By Sarah Gamard
T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong broke down their Pulitzer Prize-winning collaboration “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” to a packed conference hall at IRE 2016 in New Orleans.
Last year, Miller was working on a series about rape for ProPublica when he got a tip that police had caught a serial rapist in Colorado. Soon after he began investigating, Miller got word a reporter for The Marshall Project was working the same story. The nonprofit outfits had a reputation for collaborating but never before with each other.
Like the story’s two lead detectives, Miller and Armstrong — who first met at an IRE conference — decided to work together. Armstrong focused on the victim in Washington state while Miller began with the police. Miller said the collaboration “was made in heaven.”
Investigations are incredibly complex, Miller said, so the 12,000-word story required distilling the narrative and compressing the details into only the most crucial. He stressed the importance of “interrogating” public records and gathering more than just one big, fat police file. Ask for the prosecutor’s file, too, as well as emails and anything else potentially related to the investigation. No single agency will have a truly comprehensive record of events — the more information you can get, the more factual the end result will be.
While some last-minute interviews were squeezed in at the 11th hour, the quotes were carefully inserted so as not to disturb the narrative, Armstrong said.
It took seven months to gain the trust of Marie, a rape victim and the story’s main character. Armstrong said he didn’t ask a single question until she had the opportunity to ask him everything she wanted. His first interview with her lasted an entire day.
Armstrong said that Marie and other sources in the piece wanted to talk because they hoped their stories would help others avoid suffering the same way or repeating the same mistakes. Many trauma victims need time — sometimes months, sometimes years — before they’re ready to go on the record. Be patient. Narratives don’t lose power with the passage of time, he said.
Miller and Armstrong said they trusted each other as well as their respective editors, ProPublica’s Joe Sexton and The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller. Armstrong advised reporters against being overly guarded in the editing process. Listen to editors when you need to “get off the stage,” he said.
The story was constructed to create suspense, preserve the reveal and keep the readers engaged by planting a question in their minds early on, Armstrong said.
In narrative journalism, a nut graf can kill the story, he said. Likewise, the reporters warned against using too much AP style if it’ll disrupt the flow of the narrative.
A strong believer in the “show-don’t-tell” truism, Miller said used carefully chosen details and short, simple sentences. He let the characters tell the story without bogging down the narrative in attribution. Details drive the story, and Miller said a good way for you to parse out the important ones is to pay attention to how you react when you’re interviewing a source. Listen to your goosebumps.
Dialogue and conversation can be particularly powerful, which you can be built from details in police records and the sources’ own accounts. The reporters supported Marie’s account — and that of her rapist — by adding a well-placed audio clip at the end, maybe “the most emotional gut punch in the entire piece,” Armstrong said.
Miller and Armstrong said Marie is satisfied by the impact of the story since its publication. The story is even used as a training tool at trauma centers and within law enforcement circles. Armstrong said it has been a healing experience for her, and she has no regrets.
When reporting such emotional stories, an investigative reporter often goes into “some of the darkest corners of the world and people’s hearts,” Miller said, which can lead to post-traumatic stress. He recommended the Dart Center as a resource.
The reporters agreed that ProPublica would have never reached out to The Marshall Project had they not had that relationship that began at an IRE conference. They said IRE builds great relationships — the ones that matter for strong reporting and strong stories. They said trust and constant communication are crucial in a joint story.
“I talked to Ken more than I talked to my wife,” Miller said.
Sarah Gamard is a New Orleans native, LSU undergraduate and summer staff writer at The Lens. She loves writing and telling a good story.