickensian character like David Copperfield who experiences an endless series of traumatic events in his young life. Or, perhaps, the reclusive author is sending a secret signal: Just as David Copperfield is considered Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, Catcher contains, we now know, many parallels to the young life of J.D. Salinger.

I must note that Catcher remains on many lists of banned books. However mild the word “crap” appears to us, it signals to the reader the rougher words to come, including some f-bombs that excited students, but traumatized some parents and School Board members.

By the end of the novel, Holden reveals that he is in therapy and repeats a key phrase from the beginning: “If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it, ” that is everything that he has told us. There is a kind of group therapy feel to the language from the beginning, as if he’s answered a question from a shrink about his childhood and parents: “If you really want to hear about it….”

In summary, it takes skill to create prose that sounds like someone speaking directly to the reader. We have a name for that effect: voice. It’s hard enough to achieve when the narrator is the author. It’s even more challenging when the author turns over that task to a teenage boy who likes to wear a red hunting cap. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment

Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2014

budweiser-225

Storytelling lessons from Budweiser puppy commercial

Budweiser strikes again.

Once again, with the help of a puppy, the beer maker created another viral commercial. Earlier this year, it aired a Super Bowl commercial titled “Puppy Love” that I deconstructed for Poynter.org readers.

The new ad, “Friends are Waiting” comes with this cutline:

Next time you go out, be sure to make a plan to get home safely. Your friends are counting on you. Enjoy Budweiser responsibly. #FriendsAreWaiting

Watch the ad then let’s pull it apart to see what video storytelling lessons we can adapt to news writing:

The story uses a story frame I call:
Once Upon a Time — Suddenly — Fortunately — As it turns out

The playful pup falls in love with the man and the man adores the dog.
There are some interesting tensions along the way. The dog runs away with the leash, he chews on a shoe and at nine seconds in, even when the man is sick, the dog is there on the sofa comforting him. In just nine seconds, the story builds the relationship.

At 10 seconds we get the first hint this is a beer commercial. A beer bottle is sitting on the table next to a generic peanut butter jar. The bottle foreshadows something in the story.

At 15 seconds we get a second foreshadowing when the man walks down a pier and there is a towel on a chair, a towel with a Budweiser logo on it. Then again at 19 seconds everybody is gathered around the campfire drinking beer — all Budweisers.

At 20 seconds you see the people walking out of the house with a six-pack. Notice the panting sound of the dog. It is the first time you hear the dog in the whole spot. It is a sound of anxiety. It is a tension.
Then the commercial adds an action-reaction sequence. The people walk about, the dog is depressed.

He watches, then he waits, watches, waits.

The spot makes artistic use of lighting as the dog sniffs an old toy lying in a patch of light. The light of a passing car alerts him, but it is a false alarm, it is another tension builder.

At 33 seconds the night is gone, it is daylight outside the windows. At 35 seconds, once again, the dog makes a sound, a whimper.

The video goes to a white font over black background. The lyrics are replaced by soft guitar. It appears the story is over.

At 44 seconds the lyrics come back, the keys unlock the door, the dog comes back to full alert and at 47 seconds the dog makes his third sound as the master explains what happened and apologizes.

Notice that once the explosion of action occurs, the story ends quickly. That’s the best way to tell emotional stories. Don’t drag it out.

Think of this story frame as:

  • Tension
  • Context
  • Explosion of Action

The context of the story is that when you leave home to party, somebody is counting on you to be responsible and come home safety. The dog is a great choice for this ad because we all want the dog to be happy. A cat wouldn’t care.

We can learn some much about news writing from watching, listening to and reading great stories of all kinds. Short stories like commercials are especially useful models to study because they are short, like most news stories. This spot never wastes my time, builds emotions and connections quickly, makes a clear solid point and leads to a resolution. We don’t know the dog’s name or the man’s name because we didn’t need to. The production is subtle and never competes with the message. The natural sound punctuates the story. Seemingly small things like lighting are not small.

