Seeking Conviction

Samantha White survived a sexual assault when she was 16. White now works as a life coach and finds she is able to identify with her clients in a uniquely empathetic way.

Samantha White survived a sexual assault when she was 16. White now works as a life coach and finds she is able to identify with her clients in a uniquely empathetic way. / Melissa Sue Gerrits/The Fayetteville Observer

Carolina Public Press developed the Seeking Conviction collaborative project in 2018 after receiving credible tips about few rape prosecutions in some counties. By March 2019, 11 news organizations in TV, radio, digital only, and print/digital media organizations had joined together to produce an unprecedented investigative reporting project on the rate of sexual assault convictions in North Carolina, the efficacy of district attorneys to prosecute and the problematic legal precedents that hamper sexual assault convictions here.

To date, North Carolina remains the only state in the country where you cannot revoke consent. It is also not considered rape here to assault someone who is incapacitated due to their own drinking or drug use.

To begin, CPP analyzed 4 ½ years of North Carolina court data to examine rates of convictions for sexual assault cases. The analysis was unprecedented, and discovered that fewer than 1 in 4 individuals charged with sexual assault were convicted. Civic engagement efforts both early on and during publication strengthened the analysis.

CPP conducted listening sessions about sexual assault in Fayetteville, Durham and Asheville to bring journalists together with survivors, policy makers, law enforcement, prosecutors, service providers and others to discuss concerns about sexual assault prosecutions in the state. In some cases, it was the first time this group had been together at all to discuss these issues.

Based on data findings and listening session input, CPP invited 10 partners to collaborate. Collaborators conducted independent reporting, graphic design, photography, data analysis assistance. For example, individual newspaper, radio and TV partners focused on counties with low or high conviction rates. A health news website focused on medical issues. Photographers captured images. Two partner graphic artists collaborated on a series of infographics based on the project data. Three partners also produced short video clips. CPP focused on the state-level story and created the overall framework and structure for the project, combining every partner’s reporting into a cohesive multimedia package. CPP managed the project.

The 4-day project published simultaneously by all partners beginning on March 18. The project included an overview story emphasizing the data findings, a geographic story emphasizing the highs and lows, a logistics story examining challenges in getting sexual assault convictions and a legal story emphasizing the statutory issues in North Carolina’s sexual consent laws. Sidebars explained the data analysis, the work of forensic nurses and more. TV partners shared video assets. All contributors received equal bylines.

Overall, the collaboration resulted in an unprecedented look at conviction rates in North Carolina down to the county level. It also resulted in an unprecedented concentrated investigative reporting collaboration among a diverse group of media organizations across the state.