How Carolina Public Press led a statewide collaboration to investigate sexual assault convictionsStephanie Carson and Angie Newsome, Carolina Public Press,
This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Stephanie Carson, news and community partnerships manager, and Angie Newsome, executive director, both of Carolina Public Press.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: Carolina Public Press is a nonprofit devoted to in-depth and investigative reporting. We received a tip in early 2018 that some district attorneys in North Carolina “never prosecuted sexual assault cases.” We wanted to see if that was true, so we pulled data from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts to validate that claim. The files we received from the state were complicated, messy and huge, comprising four-and-a-half years of data.
Through a lot of analysis, we eventually had an answer, as detailed in our project, “Seeking conviction: Justice elusive for N.C. sexual assault survivors.”
We discovered that fewer than one in four sexual assault defendants were convicted of either sexual assault or a reduced and related charge in that time period. We also learned that more than 30 of the state’s 100 counties had no sexual assault or reduced-charge convictions at all. We wanted to make the data matter to a statewide audience.
The reasons for the low prosecution rates varied across prosecutorial districts. To examine these reasons, we needed a team from across the state to drill down to the specifics in each area. It was a daunting, if not impossible, task for even the largest of newsrooms to do on their own.
That was strategically important for our organization because we had moved from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization (focused in the western part of North Carolina) to a statewide in-depth and investigative reporting organization. We had led and participated in collaborations in the past, at the local, statewide and national levels, and collaboration is a fundamental part of our strategy.
This was another opportunity to demonstrate investigative reporting leadership through collaborating with new partners across the state, to amplify the work to reach new audiences and to increase the collective impact.
Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?
A: This project focused on Table Stake No. 6: Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost. We used specific skill sets, geographic concentrations and amplification mediums (broadcast, print and radio) to publish a large-scale investigation into sexual assault prosecution rates in North Carolina. (Carolina Public Press was a member of the second cohort of the Table Stakes program run by the University of North Carolina.)
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: We made strategic hires around the project, which not only enabled the project to succeed but also enabled us to “test” what a statewide investigative reporting collaboration could look like structurally and result in programmatically.
These hires included Stephanie Carson, our news and community partnerships manager, whose priority during this time was to maintain a 30,000-foot view of the project and to help shepherd it along, with an eye on deadlines, relationships and opportunities to use resources wisely.
Stephanie has a background as a journalist for radio and television, which aided in our understanding of working with these mediums. She led efforts to establish the partnership, communicate deliverables and timelines, answer structural questions, evaluate results and more. She also helped bring in the news team when questions turned to the specific data and to finding sources.
A few months before the project started, we also hired our first full-time lead investigative reporter, Kate Martin. Kate has strong data journalism skills and was the lead reporter on the project. She did the bulk of the data analysis and, through her overall collaborative reporting style, sought out the help of other top North Carolina data journalists to help think through the logic of queries of the data.
(As an aside, she eventually sought the help of her nuclear physicist husband to write specific code with Python to untangle and analyze the data we used during this project. So he was an unanticipated, but super helpful, asset to the project.)
We recognize that not everyone can hire staff like we did. We found several other best practices to be crucial to our success.
First, we benefited from a strong commitment from leadership within our organization and our partners. Ask yourself: Is there support from the top down for collaborations such as this, and staff that’s given the time to complete the projects?
Second, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was key for us. Our MOU outlined expectations for each partner in terms of deadlines, legal and ethical ideals and the basic premise of the investigation. It also emphasized the commitment we were all making not to take the data and “scoop” CPP or other partners before the project was complete.
We did not share the full details of our findings until these MOUs were signed by each partner. Although not legally binding, they did provide a clear roadmap for the project and establishment of trust.
Third, we needed to understand everyone’s platforms with their various deadlines and needs. What’s important to print in terms of time and content is different from our TV and digital partners.
Finally, we needed to designate a point person for the project, in this case Stephanie, to keep an eye on deadlines, deliverables and communication. You need a project manager to make sure the project is moving forward — a manager who can identify possible community partners and leaders who can amplify or contribute to the project.
Q: What worked?
A: After six months of work, we secured 10 other partners in the collaboration, including outlets in print/digital, TV and radio. Outputs included four days of coordinated publication and broadcasts that included seven text-driven stories, data-rich graphics, photography and video.
We also held three “listening sessions” in three North Carolina cities early in the reporting project in order to hear directly from survivors, policymakers, elected officials, law enforcement, attorneys, advocates, health care providers and residents. (Here’s an example of an events page for the Durham listening session.)
These listening sessions were attended by reporters from the partnering outlets and helped to identify potential sources and increase our understanding, as journalists, of the range of issues facing survivors, law enforcement and prosecutors. At the end of publication, we followed up with three community-based forums called “Newsmakers” that provided opportunities for a discussion of the reporting. The forums took place in Fayetteville, Raleigh and Charlotte.
Our outcomes exceeded expectations by almost every measure. We have had more than 1.5 million views of the project (including page views, circulation, TV viewership and other audience numbers across platforms), with more than 30 people working across the 11 outlets to make the reporting possible. We also have, as an organization, real data and information as to the capacity, skills and financial investments required to make this caliber of a statewide investigative reporting collaboration possible.
