The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma announced on Thursday that “Unheard” by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica won the 2021 Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.
“Unheard” is a first-of-its-kind story-sharing project that is part of the “Lawless” series, an ongoing investigation into sexual violence in Alaska. The state has the highest rate of sexual assault and child sex abuse in the U.S. Yet for generations it has been an unspoken epidemic. Predators have assumed, often correctly, that victims would remain silent or no one would listen.
The powerful digital and print project — which features the portraits and stories of 29 Alaskan sexual assault survivors who chose to talk about what they experienced — gave a voice to those who have been sexually assaulted in the state. Participants were women and men of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, Native and non-Native, all seeking to inspire change in Alaska’s justice system and to de-stigmatize being a survivor of sexual violence.
“Unheard” was a collaboration between Kyle Hopkins, Michelle Theriault Boots, Anne Raup, Marc Lester and Loren Holmes of the Daily News, as well as ProPublica’s Adriana Gallardo, Nadia Sussman and Agnes Chang. It was edited by the Daily News’ David Hulen and ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein and Ariana Tobin. The work also represented a new kind of partnership between journalist and source, and a new benchmark for survivor-focused reporting on sexual violence.
The reporting for “Unheard” started in 2018 when, after a string of gut-wrenching sexual assault and murder cases in Alaska, the Daily News asked readers if they would be willing to share their stories of sexual violence. More than 200 people responded, and over the following months the ProPublica engagement team and Daily News reporters spent countless hours on the phone with survivors. In time, common themes emerged such as law enforcement failures, institutionalized victim-blaming, and community and family ostracization.
As the journalists got to know the survivors, they were inspired to embark on a collaborative approach to storytelling and asked some if they would be interested in taking an unprecedented role in the creation of the work. The reporting team began by discussing every step of the publication process and deferring to the survivors’ wishes whenever possible. Each woman and man was photographed in a place of their choosing, surrounded by people they love, if they wished, or dressed to represent a source of strength such as wearing traditional Alaska Native regalia.
All the stories and portraits were presented online on the same day, on a single webpage. Participants could share a link to their individual story if they liked, but the news organizations did not share the individual stories separately online or in social media in order to avoid doxxing and to respect survivors who wished to be presented as part of a collective. In every case, the teams upheld the highest standards of the partner newsrooms. Every detail in every portrait in “Unheard” was fact-checked, corroborated and sourced.
Among the lasting images from the “Unheard” project is a blank front page that appeared after the stories had appeared in print every day throughout the month of June — a “Space of Silence” dedicated to those not yet ready to share their story.
The Dart Awards judging panel described the project as “exceptional, original journalism” that “puts the voices of survivors at the forefront” and “reimagines how trauma-aware, culturally-sensitive, collaborative reporting can be done.”
Winning projects and honorable mentions will be recognized during a virtual ceremony on Sept. 23. See a list of all Dart Award honorees here.