The commercial also drills down on what I call story motivators. I think there are eight key motivators for storytellers to attach to their stories:

  1. Money
  2. Family
  3. Health
  4. Safety
  5. Community
  6. Moral Outrage
  7. Curiosity
  8. Social Trending

I bet that some will see a moral outrage in this commercial that goes something like, “How could he be out drinking while his poor dog has to wait to go outside and relieve himself?” But the more sure-fire motivators for this story are family and safety. REMEMBER: The more motivators you can use, the wider your audience will be. Read more

Tools:
3 Comments

Monday, Sep. 22, 2014

A call for really good daily stories

Daily news concept.Earlier this month I offered some ideas for how journalists can produce better daily stories.

The need is obvious. Thanks to the production demands confronting understaffed newsrooms, reporters and editors are increasingly favoring stories that can be done in a day (or less.)

But that doesn’t mean those stories need to be thin, predictable or boring. They don’t have to be kiss-offs.

Daily stories can be good stories. Sometimes, they can be great stories.

I’d like you to send me a daily story that you’re proud of.

Send me a daily story that you took beyond the routine. Maybe you elevated a straightforward assignment with a great interview, a vivid scene or strong character development. Maybe you offered your audience thoughtful analysis of an important issue. Maybe you told you story from an unusual point of view. Maybe you effectively used multimedia.

The only requirement is that you reported, wrote and produced the story in one day.

In addition to a link to the story, send me a paragraph explaining how you approached the story. Did you take a risk? Try something new? Mimic a device you saw elsewhere?

How did you do it?

Send links to your stories to bward@poynter.org. I’ll share them in the coming days. Let’s help each other do better daily stories. Read more

Tools:
0 Comments

Wednesday, Sep. 10, 2014

Janay Rice

Diverse voices are missing from the debate over showing the Rice video

Once TMZ posted its video of “the punch” — the blow Ray Rice dealt his then fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer Rice, knocking her unconscious and igniting controversy about how the NFL deals with domestic violence — editors throughout the country faced a single question of journalism ethics: Do we post the video?

Poynter’s resident writing coach, Roy Peter Clark, argues that such violent videos need to be made public because they create “the public outrage and outcry that pierces the shield of even such impenetrable institutions of the NFL.”

Janay Palmer Rice in May.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Janay Palmer Rice in May. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

His reasoning points to a growing chasm of compassion, dignity and empathy in U.S. media that has grown from our fault lines of race, class and gender.

What Clark implies is that it’s OK to use a person’s private experience — in this case, one that Janay Rice did not consent to or have knowledge of — if it serves a greater good. I take issue with his failure to mention how media routinely ignore the voices of women of color, especially those who are victims of intimate partner violence — until it happens that one of those women is a public figure.

“The sad part is … We do need the narratives,” said Kimberly Ellis, an independent social media scholar and the author of a forthcoming book called “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter.” “For the sake of preventing additional instances of domestic violence, it’s the black woman’s body that is put on the altar for sacrifice.”

Having diverse voices in the conversation around this video is necessary to contextualize media management decisions on whether to re-post it. As sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes about the forces of race, class and gender that minimize the experiences of black women, “the same situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.”

Using the video without consent violates our ethical obligation to treat Janay Rice and other survivors of intimate partner violence as people rather than vehicles for social change. Their stories — especially the ones from women of color who have been historically overlooked or shamed into silence — need to be told. But how to do so is a complicated question, and one that requires diverse voices as part of formulating an answer.

I’m troubled by Clark’s rationale, and the argument by Poynter’s resident ethicist Kelly McBride makes in his piece, because neither acknowledges any context of the black experience in arguing that this video should be made public.

For people of color in the United States, whether victims of police brutality or intimate partner violence, the moral outrage that greets the release of “gotcha” surveillance videos and photographs peters out often before we are afforded legal redress.

