The aftermath of sexual assault leaves survivors in need of care and attention from law enforcement, advocacy organizations and loved ones. To examine how these systems can better serve survivors, CapRadio in Sacramento, Calif., used techniques of participatory journalism to open up its reporting process to stakeholders in its community.
Led by jesikah maria ross, CapRadio’s senior community engagement strategist, the station has previously involved community members in shedding light on high suicide rates, seeking solutions to a local housing crisis and providing vital information about COVID. Its After the Assault project spawned a podcast released last year as well as a guidebook for how to report sexual assault.
In an interview with Jennifer Brandel, CEO of Hearken, ross described how CapRadio approached After the Assault and offered advice for other stations interested in spearheading similar projects in their communities. This is a revised and expanded version of their conversation, which was first published on Hearken’s Medium site.
How would you describe After the Assault?
After the Assault is a project that explores what survivors experience in the aftermath of sexual violence and during police investigations. It takes on a crucial but often overlooked question for survivors: How can healing happen even when justice does not?
It is what I call a participatory journalism project. By that I mean three things: First we selected and developed stories in conversation with the communities most affected, in this case survivors of sexual assault. Second, we designed a reporting process that generates understanding, connection and trust among stakeholders — survivors, their loved ones, journalists, law enforcement, health providers, advocates — while generating content for our news department: a podcast, web stories, digital resources and a conversation kit. And third, we worked to create and strengthen existing networks in order to build community resilience beyond our reporting. That way, as our newsroom turns toward another pressing social issue, we’ve created stories and relationships that can help move social change efforts forward.
The project started as accountability journalism, but that frame changed. Can you explain?
The project began when a survivor reached out to CapRadio about her experience and told the station that if it wanted to do this story right, it needed to give survivors agency over how the story got told.
Managing Editor of News Nick Miller and health-care reporter Sammy Caiola enlisted me to help figure out how to do that, and I organized a series of convenings, one with survivors and another with institutional stakeholders (law enforcement, advocacy groups, health-care providers). We brought in Data Reporter Emily Zentner to help us get the data we needed to underpin our reporting and figure out how to use it a way that was in line with the participatory approach to relationship building.
In moving forward with After the Assault, it seemed like a lot of accountability journalism focuses on using data to call out or expose wrongdoing by those in power — in this case, law enforcement. We wanted to use data in a different way, as part of looking at failures in a system at large and starting conversations with police, survivors and the wider public about the problem and potential solutions. Our project got started just as the “defund the police” movement got going, when law enforcement was really wary of talking to reporters. We needed to be thoughtful about how we approached police to create the best frame for getting people in the room.
So we pivoted to take more of a systems thinking approach to our reporting (hat tip to Cole Goins and Kayla Christopherson of Journalism+Design). Systems thinking is a way of exploring an issue or a story with the understanding that it is composed of multiple interconnected people, forces and values. It doesn’t let people off the hook for being bad actors. But it does explore the complexity of how systems operate in order to uncover solutions.
The systems thinking approach helped us to co-create After the Assault with a cohort of sexual assault survivors who shaped every aspect of the project. One of their main goals was to make change in the legal reporting process, which includes dealing with health-care clinics and rape crisis centers as well as police officers and detectives. They wanted better outcomes and experiences for future survivors. And they wanted the act of publicly telling their painful stories to make a difference.
To me that meant that we also needed to be in conversation with different players in the legal reporting process and to explore, with them, how this system was or wasn’t working and where we might come together to improve it. That’s a tricky line to walk — holding space for survivors who are at the center of the issue, who need and deserve the highest level of care and attention, while also making room for their loved ones, law enforcement, advocates and health-care providers who may have wronged them to also participate.
You spent a lot of time in this project creating conditions for information sharing and involving your sources and the advocacy groups in your editorial process. Did you get pushback from editorial around the involvement of your sources in this different way?
We did approach this issue and our sources in a nontraditional way. That’s the benefit and challenge of having someone like me, trained in participatory media and community development, lead a public radio reporting project. I’d point folks interested in what that was like for a reporter to read Sammy Caiola’s article “How working with sexual assault survivors changed the way I think about journalism,”
But I really didn’t get a lot of editorial pushback. I had support from our managing editor for news, Nick Miller, who specifically wanted to share power with survivors in how we told their story.
And anytime I thought we might be pushing journalistic boundaries, I’d workshop those ideas with Sammy and Emily. I absolutely trusted that they’d raise any red flags if they saw them.
As the project director, no one pushed back on how much time I was spending creating conditions that led to trust, vulnerability and deep collaboration with sources, but then again, only people on the central project team saw that work happening. It’s one of the big challenges doing participatory or engaged journalism. All that relationship-building and experience design, not to mention engagement administration, is usually happening outside of the standard newsroom workflows and is most visible to those directly involved. Feeling invisible while working so hard on an emotionally draining project like this one is, unfortunately, often a challenge for engagement practitioners.
