How Journalists Reporting on the Rape Kit Backlog Deal with Vicarious Trauma

We read hundreds of rape reports. 

For months in 2013, alongside colleague Leila Atassi, I poured over police narratives that recounted attacks against women in our city. 

Women whose rape kits had been collected with care and then shelved for decades.

We’d never met the women, never interviewed them. Their stories, though, stuck with us in unexpected ways as we investigated Cleveland’s thousands of untested rape kits.

We were struck by the brutality described on those photocopied pages, followed by often-scant investigations. And the predictable passages – she admits to using drugs, suffers from mental illness, is a known prostitute – that indicated the woman’s story was headed toward a file drawer, not a courtroom.

It was the case of John “Countdown” Doe, however, that almost broke us. Soon after Ohio’s crime lab started processing thousands of rape kits, we learned about him. His DNA linked him to six unsolved rapes that happened in less than a year. But we didn’t know who he was. Four of his victims were children, between the ages of 12 and 16. The youngest was a middle schooler who took a shortcut to school one morning. The man attacked her, threatening her with a large knife. She told police he had paint splatter on his pants, a detail another victim also noticed. In each case, after he raped, he’d order the victim to count backwards as he fled. 

The investigations were brief, often a page or less. Many of the cases were closed swiftly, with just four letters – NFIL, no further investigative leads. We scoured our news library because surely police had alerted the public to this in 1993, a man raping women and children as they walked to work? 

Nothing.

I remember standing up one day so angry that I kicked the side of my cubicle. Discussing the case with Atassi, I’m not sure which of our faces crumbled first. We fled the office to get some air. There was lots of cursing. 

These were just six cases, six among thousands.

I’d go to sleep and see trash-strewn fields, the abandoned houses with shards of glass on the floor, the alleyways and the bus stops from where teens were lured or snatched. 

Newsrooms are places where bravado, not sensitivity, is rewarded.

I’m not sure what I’d have done without a trusted colleague to confide in. At one point, we chatted with a kind trauma counselor about our work. She had some helpful and common sense tips to manage the load so we could do what we were required to do – shine a light on these untold stories, on a broken system of understaffed sex crimes units, of serial rapists who escalated to murder, of rapes that could have been prevented.

Taking breaks, she said, was essential. Whether it be to exercise, enjoy our families or just remind ourselves that though we were focused on something ugly, there was plenty of beauty in the world. 

A book she recommended, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, had some practical methods geared toward therapists and first responders that could easily be applied to journalism.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I haven’t always followed the advice. 

As our project continued and we interviewed victims and I started to sit through trials, the spectrum of emotions some days left me too wrung out to things life required – like being an attentive mom. 

Trauma, even vicarious or secondhand exposure to it, can manifest in physical, emotional, behavioral and existential ways. Experts recommend learning to read your own “stress thermometer.”

Here are some signs to look for:

  • Feeling constantly distracted
  • Reacting impulsively or starting arguments
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Headaches, teeth or jaw clenching or grinding

Luckily, I’ve found support from like-minded colleagues and places like Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a world-class resource in self care and peer support for journalists. Dart has in-depth tip sheets and videos on its website for reporters covering conflict, violence and tragic events. The center also has fabulous resources for journalists on how to cover sexual assault and, specifically, the rape kit backlog. For me, the more prepared I am, the less stress I feel about covering it:

Recently, I was honored to be one of the center’s Ochberg Fellows (named for renowned psychiatrist Frank Ochberg). We discussed self-care at length and some of the most useful tips came from Dart’s Asia-Pacific Director Cait McMahon, who broke down what we need to do to stay healthy into three stages: Before, During and After. 

McMahon, an expert in peer support models for journalists, urged us to consider some mindfulness meditation techniques that research had proven helpful for easing and preventing distress.

Here’s a much-abbreviated version of some of McMahon’s tips.

Before:

  • Tell loved ones you are working on something tough so they’ll understand if you aren’t yourself or you are distracted. 
  • Ask whether you are up for a physically, emotionally or psychologically difficult assignment. Say no, if you aren’t.
  • Ask your social supporters and peers to check in on you while you’re in the weeds

During: 

  • Take breaks, walk away from your desk, find something beautiful to focus on, get some exercise. 
  • If you feel distressed, don’t hide it. It’s a human response and not a sign of weakness or problematic in terms of objectivity.
  • Don’t ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol or other substances. 
  • Get plenty of rest, which helps your body and brain to recharge. 
  • Watch comedies or listen to music you love.
  • Limit your dose of trauma to just what you need to do your job, don’t live it.
  • Remain socially connected with friends, church, hobbies, and recreational clubs.

After:

  • Debrief with someone you trust. Don’t keep thoughts and feelings bottled up.
  • Be aware that reactions to trauma can be delayed, so they may catch you by surprise
  • If you continue to feel distressed or troubled after your work is complete, check in with a health care professional trained in trauma to see if you could use assistance.

- By Rachel Dissell, March 28, 2016. Rachel is an investigative reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She's been reporting on Ohio's rape kit backlog since 2009.

END THE BACKLOG is an initaitive of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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