As newspapers lose subscribers and have to cut staff, including reporters, we all suffer. Stories that can help bring justice by exposing injustice go unreported, simply because the resources are not there to pursue a certain story.
But in spite of these difficulties, good journalism does still happen, and stories are written that do expose injustice and help bring justice in our society.
One good example is a series of stories in Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer, beginning in 2010, when Rachel Dissell, a reporter for the paper, and her reporting partner, Leila Atassi, wrote about neglected rape kits at the Cleveland Police Department.
In a Sept. 2 blog for Columbia Journalism Review, Chava Gourarie writes: “Cleveland is not the first city to tackle a rape kit backlog, but it is one of the only municipalities to investigate every case so doggedly.”
She notes that “since 2011, when the city began sending rape kits to the state’s crime lab, almost all of its 4,000 kits have been tested; of these, over 1,600 contained usable DNA. Three hundred and fifty cases have led to grand jury indictments, and as of [September], over 100 rapists have been convicted, some of multiple rapes.”
Many investigative stories unveil injustices or at least raise questions about how an issue is being handled (or mishandled) by authorities. But these don’t always lead to changes being made.
For change to happen, those who have the power to make changes must be moved enough by the story to do something about it.
This is what happened in Cleveland. Gourarie calls it “an exemplary instance of local reporting, responsive government officials and public support coming together to make a community safer.”
And the effect of the story went beyond Cleveland. Ohio passed a law in March requiring every police department in the state to submit untested rape kits to the lab by next spring.
“Going forward,” Gourarie writes, “all kits must be tested within 30 days. Cleveland’s story is also contributing to burgeoning national awareness of how many rape kits remain unexamined, and the potential gold mine they represent; once tested, they can solve old and ongoing cases while providing a wealth of data on sexual assault.”
One of the things the investigation revealed is that many of the rapes were committed by serial rapists, men who committed more than one rape. In fact, a third of the rapes were by serial rapists, which was more than double what the Cuyahoga County prosecutor thought would be the case.
This means that “every unsolved case is even more likely to be another rape waiting to happen, and that removing even a single rapist from the street eliminates an ongoing threat,” writes Gourarie.
Good journalism goes beyond investigation to providing education to its readers. In August 2013, Dissell and Atassi published a four-part series on the rape kit investigations that highlighted the higher than expected rate of serial rapists and walked readers through the process of testing DNA from a rape kit.
The investigation by Dissell and Atassi may have encouraged other journalists to do their own investigation. Earlier this summer, writes Gourarie, “over 75 local papers and TV stations in the USA Today Media Network collected data from 1,000 police departments. They found over 70,000 untested rape kits.”
Each of us can support such investigations by supporting our local newspapers.
Gordon Houser is editor of The Mennonite.