Covering the Backlog: Resources for Reporters

Much of what we know about the rape kit backlog in cities comes not from government reporting, but from the hard work of researchers and journalists investigating this issue. As a member of the press, you have a vital role to play in exposing the lack of transparency and accountability within your community and/or championing the work that a jurisdiction may be undertaking. You are an integral part of this movement.

The following resources are meant to help guide your work. Please contact media@endthebacklog.org for further assistance.

How to Monitor Legislative Changes

Over the course of the last two years, over twenty states have passed laws requiring sexual assault kit audits or some type of mandatory submission guidelines. These laws will expand what we know about the true extent of the backlog and will result in thousands of new cases for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute on top of their current caseloads. Not all of these proposals have had unanimous support, and we are grateful to the journalists who have kept the pressure on state policymakers who have used myths around sexual assault and reporting to argue against the need for comprehensive reform.  

To assist in this effort, Joyful Heart has developed a Drafter's Checklist for Rape Kit Reform to provide guidance to state lawmakers drafting legislation. It addresses provisions that should be included in any comprehensive rape kit reform bill, and gives some context for steps your jurisdiction should be taking. You can also explore our interactive map and our state-by-state chart of rape kit reform laws. See additional details on how your state measures up by visiting its page; simply click your state from the chart below the map or inside the map (using the "see more" button on your state's pop-up.

Understanding the Available Resources

Many reasons are given for not testing every rape kit. Officials often cite a lack of resources and personnel as barriers to processing rape kits. If we are successful in passing more legislation, these laws will not only expand what we know about the number of untested kits across the country, but they will also result in thousands more cases for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute, and a subsequent need for increased funding. 

For this reason, Joyful Heart has worked with the Obama administration and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to provide more than $80 million in funding to over 40 law enforcement agencies in 20 states to address their backlogs of untested rape kits. While there is no question that further investments are needed, jurisdictions do have the ability to apply for these grants and we encourage members of the media to hold recipients accountable for the progress they are making with these dollars.

Self-Care for Reporters

While advocates and service providers have learned a number of steps they can take to care for themselves while dealing with issues of sexual assault and the rape kit backlog, reporters may not be aware of the impact of vicarious trauma until they are affected. 

Since 2009, reporter Rachel Dissell has covered the rape kit backlog for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Her reports with partner Leila Atassi helped to uncover a backlog in Cleveland, spread awareness about the backlog nationwide, and brought survivors' voices into the conversation. Rachel also shared lessons learned for reporters in an exclusive blog post for End the Backlog earlier this year.

From One Reporter to Another

Keli Rabon is an investigative reporter whose work to uncover rape kit backlogs in both Denver and Memphis has led to significant policy changes and the passage of key legislation. Through years of investigating the backlog in multiple states, Keli’s reporting has led to more than 20,000 rape kits being tested and countless criminals finally held responsible for their crimes. She has said “the pushback from police and prosecutors was intense – but the response from rape survivors whose cases had otherwise long been forgotten by law enforcement was incredible.” 

Keli provides the following advice to reporters covering the backlog:

  • When you interview survivors, don’t forget that you’re talking to someone who has experienced (and is likely still dealing with) serious trauma. Warn them that you will have to ask them difficult, uncomfortable questions — but be patient and give them space to open up. Many survivors expect to not be believed — they’ve likely been dismissed by police or loved ones — so genuine empathy goes a long way in forming trust.
  • Avoid language in your conversations and your writing that reinforces victim-blaming, minimizes the violence they experienced, or implies consent. For example, do not refer to the incident as “sex” — this infers that the activity was consensual, and rape and sexual assault are anything but consensual. Also, just because the police report says the rape survivor didn’t sustain any obvious physical injuries, avoid describing them as “unharmed.” This diminishes the substantial effects of sexual trauma, wounds that take far longer to heal than a broken arm.
  • When reporting on rape kit testing, consider purchasing a rape kit (they’re available online) and take the time to actually go through the kit, look at the various steps, and gain a deeper understanding of the nature of these exams. It’s truly eye-opening to see just how invasive these exams are — and this perspective will help you and your readers better understand how devastating it is for a survivor to provide this evidence and for it to be overlooked. Talk to a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner to get an inside perspective on the process.
  • Talk to each survivor you have interviewed about their access to a support system and community resources. It isn't fair to open old wounds for a story and then leave them to deal with it in isolation.
  • Make sure to follow up with the survivor, share the story with them, and ensure they are doing ok.

From watershed investigative reports to news alerts about the backlog, our News and Media Center is an extensive library of resources and information about the rape kit backlog. Click here to view news and investigative reports about the rape kit backlog. If you would like to learn more about the rape kit backlog in your area, click here.

END THE BACKLOG is an initiative 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. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of