ProPublica and The Marshall Project recently collaborated on a remarkable feat of reporting, An Unbelievable Story of Rape, by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. The piece focuses on the harrowing case of a woman named Marie who reported being raped at knifepoint, only to be doubted by the police and charged with making a false accusation. Chronicling the brilliant work of two detectives who solved the case, it shows the best and worst of how law enforcement responds to reports of rape.
The story also brought together two competing reporters, who were investigating the case separately before coming across one another and, instead of rushing to beat the other to publication, decided to join forces. On this week’s podcast, ProPublica assistant managing editor Eric Umansky speaks with the editors who oversaw the story – Marshall Project editor-in-chief Bill Keller and ProPublica senior editor Joseph Sexton – to take us inside the challenge of two reporters chasing the same story and the many delicate decisions that went into getting the story right.
Highlights from their conversation:
- The path toward collaborating began with an awkward email. (1:07)
Sexton: The subject line was “A Delicate, Thoughtful Question” or something like that, which basically meant I was going to mess with Bill's world and wanted to start as gently as possible. It turned out that our two reporters, working independently, had both come upon aspects of the same awful, incredible story, and neither of them are going to be inclined to give it up.
- Despite initial worries, the reporters welcomed the idea of working together in order to produce the best journalism. (3:31)
Keller: I was mostly worried about breaking the news to Ken Armstrong, who lives in Washington where the story takes place and was aware of it for a long time. He’d had it on his wish list to do this for a year and a half. The idea I was going to call him up and tell him that maybe he should share it with somebody else was a daunting prospect. Fortunately, though he probably swallowed hard at first, he very quickly realized that there was more to be gained by pulling our resources and telling the story right, rather than rushing something half-assed into publication.
- With two male writers and two male editors helming the story, women at both organizations played crucial advisory roles on how to best tell Marie’s story. (8:05)
Sexton: In both our organizations are women in senior positions of authority and judgment. Bill had [Marshall Project managing editor] Kirsten Danis not only read the piece but give it a really great edit. Robin Fields, who's our managing editor, read the story at every important stage. It was then subsequently copyedited by a woman who had tremendous thoughts and to whom we turned at the end when we were evaluating exactly how to tell, and at what level of detail, the final chapter in the story, which is the rape of Marie.
- Editors deliberately used a lighter touch, allowing readers to connect the dots themselves, when recounting the ways that police mishandled the investigation. (13:38)
Keller: I don't think you have to tell people that they're supposed to be outraged in order for them to be outraged. The story is a great example of that because people got the power of the story, and the readers saw this as indicative of a tragic shortcoming in a lot of policing of rape. … We didn't lose sight of the underlying theme, but you don't need to holler at people e to get them to be moved by something. Sometimes just letting the story tell itself is much more emotionally satisfying than hammering at it.