From the editor: Series impacted those who reported on sexual assault

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Journalists are trained to be objective. We strive to be fair and accurate in our reporting, and some topics we cover are more complex than others. Journalists are also human, and our work can sometimes be tough and challenging, especially when tackling a serious topic like sexual assault.

The “In Our Shoes” series, which concludes this week, was a huge undertaking for a newsroom of our size, and I am proud of the Steamboat Pilot & Today team who embraced this project and did an excellent job of providing readers with a series of articles that helped illuminate a societal issue that many would probably rather keep in the dark.

Due to the nature of sexual assault, it can be a topic that’s tough to read about and also tough to report on. Our news team has been planning our series coverage since February, and I asked those involved in the project to offer personal reflections on how this series affected them and what they learned during the last several months.

I hope their words and insights, included below, will not only shine more light on the topic of sexual assault but will reveal to readers just how deeply our news team cares about the work they produce in service to our community.

Reporter Derek Maiolo: The hardest stories matter most

Derek Maiolo

As I studied and trained to be a journalist in college, I knew I was not carving an easy path for myself. But I believed, as I still do, that journalism serves a necessary purpose in our society. It gives voice to people and issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug. Authentic journalism forces us to face the facts, even if it hurts.

When my editor proposed an eight-week series on sexual assault in Routt County, my stomach lurched at the thought of covering such a sensitive topic, particularly in this small town I grew up in and care about. My two assignments — first, to do a comprehensive analysis of the number of sex crimes in mountain communities and, second, to explore sexual assault in the LGBTQ community — would require multiple records requests, late hours digging through court cases and tear-soaked interviews.

One snowy night in April, I tossed in bed, unable to sleep. For the last three hours, I had scrolled on my computer through at least 50 assault cases, each laden with egregious criminal charges. They ranged from drugging to raping a woman to giving a 12-year-old alcohol.

Like first responders who daily see death and suffering, journalists are advised to distance themselves from their work. Try as I might, that night I could not get images of these victims out of my head. What pained me more was seeing how few of those cases ever went to trial, and how often assailants got off on lenient punishments or none at all. I was angry. I felt helpless.

I walked outside into the snow, barefoot and shivering. The white flakes shone in the glow of my kitchen, spewing from the darkness like fireflies. A question from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, flew in with them.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It is a question I try to keep close. I have a copy pinned to my desk as a reminder that my plan was never to lead an easy life, but a full one. To face all that this world brings, even if it hurts.

Oliver’s question continued to guide me throughout the “In Our Shoes” series. When I reported how sexual assault unequally impacts the LGBTQ community, I realized the only way I could do the story justice was to describe my own experience as a gay man. Confessing my sexuality and the difficulties I have faced came with a certain amount of dread over the possible repercussions.

It is a testament to the kindness of this community that I received nothing but positive feedback from the article. What is more, a handful of locals from the LGBTQ community said it made them feel understood. In an email, one woman said it was the most important work I had done for this newspaper thus far.

This job is not easy, nor is life. Moments like that make the struggle worth it.

Reporter Kari Harden: What I learned

Kari Harden

It is impossible to work on a series like this and not think about personal experience. But what I thought about much more than sexual assault was sexual pressure.

I’ve only had one experience I would categorize as assault, and thankfully, I was able to escape it quickly. It was still terrifying and traumatic and shook me to the core.

However, it is the sexual pressure that feels much more pervasive in my life, especially my adolescent and young adulthood.

I didn’t grow up in Steamboat, but I grew up in a mountain resort town where money, a “perfect” female body and athleticism were overvalued. And I grew up wanting more male validation than I should have.

So as I spent time interviewing, researching, writing and thinking about issues related to sexual assault, it was this “sexual pressure” piece that nagged at me as an important part of the conversation.

A lot of it relates to self esteem and our culture, which shoves an unrealistic body image down the throats of young girls, growing girls and grown women.

Our culture is a highly superficial one, where women are judged first and foremost by what they look like.  

As a teenager and young woman, I felt my self worth was defined by how desirable I was to the opposite sex. I needed attention from males to feel good about myself.

I wouldn’t say any of those coming-of-age sexual experiences weren’t consensual. I wouldn’t even say I have any regrets. It was part of growing up.

But I think there’s an important point to be made that many women have a battle they fight daily that goes far beyond what is defined as sexual assault.

If we feel pressured to have sex, blame cannot be put entirely on the pressuring party. Had I had better self esteem, I may have not felt — or been able to better resist — that pressure.

Boys — men — also have unhealthy societal pressure for sexual conquest as proof of masculinity.  

