Before reporters at the Bangor Daily News began working on a multimedia story about sexual assault, the 60-person newsroom staff went through a training about "victim centered language" for covering sensitive issues of sexual and domestic violence.
Erin Rhoda, the writer behind Proof, wanted more: she enrolled in a 40-hour advocacy training at Rape Response Services. These trainings aim to make journalists more aware of how to properly question and address victims of sexual assault.
“It's never a ‘sex case’. It's a ‘sex assault case,’” she explained. “We never say the word ‘accuser.’ It's either ‘victim’ or ‘alleged victim.’”
Rhoda said she believes these workshops helped equip her team to successfully report on rampant sexual violence in Maine.
Each Number = A Human Being
"We really wanted to make an issue that is so often invisible, visible," Rhoda said. "It's such a hard topic to write about because it's often so hidden, so how do you talk about it in a way that’s true to peoples' experiences?"
Each year, about 3,300 instances of unwanted sexual advances are reported in Maine. The actual number of sex crimes, however, is closer to 13,000, according to the Muskie School of Public Service, a public policy school at the University of Southern Maine. Based on this data, roughly 1 in 5 Maine residents are victims of sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes.
To humanize the data, the BDN found three rape survivors –– two women and one man –– who were willing to share their stories. They decided to create the news organization's first multimedia project.
"We had a lot of moving parts," said Rhoda, who worked alongside a visuals editor, two producers, a graphic designer and an interviewer. "I think it's one thing to interview someone and then write it down and have it published. That’s part of our routine as a newspaper. But this new way, we were creating it by scratch."
Cut and Paste
As with any collaborative project, the team struggled to decide what to cut and which what to keep. "That’s always hard because once you’ve selected everything, you have to let some pieces you love go. But looking back, I don’t remember those pieces, so it's stronger for it," Rhoda said.
Combining elements of text, graphics and video allowed readers to connect with the information in a visually compelling way that Rhoda says would have been impossible separately.
"Hearing their voices really hits you," she added. Only the male survivor allowed his face to be seen. Still, it was important to Rhoda to draw boundaries and be thoughtful in her presentation of the victims.
"[We] tried to find what would work best for our subjects and…really clarify with them any little question we might have, just to make sure we had it absolutely correct. It's such a personal story, so we wanted to make sure it was 110 percent accurate to them," Rhoda said.
Rhoda said listening to the survivors talk about their experiences was difficult. "I am just really grateful that they found a way to turn something that was incredibly painful into something that was meaningful and educational," she said. "It’s a hard subject but that’s also when you know it's really important."
In creating Proof, Rhoda said the goal was to focus on the private suffering of survivors. In one of Proof's video clips, survivor Bill Lowenstein remembers blocking out his childhood sexual abuse until much later in life, before eventually turning to alcohol to help take the edge off the memories. "My alcohol use just took off. I could at least drink to the point where I would pass out and in a sense get a time out for several hours," he said. The haunting memories are all the proof Lowenstein has of his abuse.
This feeling of helplessness resonated with Rhoda. "One of the things that we were hearing, when talking to people in the community, is this question of proof," she said. "Because not only do survivors experience these horrific acts, but then they might have nothing to prove what happened to them."
The Newsroom Now
Since publishing, the BDN has heard from several resources centers that have gotten calls from people who wanted to talk about their own experiences with sexual assault after seeing Proof. This alone has shown Rhoda the immense impact of her work.
Proof was part of a larger effort at the BDN to delve deeper into the silence surrounding sexual assault, for which Rhoda shared the media excellence award from End Violence Against Women International.
In the spring of 2014, Rhoda also won the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's annual Visionary Voice Award, and the BDN won the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault's Making a Difference Award.
Following The Bangor Daily News’ lead, nearly every other daily newspaper in Maine has since required all staff members to complete similar trainings about sexual and domestic violence. The BDN also decided to add the statewide hotline numbers to the end of every story about domestic and sexual violence, so people can seek resources if they wish.
"The BDN is trying to become part of the solution," she said. "We're looking for ways to help drive important conversations."
The BDN has produced several other multimedia projects since Proof. One, "The Good Life," about a back-to-basics lifestyle, won an Online News Association award. They did another project, “Charlie”, on the anniversary of the death of Charlie Howard, a man thrown off a bridge in Bangor in an anti-gay hate crime. Rhoda and another reporter stayed in a homeless shelter overnight to create “Homeless,” a project about Bangor’s homeless.
Photo: Newsroom Administrator Natalie Feulner, Editorial Page Editor Erin Rhoda and Graphics Manager Eric Zelz work on streamlining components of Proof, a multimedia project about sexual assault in Maine. Brian Feulner | BDN