What did you learn about doing a project like this with survivors of trauma?
Sharing power, or co-creation, means involving those we are reporting about in naming and framing the issues and solutions. So we did a lot of that, asking survivors to brainstorm and prioritize topics they wanted to see covered, annotate our podcast outline and episode descriptions, and give input on our grant proposals. We even played them rough and final-cut clips before publication to help prepare them for our big, heavily promoted podcast drop.
And at each step, we spent a lot of time workshopping our wording and methods with a trauma-informed peer counselor who also participated in nearly all of the 21 gatherings we had with survivors. In other words, we were super caring and careful.
And yet, there were times when we still triggered a survivor. Not often and rarely in a big way, but it happened and was often a surprise. It just revealed to me that even if you are trying your best, you may still provoke pain and discomfort in this kind of engagement. In fact, just asking survivors to meet with us generates discomfort for them, no matter how much they want to talk to us or tell us it helps them. You have to acknowledge that, own it and work with them to find the best way forward.
You created a tremendous amount of resources as part of this project. You didn’t just point out gaps or problems, but you worked to find solutions. Who is this series for and how did that inform what “products” the team created?
Finding solutions is exactly the kind of effort that is foundational in participatory journalism, but it’s not as visible in the way that the reporting is.
It was a challenge to determine “who is this journalism for?” because the people at the center of the issue, the survivors, had their own set of information needs, yet their goals for the project involved changing how their loved ones, rape crisis centers and law enforcement treated them on their healing journey. They wanted loved ones to have more empathy and understanding of what they were going through, they wanted advocacy groups to be more culturally competent in working with BIPOC communities, and they especially wanted police to be better trained and required to use more trauma-informed protocols.
So while the podcast series centered survivors and put their needs and experiences first, the survivors’ goals for the project necessitated that we also consider what information was also needed by the people they interacted with in the legal reporting process.
Which brings us back to systems thinking.
For me the trick was to convene and listen generously to people in different parts of the system to discover what we as a public radio station were uniquely positioned to contribute.
I think of it as holding space for audiences in concentric circles. One circle is made up of survivors. They wanted to know how the legal reporting process works, down to specifics like, should they report or not? What are their rights or options? How do they navigate the justice system? How does being raped affect their brain, and might this explain the different physiological and emotional challenges that are coming at them?
Then there are their loved ones — the survivor’s partners, parents, siblings, colleagues and friends. As it turns out, they had a similar set of questions but also wanted to know what organizations they could turn to for help in how to best support someone who has been assaulted. So we included them in the same circle with the survivors.
In another circle you have the advocacy organizations that interact with survivors along their healing journey. They provide different levels of support — from accompanying survivors during initial interactions with police to collecting evidence for rape kits to providing counseling, translation services and peer support groups. Through listening sessions we saw that they needed up-to-date and well presented information they could distribute to help survivors understand what to expect as they moved through the legal reporting process if they chose to report. These groups also wanted to reinforce that it is always the survivors’ choice to report or not, and regardless they can access services to help heal.
And then there is the circle with law enforcement. In dialogues with police, their crime lab staff and district attorneys, we heard that they desperately wanted the survivors and their loved ones to have a better understanding of the steps in the legal reporting process. They felt this knowledge might help manage expectations about what will happen, when, and how long moving a case forward can take. They wanted the public to understand how incredibly hard it is to gather evidence and bring perpetrators to justice in sexual assault cases, and the ways in which survivors can contribute to the process (for example, get a medical exam as soon as possible, keep your clothes and don’t wash them).
Part of my model is always looking at not just issues but solutions, and having those come from the people at the center of the issue or on the front lines. So when we were having these conversations I was listening for what needs overlapped in the center of the Venn diagram that we could address with our journalism.
All of these groups needed a “one-stop shop” to the legal reporting process. Something that would answer the questions survivors and their loved ones have in the immediate aftermath of an assault and that also laid the legal reporting process out in a way that was accessible, supportive and unharmful. And we needed to collaborate with advocacy groups and police departments to develop it so that it would be accurate and representative, for starters, and also so that they would use it because it also helped meet their needs in communicating critical information to survivors.
The guide we created, led by CapRadio’s digital and product teams, is for survivors and their loved ones and designed to be used by advocacy groups and law enforcement as part of their work to support survivors on their healing journey. While we’re still working to connect more people to the resource, we hope it finds more use soon.
If I had to pick one piece of the project that best illustrates the principles of participatory journalism, it’s how we went about designing this guide with and for the different stakeholder groups. One survivor had this response to the guide: “It is honestly the exact kind of resource that I had hoped existed when I first reported and I’m so thrilled with the outcome. It was not retriggering for me personally, and instead brought me hope.”