The names of women like Marlene Pinnock, who was repeatedly punched by a California Highway Patrol officer during an arrest, and Jada, the 17-year-old Texas student whose naked, drugged body became the Internet meme #JadaPose come to mind.

Remember them? Their images became public. There was outcry. They’re still waiting for justice.

It’s been 31 days since an unarmed black teen was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. And to date, despite local, national and international outrage and outcry, no one has been indicted. No one has been arrested. The Ferguson Police Department has yet to announce a change in its policy on use of force.

Some good the video, pictures, ongoing media coverage and prolonged moral outrage surrounding Mike Brown’s death have done. Why should we expect that video of a woman being punched by her partner will effect greater social change?

Objectifying Janay Rice and recasting her experiences to serve the interests of elite white men who make the decision to publish and repost the video, to paraphrase Collins, means subordinating a black woman’s humanity in the name of journalism.

It is a misguided and unethical practice.

In the media ethics class I taught as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I emphasized ethical news values that accompany our traditional values of timeliness, prominence, and conflict.

Those values include empathy and dignity. Students learn to question whether their actions will send the victim into further trauma, and if they, as media workers, are acting with compassion. The video footage of Janay Rice being posted to news websites and shown via broadcast is a violation of her most intimately held territory — her body.

“You know what bothered me most? Her lying there on the floor, exposed,” said Rebeccah Lutz, managing editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, a survivor of intimate partner abuse (and in the interest of full disclosure, my best friend).
“The violent act itself was difficult enough to watch, but seeing her exposed and vulnerable, not even able to cover herself, crushed me. She was powerless in that moment, and now the world has seen it.”

Janay Rice was robbed her of her humanity once when Ray Rice hit her. She was victimized a second time when the NFL delayed in taking decisive action. The assault continues each time the tape of her fiancé hitting her is presented as news.

Meredith D. Clark is an assistant professor of digital and print news in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She’s worked as a copy editor, reporter, columnist and community news editor at newspapers including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Tallahassee Democrat. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment

Tuesday, Sep. 09, 2014

Ray Rice, Janay Palmer

How the media can and does help domestic abuse victims

The Executive Director of CASA, the St. Petersburg, Florida domestic violence center told me “not a single word” of Janay Rice’s Instagram post surprised her.

janay-rice-statement

After 30 years of working with domestic violence victims, Linda Osmundson says the Ray Rice case is typical of the 6,000 cases a year that flow through the victim support system, including a small shelter she oversees in Pinellas County. The big difference is most abuse cases don’t make the news. Most abuse happens behind closed doors, not in front of casino elevator cameras.

“Victims stand by their man,” Osmundson said. They will stand by him and stand by him and stand by him until they can’t stand by any longer. Why? Because they love him. They have children together, a house together, a life together. Battered women leave five to seven times before they finally leave for good. The batterer does not batter all the time. The charming guy comes back and charms her. The victim loves the charming guy.”

And so, like Janay Rice, they stay with the man who hit them. “Most of the victims have never been involved with police. They know the system will not defend their lives. We don’t prosecute most domestic violence cases in this county. They go back to the abusers. They are on their own. Restraining orders don’t stop fists and bullets. Many are terrified, what if they don’t win the case.”

Osmundson says shelters like CASA don’t see a big increase in calls for help after high profile cases anymore. Sadly, they have become so common, she says, the public doesn’t react to the news as it once did. “In the OJ Simpson years we saw an increase in calls. That was the first time it was out in the public among high visibility people. It is much less of a surprise now, we don’t see the same reaction now. OJ was a ‘goldmine’ to us because people said ‘Oh, that happens to other people?”‘

Osmundson offers this advice to journalists:

  • Focus on the abuser. Social media and even some talk radio focused on the woman for staying with a man who hit her. The victim should not be re-victimized. It sends a strong signal to other women that this public judgement is what awaits you if you report your abuser. “Women don’t report abuse for a lot of reasons. Maybe the batterer got to her and said if you tell I will hurt you and your family,” Osmundson said.
  • Alcohol and drug use is involved a significant number of cases that come through CASA. But, Osmundson said, don’t allow alcohol to become an excuse. In fact, she said, sober abusers may be even more dangerous.  “Alcohol makes me not be able to abuse “clearly.” Abuse is planned, thought through. It is important to remember they have two problems, one is abuse, the other is alcohol,” she said.
  • Abuse is a world view, it is not a disease. Your view is reinforced by family, friends, advertising, videos and music. It is reinforced culturally all the time when, for example, athletes beat their wives and continue on with their career. “If you get to guys when they are young there is some hope they can turn around. Take an older guy who has done this all along, I don’t have a lot of hope for him,” Osmundson told me.

Resources for Journalists

The stories Linda Osmundson told me based on her decades of experience are backed up by stacks of studies.

The CDC says in a newly released national survey(using 2011 data) :

On average, 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States. Over the course of a year, that equals more than 10 million women and men. Those numbers only tell part of the story—nearly 2 million women are raped in a year and over 7 million women and men are victims of stalking in a year.

You can see state-by-state breakdowns of domestic violence from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control survey here. Note: the report urges you NOT to try to use the data to compare states because the report relies on different levels of responses from different locations.)

The Department of Justice reports:

Overall, African Americans were victimized by intimate partners a(t) significantly higher rates than persons of any other race between 1993 and 1998. Black females experienced intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and about 22 times the rate of women of other races.
– Callie Marie Rennison and Sarah Welchans, U.S. Department of Justice, Intimate Partner Violence (2000)

In a study of African-American sexual assault survivors, only 17% reported the assault to police. (Africana Voices Against Violence, Tufts University, Statistics, 2002)

One story that journalists could explore is whether your community has enough support for abuse victims. Help centers told the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s 2013 national survey that they had lost workers including shelter staff and legal assistants. The NNEDV’s census including shelters and centers that house abuse victims found:

Domestic violence programs do not always know what happens when a survivor courageously calls a stranger to ask for a bed or other help and the services aren’t available; however;

  • 60 percent of programs report that victims return to the abuser,
  • 27 percent report that victims become homeless
  • 11 percent report that victims end up living in their cars.

The survey also found this statistic that journalists could explore:

Across the United States 1,696 staff positions were eliminated in the past year. Most of these positions were direct service providers, such as shelter staff or legal advocates. This means there were fewer advocates to answer calls for help or provide needed services.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence lists these stunning statistics. I am linking to the studies on which some of this data is based. Much of it is from the Department of Justice, and some of the data is 15 years old:

  • One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

  • An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

  • Almost one-third of female homicide victims that are reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner.

  • In 70-80 percent of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.

  • Less than 20 percent of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.

The American Bar Association pulled together data for lawyers who deal with these kinds of cases. One of the more interesting facts the ABA lists this statistic from the American Journal of Public Health:

Access to firearms yields a more than five-fold increase in risk of intimate partner homicide when considering other factors of abuse, according to a recent study, suggesting that abusers who possess guns tend to inflict the most severe abuse on their partners.

Linda Osmundson offered two other key thoughts to journalists covering the Ray Rice story.  “This is not the first time a well-known athlete has done this. The exciting thing to me is that somebody is taking action this time. Other athletic organizations should take action too, it would make a difference.” She added, journalists should remember that victims are reading, listening and watching this coverage. If the case is taken seriously, they might find the courage to come forward. “For abusers, it is always power and control. Most of times, guys plan the abuse. That fist is connected to his arm. It is always his choice.”

Update:
In the day and a half since TMZ released the knockout punch video, Twitter users posted 96,000 entries with the hashtags #whyistay and #whyIleft.
While it is not possible to verify the stories behind the posts, the entries are heartbreaking. I put some of the posts in this Storify collection. Read more

Tools:
0 Comments