Talking to a number of experts for this series, as well as friends, confirmed that self esteem is undoubtedly a big part of navigating healthy sexual relationships, especially when we are young.

This type of cultural shift in values may be a much greater challenge than reducing instances defined as assault, but I think it a no less important one.

The objectification of women, and the notion that a woman’s body is available as a bargaining chip, is rampant across our society.

As a new mother, I want to make sure my daughter grows up confident and strong in knowing her body is hers alone.

If I have a son, I want him to know that sex does not prove masculinity, and that he must always respect the personal space of girls.

But I don’t have control of all those external pressures.

I hope as a society we can work to provide more images across all types of media and institutions that represent what women really look like.

I hope as women we can get better at saying “no,” consequences be damned.

I hope as women we can spend less time judging each other and cutting each other down.

I hope men can rise above “locker-room talk” and see that the need for sexual conquest comes not from a place of masculinity but one of pathetic insecurity.  

I hope as parents we can teach our kids to value intelligence, humor, character and actions over looks. I hope we can steer our children to the right role models and use terrible role models as teachable moments.

We can do better, I know that.

Photographer John F. Russell: Keeping your eyes open

John Russell

As part of my job, I’m asked to take photographs every day that reflect life in the Yampa Valley from the breathtaking views of Mount Werner and Elk Mountain to children jumping in the puddles left behind by spring’s melting snow.

I not only try to create stunning images each day, but as a photojournalist, I see my work as a reflection of the things that are important to the people who live here. I view my photographs as a record of the people, the events and the history of our town. My hope is that someday down the road, when people look back, my images will remind them of what life was like in Steamboat.

Not everything in our mountain valley is beautiful, but that doesn’t mean we can close our eyes, or in my case put down my camera, when we don’t want to see something.

Sexual assault is one of those things. When we first began talking about this series and the stories we wanted to tell, I knew that we would need art to go alongside the words. The photojournalist in me wanted to follow someone who had been affected by sexual assault and make images that reflected its devastating impacts.

But creating those images is hard a thing to do without putting those who have been touched by sexual assault in the spotlight, without bringing to the surface the experiences many have buried or without asking them to re-live the trauma of sexual assault.

To tell this important story, we needed a main photograph that could carry the front page each week.

In the end, we chose to use volunteers from our office, Advocates of Routt County and a few others. I kept the photographs tight focusing on hands and eyes and feet.

I wanted the photographs to be generic — not to protect the subjects but because in a strange way those anonymous images tell a part of the story.

The thing I learned from this series is that sexual assault can happen to anybody no matter if you’re a man or a women, straight or gay, young or old. It can happen anywhere including at school or work, while hanging out with friends at a barbecue or after a few drinks in a bar.

My goal with the photographs in this series was to help start a conversation, so that we can shed light on sexual assault in our community. And while I love to take photographs of all the beauty that surrounds me in Steamboat, I also realized there are some things that need to be captured in a photo that are not as easy to look at and things that are dark. And we should never close our eyes to that. 

Former sports editor Leah Vann: Reporter turned educator

Leah Vann

When Lisa Schlichtman first proposed the idea of “In Our Shoes,” I actually wondered,”Why now? Why in Steamboat Springs?” For a few weeks, I wasn’t sold on my role in the series, but when I attended the Associated Press for Sports Editors contest judging, I was tasked with reading the top 10 investigative journalism pieces.

That included stories about sexual assault at the University of Idaho and USA Swimming that I wasn’t familiar with. I thought to myself, “We have an Olympic sport in Steamboat’s front yard and a high school across the street and what is being done to prevent this from happening in my own community?”

As sports editor, it was my duty to educate myself on not just sexual assault, but the culture that allows it to happen. Notice how I said, “sports editor,” and not “female sports editor,” because regardless of gender, I think we all need to invest time in educating ourselves on what it means to be a sexual abuse survivor and what we can do to make sure it doesn’t continue.

My first mission was to understand the science of why survivors can only remember bits and pieces of abuse and why they aren’t believed as a result. That showed me what is meant by the word, “survivor,” because the impacts of one assault carry on for a lifetime.

Then, I added the sports piece. I talked to members of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Deb Armstrong. From Armstrong, I learned why sexual abuse happens and from the Winter Sports Club, I learned the importance of a community atmosphere over private coaching.

The high school sports conversation was different. Kids were learning how to have healthy relationships and how to not “call out” but “call in” their friends who are partaking in locker-room talk. To me, that mentality tied together with why I wanted to participate in this series. I learned how to educate people about a sexual abuse culture, instead of using reactionary outrage as an echo chamber.

I hope that I continue to use my reporting as an education tool to produce change in a world that I’ve grown to love so well: sports.