The impact of the reporting has been incredible, from the personal/individual to the public policy level. At listening sessions, we heard survivors tell their stories for the first time, resulting in their receiving immediate personal support and access to victim services.
We heard advocacy organizations plan (and then implement) changes in their own processes to better serve victims, based on feedback shared at these listening sessions. We witnessed community and law enforcement partners working together in a more efficient way after we brought them together in community forums.
And significantly, our reporting was specifically mentioned when lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly pushed forward a bill in the House trying to close one of several “rape loopholes” in North Carolina that challenges successful prosecutions of some assault cases, loopholes spotlighted in the reporting. That bill had been attempted multiple times previously but died without cosponsorship.
A month after the reporting published, more than half of the House membership signed on to co-sponsor the effort. It went on to receive unanimous approval, making it a true bipartisan effort. We are now watching what happens to that effort in the North Carolina Senate.
Additionally, we received an award from the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault for our reporting, a recognition they say they rarely issue because of a lack of reporting on sexual assault issues in our state.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: We experienced challenges in sharing information via Google Drive.
Finding a way to communicate across multiple newsrooms and platforms was a challenge. We chose what we believed would be the easiest and most ubiquitous tool — Google Drive and its suite of applications. Although that still appears to be the best way to share information, we found it tripped us up in a few instances.
- Access to documents: We shared access with the email addresses of our partners for the project but found that multiple employees in each newsroom needed to access the information. Many of them were working on computers where the email address we shared the documents with was not the one listed as their primary account on their computer.
- We also learned the hard way that shared documents, specifically data, had to be in view-only status for partners. This lesson came after a well-intentioned reporter shifted some fields on the spreadsheet that triggered some confusion and miscalculations.
We faced challenges in explaining the methodology to partners.
The data analysis and Python code that was written to decipher the state’s information would make most people’s eyes cross within the first two minutes.
It was important to understand the distinctions, and while not every reporter on this project had to understand how to write the code, they needed to be comfortable with the basic methodology so they could explain how we arrived at our conclusions. Some did and some didn’t, and in several cases, partner reporters were faced with having to explain the analysis with district attorneys who had low prosecution rates, according to the data. We know, in some cases, that the explanations were incorrect.
To help, we held multiple one-on-one phone calls with reporters at the partner organizations to explain the data analysis. We also included a one-page data explainer for partner outlets to be sure their staff understood the data and how it was analyzed. But we still faced multiple questions over many weeks from reporters who were still working to understand and explain the data to sources.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: Carolina Public Press has always prioritized community involvement and engagement as part of our reporting process. This project was no different. As our editorial team analyzed the data, our staff organized and held “listening sessions” in three key communities early on in the project. The sessions helped us understand the vast issues facing survivors, law enforcement, policy writers, service providers and others concerned with issues related to sexual assault. The sessions also helped our reporters gain the trust of sources, ask informed and deeper questions and get to know the other reporters from other news organizations who would go on to join the collaboration formally.
As we began to publish the project, we held three community forums across the state, involving key community partners, lawmakers and law enforcement to discuss what could be done about the issues we’d uncovered. The forums helped us highlight the reporting, gain further insight to what we’d found, answer questions about how we did the reporting and the analysis, and openly listen to the responses of our sources and audiences.
We found that not only was this supportive of our reporting, it served as a valuable opportunity to convene survivors, law enforcement and advocates to talk among each other. Policies and protocol were literally changed before our eyes at the listening sessions and the community forums. Survivors were surrounded by people who were able to help. Although we didn’t fully anticipate building these connections, we were thankful we had the forethought to make sure that counselors were available at every event we held in case someone needed immediate help.
We also were surprised by the number of partners interested in participating. Initially our goal was four to five partners, and we finished the project with 10, in addition to our organization. When we polled partners as to what prompted their interest, the answers were largely based on the subject matter, our access and understanding of the data and our organization’s reputation for quality investigative work.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: Helping all partners understand the data and methodology from the start is key. In future projects, we’d make sure everyone involved has at least a basic understanding of methodologies and findings and has key talking points prepared when challenged by sources.
We may also change the location and timing of our in-person events to reach the widest audience. In one case, we returned to a city where we’d already hosted one listening session; in hindsight, we believe we should not have duplicated locations.
We also saw better attendance and traction with the panel discussion that happened a week after the reports came out. Ideally, we feel that hosting in-person events a week later may benefit attendance and give more “mileage” to community engagement efforts, but we also know that it places a greater demand on staff for a longer period of time.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Ask potential partners to attend a webinar to discuss the project at a high level and explain the requirements of participating, which may include when stories are released, how information is shared and what deliverables are expected from each partner. Repeat this multiple times. People’s understanding of the process evolves, so take the chance of repeating yourselves to make sure everyone is on track.
- Ensure partners and their staff have a confirmed understanding of the data analysis before seeking out interviews on behalf of the project.
- Address the potential pitfalls of Google doc sharing, and make sure that partners can access the documents through a specific email address.
- Be specific about what you need and expect from each partner. Initially, we intentionally kept our asks of partners broad and nonspecific, assuming that was the best way to collect information from them. We realized halfway through that the more specific you can be with your expectations, the better. Journalists thrive on deadlines and punch lists, and this project was no different.
- Make sure your project deadlines are at least two weeks prior to publication.