Some of the most difficult stories reporters write about involve violence and trauma. These are also among the most important stories a journalist will cover.
For a solid decade, Rachel Dissell and fellow reporter Leila Atassi, at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, relentlessly sat in on task force meetings while the Cleveland Police Department went through 14,000 untested rape kits, some sitting on shelves for years.
They also covered the case of Anthony Sowell, a man who raped and killed at least 11 women in Cleveland, Dissell’s hometown, while assaulting others who managed to survive.
Later, she and Andrea Simakis wrote another series about Sandi Fedor, a woman who had to continually fight for her rape case to be examined, essentially doing most of the legwork herself.
“Like many reporters, I started out doing crime reporting, being the young person who gets sent out to every horrible thing that happens and is expected to know how to handle these weighty topics,” Dissell says. “A lot of other reporters didn’t want to have anything to do with it. The stories were complicated and difficult to report and I was attracted to it for that reason. Over the years, I kind of took a turn from telling these stories in a way that focused on individual cases to taking an eye more to the system that handled them.”
Over and over again, she and her writing partners found that the Cleveland Police Department just didn’t seem interested in pursuing rape cases, maybe not understanding at the time that rape kits can be used to identify assailiants and bring them to justice.
For the women raped and killed by Sowell, the reporters noticed a pattern among the survivors: They were women who, due to race or socioeconomic status or history of drug use, the police would be less likely to believe if they reported their attack.
When Dissell and Atassi realized that there were rape kits that had been essentially cast aside and ignored, the police were hard-pressed to explain why the kits were left untouched or even how many they had.
“They are still in the process of testing thousands,” Dissell says. “They ended up having people connected to 20 or more cases. The police did not see those kits as an investigative tool, they saw them as a way to prove a case. If they did have a case that was strong enough to make an arrest and go to court, they could use it to say, yes, we’re sure this is the right person.”
Sometime in the next month or so, the department will finish testing the final 200 kits. “Even though I no longer work for the Plain Dealer, I have such a strong urge to use the opportunity to look back,” she says.
Through all this gut-wrenching reporting, Dissell has learned a lot about trauma: That of her interview subjects, that which they cannot leave behind, and that which she carries with her after speaking with them.
She’s adopted an approach that works for her, in which she walks a person through the interview process before they have a single conversation. She lets them talk, undirected and mostly uninterrupted. She sits, listening. Sometimes the person will start with a seemingly uninvolved point, later realizing the person was outlining a life of horrible events.
“I always tell people, if at any point this isn’t working for you, let me know,” she says. “It’s not about me. If it’s causing damage, we can work with it or we can step away. No reporter wants to work for something for six months and have someone say I can’t do this. We have to be able to do that.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy for her.
“We had one time, I know Andrea and I were working with Sandi and we left separately and texted each other when we got home that we cried the entire drive home,” Dissell says. “We had to admit it was getting to us… There is not a great way to deal with someone else’s trauma or your own trauma.”
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell is joined this week by Rachel Dissell, a former reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, on her history of covering weighty and emotionally grueling crimes in her home city and the way she addresses the trauma of her subjects. Dissell recently wrote about Trauma Journalism in the Time of Coronavirus for the Dart Center For Journalism and Trauma.