It is pretty unusual for a guide like this to come from the local public radio station and not another source.
CapRadio’s public service mission is to gather, curate and distribute information people need to navigate their world with purpose, power and connection. So creating this guide is squarely in our wheelhouse. No one else was doing it, because it’s not their job.
For advocacy organizations, it’s not their job to make something useful for law enforcement. And law enforcement isn’t in the business of making material advocacy groups need. And neither necessarily has the time or skills to build the kind of trust and confidence we did with survivors, who need to be part of the process if the product is going to be relevant to them. That’s one reason why it makes sense for public radio stations to create these kinds of resources.
But the other piece that became clear to me through our process is the bridging role we as a newsroom play and how that is so important to create the kind of civic infrastructure we all want and need. And by civic infrastructure, I’m talking about building the on-ramps and avenues for people to participate, collectively, in community change efforts. Bridges are infrastructure! Bridge-building takes a focus on forging relationships among natural allies and unusual suspects and facilitating processes where they can hear different perspectives, reconsider their own, identify solutions and decide how they can play a part.
So we became this bridge where we, for instance, could play audio clips of survivors sharing their experiences with law enforcement, and it seemed as if it was a bit mind-blowing to them. Police that met with us on a regular basis were hearing things that they don’t usually hear and that are hard for them to hear. And the same is true for survivors — it was hard for them to hear law enforcement’s perspective. I feel like Sacramento’s supervising deputy district a summed it up when she said:
I spent seven years being a prosecutor of adult and sexual assault crimes. I’ve spent the last two and a half years as a supervisor of adult sexual assault crimes. I think I have a lot of empathy and understanding, and yet … to hear how victims perceive what’s happening when we believe in law enforcement and prosecutor’s offices that we’re doing a really good job for them, that there’s things they perceive much differently than we do.
Relationships are what’s going to move the needle on complex social issues. Public media stations, using community-engaged journalism approaches, can uniquely situate ourselves to be the bridge that listens to community members, in this case survivors, and help ensure their voices are heard by decision-makers and the wider public.
What would you tell other public media newsrooms that might want to approach the topic of sexual assault in this way?
I think our lead reporter Sammy Caiola summed it up so well in her article “Letting Sources Lead: How Journalists And Sexual Assault Survivors Can Make Change Through Collaboration”: “Building trust takes time. It takes attention to detail. It takes acknowledging that what we consider the traditional journalistic process does not work well for those who’ve been repeatedly betrayed by people they thought had their best interests in mind.”
That all might seem obvious, but it’s worth unpacking.
Taking time on a reporting project is a big deal in newsrooms. It seems like a luxury or even unnecessary, but we’ve found that connecting with survivors over time without pressing agendas or deadlines created a sense of reciprocity that encouraged everyone to be vulnerable, curious and mutually supportive. It demonstrated that journalists cared about group members as individuals, not just sources, and that we were invested in a shared goal and open to figuring out how we got there with them. And that approach, I think, helped repair previous harms. So I’d create a timeline that allows for an extended period of trust-building.
Details are important, especially when it comes to keeping survivors and other stakeholders in the loop. We spent a lot of time taking notes at the meetings and convenings, preparing and sharing meeting notes, inviting corrections and additions, and identifying clear next steps. We also kept in mind what different groups needed and wanted throughout the project and tailored our communications and meetings schedules accordingly. That’s a lot of monitoring and juggling, but again, it really gives people a sense that we care, that we are attending to their needs and are making the reporting process transparent and easy to engage in.
In terms of shifting traditional journalistic processes to better support survivors, I’d invite them to create group agreements or “the rules of engagement.” Let them decide where and when to meet with you, encourage them to generate questions for you to ask experts, and follow their lead when it comes to how they want to share their personal story. As Sammy says: “Some survivors want to tell their stories without interruption. Others need specific questions to prompt them. Trauma can affect memory in a way that makes it difficult for them to focus. Ask which interview style the survivor would prefer.”
I’d also recommend creating a meeting environment that helps survivors feel comfortable and supported. If you are in person, you can use beautiful tablecloths, flower bouquets and candles to give a bland meeting room more of a cozy living room vibe, providing yummy snacks and having Kleenex on the tables along with toys in case folks need something to fidget with. If you are online, you can create and share backgrounds with participants and allow them to choose the one they resonate with most that day, or use breakout groups for intimate check-ins before full-group dialogue.