Digital Engagement Editor Bryce Martin: My survivor story

Bryce Martin

My palms grew sweaty, and my heart started to race as I approached the front door to meet my semi-blind date.

It was the first time I would meet this guy, having chatted with him for a few weeks on Facebook. I was tense. I didn’t quite know what to expect.

I was an impressionable, 18-year-old, college student at the time, in 2006. I had just recently revealed my sexuality and wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into with this evening rendezvous. Yes, I had many dates prior to that night, but it was always somewhere public. This was the first time I would meet a guy who I didn’t know at his home. At night. In rural Michigan.

I remember feeling chills when he answered the door. There was a lump in my throat that I couldn’t easily clear. Something made me feel especially on edge, but I didn’t realize what I was. Foolishly, I stepped inside, and he closed the door behind me.

About an hour later, I was back in my car, tears streaked down my face. My clothing was disheveled; I heard a ringing in my ears. I continued to replay in my mind the events that had just occurred. I sped across the dark, dirt roads as quickly as I could. I didn’t know what to do or who to tell. So, like so many people in this situation, I kept it to myself and continued on with life.

I had been sexually assaulted.

Over the ensuing days, I couldn’t shake the tumult I felt. It was my fault, right? I had put myself into that situation. All I could do was blame myself. It was years before the memory at least began to fade.

When I first heard that Steamboat Pilot & Today was working on the In Our Shoes series, I was still working as editor of the Pilot’s sister publication, Sky-Hi News, in Granby. I was so proud to learn that these talented journalists were tackling such a topic. When I read the first survivor story, I felt such despair as my mind quickly snapped back to that night so long ago in Michigan. But I suddenly felt — even as ubiquitous as sexual assault is — that I was not alone.

It would be about a month later that I would join the Pilot team and actually have a part working on the series. Still, I kept my story to myself even though I engaged in many discussions about the series’ content, read all the installments and heard the difficult stories from people who experienced assault.

This is the first time I’ve publicly shared my story. It truly feels cathartic to write these words. I likely would never have shared if it weren’t for the commitment by the Pilot to work through this searing topic, displaying so much compassion, empathy and professionalism along the way.

It was the series, the people in this newsroom and the people who shared their stories that really made me feel the urge to want to do something, not to atone for my past experience but to help people understand the insurmountable need to speak up and speak out.

I thank the editorial team at the Pilot and its fearless leader, Lisa Schlichtman, for not only allowing me to join this great team, but for also allowing me to share one of the darkest times of my life and having the opportunity to now grow because of it.

Editor Lisa Schlichtman: Giving a voice to survivors

Lisa Schlichtman

When I began contemplating asking my news team to tackle an in-depth series on sexual assault, I knew I wanted to include the stories of survivors. Data and interviews with experts are important and provide a strong foundation for a reporting series, but it’s the personal stories that grab hold of the reader and make them care about the topic you’re reporting on.

Finding survivors of sexual assault who wanted to share their story publicly was very difficult at first — and for good reason. Victims can feel shame about what happened to them, and oftentimes, they’d rather forget than remember. And in interviewing them about the assault, I was asking them to relive what was likely the darkest moment of their lives.

One brave woman stepped forward to tell her story that first week, and from there, more survivors followed her lead. Each week, I had men and women contact me and tell me that reading the survivor’s stories inspired them to tell theirs, and over the past eight weeks, we were able to publish nine different stories — all told by courageous people who live among us — our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends and our family members.

These interviews with survivors changed me.

I learned how to interview someone who has experienced an intense trauma. Rather than controlling the interview with specific questions, I learned to lean in and listen — to let the person tell me their story — often in nonlinear fragments — without interruption. I tried to create a safe space for each survivor to share their story, and I felt privileged to listen to every single detail.

It wasn’t easy. Sometimes, I cried with the survivor, and other times, I found myself swallowing down anger at the cruelty and violence another human being could inflict on another. I struggled with sharing the right information with our readers when I wrote these stories, and I hoped with all my being that these words on a page would make a difference.

I also realized that sexual assault can happen to anyone — the good girl, the shy introvert looking for companionship, the innocent child and the man or woman looking to enjoy a fun night out with friends.

But most importantly, I want to thank each of the individuals who met with me and shared their story of survival. You are brave, you are courageous — your story matters and telling it breaks through the shame and the silence.

And you are not alone. There is strength in knowledge, and because of your willingness to share what happened to you, I believe our readers really listened, and they can no longer ignore the fact that sexual assault is a serious issue that happens here in our beautiful mountain town.

And I hope it’s your stories that inspire people in our community to work together to combat this issue.

Read the full In Our Shoes series here.

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