Covering Sexual Assault

The Craig Daily Press is a tiny newspaper located in the northwestern corner of Colorado. When the editor, Terrance Vestal, called me last week to discuss coverage of sexual assault, I thought he wanted to talk about Kobe Bryant. Instead, Vestal and one of his four reporters were neck deep in a week-long story about a recent incest conviction.

It began with this lede:

A Moffat County jury convicted a Craig man Friday of sexually assaulting his daughter. Because child sex offenders are refused bond, the convict was promptly arrested by a Moffat County Sheriff's deputy and led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. In the final, shocking moments of an already emotional trial, the man reproached his daughter as he walked past her on his way to jail.

"My blood is on your hands now," he said.

His daughter collapsed. Between sobs, she asked those around her, "Did you hear what he said to me?"

What followed were five days of stories about the case, the impact on the community, and the tough road ahead for the victim. I was impressed. Some days I run out of breath trying to convince journalists that the story of sexual assault deserves attention, despite the challenges created when a victim is granted anonymity. Here was an editor who had already decided to give this story a lot of ink. In fact, Vestal had already decided that even the criminal would be anonymous, because the victim was his own daughter. Although that created some obstacles when it came to crafting the story, Vestal was undeterred.

All he wanted from me was a bit of history about news coverage of sexual assault. After I looked at the stories, I couldn't resist asking: What's your circulation?

The Craig Daily Press distributes 3,200 copies every day. It's part of a chain of small papers owned by the family who owns the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. Vestal has been the editor for less than two years. But he is a veteran of small-town journalism. He's worked in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Ruidoso, N.M., Taos, N.M., and Las Cruces, N.M. The reporter on the project, Jeremy Browning, has been on the staff for a month. It's his first job in journalism.

Vestal agreed to an e-mail Q&A session. He's proud of the series, and he hopes it might inspire other journalists, no matter how limited their resources, to think big.

Kelly McBride: Most newsrooms shy away from incest stories. What made you take a different approach?

Terrance Vestal: Because we live in a small community, we thought that no matter how we handled the situation, it was going to reverberate through our community. So, we thought, "How could we make this useful to our readers?" I mean, ultimately, that is our job — not only should we report the news, but we should put it in context that our readers can use.

Rather than simply writing a play-by-play courtroom drama, we — publisher Samantha Johnston, reporter Jeremy Browning and myself — decided to fashion a series out of the ordeal. What does it take to prosecute a rape case in a small community? What about incest? What courage does it take to report such horrific abuse to police? What therapy does it take for a survivor not only to get on with his or her life but to get a foothold on some kind of normalcy? What happens to a community when such a heinous act occurs and what role can the media take to help heal those wounds?

McBride: How much time did the reporter spend on this series? What did that mean for the rest of the staff?

Vestal: We dedicated one reporter to the issue full time, which meant the other reporters had to pick up another story a day to complete the local news quantity that our readers expect. Each story of the series, however, was rather lengthy in and of itself so that took up a large amount of the news hole, anyway. But the key was not to let the rest of the news content slip. As much and as strongly as we believed in this series, it was a complicated and ugly issue and we had to realize that not all of our readers would want to go where we were going.

McBride: What were the biggest barriers to bringing readers the truth in this story?

Vestal: Getting into meaningful discussions about incest with those involved, instead of tertiary conversations that surround the issue, such as sexual assault. It was difficult to keep the focus on the complexities that must be explored. It was hard to keep sources narrowed down to incest because they wanted to talk about sexual assault in general or rape, which is why so much of our coverage ended up enveloping sexual assault rather than specifically incest, because that was the way sources approached the matter. If you think talking about sexual assault is difficult, try talking about something that is seen as more atrocious, more shameful, more diabolical. Try talking about incest. Let's face it, more people would rather talk about cannibalism than incest.

McBride: What has the response been to the story?

Vestal: The series ended Friday as the Labor Day holiday began, so we haven't gotten as much feedback as we think is out there. Before the series began, the police department and Social Services were hesitant about cooperating because they felt these stories may "re-victimize" the survivor. After the series ended, however, both of those departments congratulated the newspaper for its effort. Social Services has asked for copies of the series. We already have received e-mails in support of our efforts. Here is one e-mail that stands out:

Dear Jeremy (Browning),

I want to thank you for the outstanding job you have done in your coverage on the "Ultimate Betrayal." It has been informative, emotional, and done with taste. 

I personally know the girls who were victims, and I appreciate the fact that you have shown them respect with a sensitive issue.

If you investigate further into the sexual activity, whether consensual, date rape, etc. in our community among our teens, you will find that there are several articles that could piggyback off of this one and bring a public awareness of a HUGE problem that needs to be addressed. Thank you for your time, have a great day.

McBride: Other than staffing issues, were there other negative consequences?

Vestal: I don't know if you can clearly label them as negative consequences or not. But I would strongly encourage editors and reporters who are working on this kind of project — a project that deals with graphic, emotional, offensive material — to stay in touch. Conversations before the reporting, after the reporting, and during the writing are crucial. That reporter must know that he has support any time he needs it. Much of the time we get swept up into these deep, emotionally-wrenching projects and we tend to think of "the players" and how they must feel. But we must never forget "the people on the ground" -- as it were -- the reporters. They need as much support as you can give them. Even at a small newspaper like the Craig Daily Press.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its senior vice president.


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