Rape reporting: Pulitzer Prize winner talks sexual-assault coverage post Rolling Stone

ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller says winning the Pulitzer will not get you a better table at a restaurant in New York.
courtesy propublica ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller says winning the Pulitzer will not get you a better table at a restaurant in New York. courtesy propublica

The participants at an upcoming April 28 panel likely would not cite Jackie’s unsubstantiated story of gang rape to Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely as the biggest issue facing journalists covering sexual assault.

For ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller, it’s police not believing victims. His story, “An Unbelievable Case of Rape,” done in conjunction with The Marshall Project, another nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism, won a Pulitzer last week.

The in-depth report focuses on Seattle victim Marie, who was raped in 2008—and charged with making a false report. It took two detectives in Colorado to solve the case of a serial rapist in 2011 and to vindicate Marie.

One of the detectives Miller talked to had a “wonderful approach” to victims of rape, he says: listen and verify, advice that applies to journalists as well. The old adage that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is, should have set off some alarm bells at Rolling Stone, he says, adding that reporters should keep their levels of skepticism high, looking for where the holes are in their sources’ stories.

He also advises reporters to talk to the alleged rapist, which was another hole in Erdely’s story, because Jackie begged her not to contact the student she claimed took her to the fraternity where the alleged gang rape occurred. “You really should bring as much vigor to contacting the alleged rapist as the alleged victim,” he says.

Miller, who covered sexual assault for the L.A. Times before he joined ProPublica eight years ago, spent four to five months securing an interview with Marc O’Leary, who was sentenced to 327.5 years for six attacks. O’Leary said if police in Washington had paid more attention to Marie, his first victim, he would have become a person of interest earlier.

According to Andrea Press, a professor of media studies and sociology at UVA, “There is an epidemic of rape at UVA. Media are crucial to bringing the issue to the consciousness of victims, perpetrators, universities and police.”

One in four women indicate they’ve been assaulted on campus, says Press. “If there were a one in four chance your plane would crash, you wouldn’t get on a plane,” she says.

As a sociologist, Press says she’s done research on the issues of rape reporting. “The Rolling Stone article raised some really troubling issues about the press itself, the role of the press and problems of assault reporting,” she says.

The story did not help the long history of rape victims not being believed and being seen as unreliable, she says. “Most professionals believe Jackie was involved in a sexual trauma, but is unable to describe it in a truthful way,” Press says.

Marie, the victim in the ProPublica story, thought she may have been dreaming or made up the attack. “That’s an unfortunate symptom of this trauma,” says Press.

She’ll join Miller and moderator Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA professor of modern media studies, at ProPublica Live: An Examination of Reporting on Rape, at 4:30pm April 28, in Wilson Hall, Room 301. The event is open to the public.

ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller says winning the Pulitzer will not get you a better table at a restaurant in New York.

courtesy propublica

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