One activity we did that proved to be incredibly powerful was to lead group-building exercises to start every survivor cohort gathering (e.g., What’s your theme song walking into the ring? What’s your personal weather forecast today? If you could be any animal right now, what would you be and why?). You’d be amazed at how these simple prompts shift the relationship from reporter-source to more of a conversation among colleagues and how they help set the tone for sharing personal stories and social bonding. You might also invite survivors to take turns bringing meetings to a close with a reflection, a quote or a movement. And have a trauma-informed peer counselor at all meetings so if a survivor needs support, you have someone with skills and knowledge on hand.
What has been the lasting impact of this project?
It’s been only 10 months since we rolled out the podcast, so I’m not sure I can speak to lasting impacts. But I can share some outcomes that are emerging from our project evaluation, especially in terms of survivor healing and systems change.
Through surveys and focus groups, survivor cohort members told us that our project process and podcast listener feedback made them feel heard, understood and valued. This experience, in turn, increased their confidence and resilience. As one survivor put it: “I think that because of the vulnerability that this required in me sharing about my truth in general, it helped me open that up a bit more. I’ve been able to stand up for myself better than I ever have in my life, and I’ve acquired better coping skills. And I just prioritize myself differently where I didn’t before.”
Cohort members said that being involved in the project helped them heal from the trauma of the assault and the retraumatization of the legal reporting process. For example, a survivor shared: “Any time I’ve been scared of speaking out or talking about this or being public, I remind myself that it was so much more painful when I wasn’t talking about it to anybody or even able to talk about it to myself, really. And it’s just so much better and freeing and healing to be able to do it in this way and especially in the way that you’ve set up for us.”
Perhaps most important, survivors gained a new vision for justice within the legal reporting process, which is a broader and less personal vision than they had had at the beginning of the project. “One of the things for me that’s come out of this project is a sense of justice,” one survivor said. “ … We have this justice system and … there’s the feeling that the justice system can set things right. But the justice system doesn’t ever really set things right. You can have a trial and a sentence and then someone gets punished, but that doesn’t right anything. But through this project, things can actually be righted. And so I think this project for me represents the best that I can get at moving towards justice.”
At the organizational level, Sacramento’s rape crisis center, WEAVE, now requires all new volunteer and paid staff to listen to the entire podcast as part of their required 69-hour sexual assault training. In response to what they learned observing the After the Assault survivor cohort over two years, WEAVE implemented a new case-management protocol in which they follow up with survivors every few months to provide more ongoing support.
In terms of networks, the Sacramento Sexual Assault Response Team has changed the way they talk about how to bring justice to survivors of sexual assault. “We never had open conversations about that before. And so this process, this project has allowed us to do that. … They’re a little broader and a little deeper, and there’s a lot more emphasis on how survivors are feeling,” a SART member told us. The SART is made up of law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, medical crime lab professionals and advocates. Changing the conversation among those stakeholders can ripple out to all their different institutions. It may take them time to make the systems changes internally. But they reported things like “I feel proud of our collaboration” with CapRadio and that they value hearing from the survivors in a way they hadn’t before.
One local police department that participated in the After the Assault stakeholder convenings is developing a new training on trauma-informed interviewing techniques for all of its patrol officers. Another police department that participated in the convenings is now working with survivors to share their experiences at staff trainings. The director of community response at WEAVE told us that the frequency with which law enforcement reaches out to bring in one of their advocates has increased since the podcast and that in place of typically giving survivors a Violence Against Women Act exam, which they are entitled to and does not require a police report, the police department that was most engaged in our project began to approve a lot more cases to be forwarded for an evidentiary exam (which does require a police report).
Probably the biggest systems impact is how participating in this project affected the deputy district attorney supervising sexual assault prosecution in Sacramento County. She now onboards new attorneys with the After the Assault podcast and is mentoring them and police officers on how to talk to survivors. “What we do with every survivor, whether there’s a case filed or not, has an impact in a way I didn’t appreciate [before],” she says. She told us, “I am more open to [law enforcement] referring cases to my office that they don’t think are going to get filed but that they want me to look at … so that I can explain to the victim in a way that law enforcement maybe can’t … why sometimes you can do things and sometimes you can’t.” She also reaches out to survivors more proactively in cases that don’t get taken to court so she can ensure that the survivor understands the reason her office decided against moving forward with the case criminally. She wants the survivors to feel heard, and sometimes she meets with the survivor and an advocate multiple times to make sure that happens.
A key question we set out to answer in our podcast is: How can healing happen even when justice does not? I think these personal and systems changes point to some answers.
Special thanks to the survivor cohort who made this project possible: Aurora, Erin, Jesa, Laura, Maddie, Monica and Penny. Thanks also to CapRadio’s Chris Hagan, Renee Thompson and Veronika Nagy for digital product development on this project and to Chris Bruno and Marissa Espiritu for marketing and illustration. America Amplified Managing Editor Alisa Barba and Current Digital Editor Mike Janssen edited this article.