Last October, Washington Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen, after hearing whispers around it, started investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against a Republican candidate for the Senate, Roy Moore. One of the women she met told her how Moore had offered her wine when she was 18 and the legal drinking in Alabama was 19. The incident was 38 years old.
What McCrummen did next was to find out if the wine brand the victim mentioned even existed then. But she didn’t stop there. She walked into the restaurant where the woman claimed she was offered the wine to check whether they served that wine in 1979. The restaurant confirmed that they did.
In April this year, McCrummen and her colleagues went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting.
Last week, McCrummen shared the stage with The New York Times reporters Kim Severson and Julia Moskin, who won the Pulitzer for their investigations into charges of sexual harassment against celebrity restaurateur-chef duo Ken Friedman and Mario Batali as well as Italian actress Asia Argento. These stories were part of the larger NYT reporting on the #MeToo movement which won the Pulitzer. All three were in Hong Kong as part of the Pulitzer Prize Winners Workshop hosted by the Hong Kong Baptist University.
In all their experiences lie some key lessons for the Indian media, which has in the past month grappled with reporting on the sexual harassment allegations that have surfaced against journalists, politicians, celebrities and other media personalities.
There are plenty of parallels between the US and the Indian scenario—crowdsourcing tips on social media, scores of women coming out and naming their perpetrators, many of whom are public personalities. What is starkly different is the way these allegations were treated by the news media. While the Indian media’s reportage, with exceptions, was largely driven by social media testimonies published by the accusers, in the US, many of the biggest exposés of public personalities came from journalistic investigations, from Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to comedian Louis CK, as well as the more recent allegations against US Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Corroborating is key
For McCrummen, Severson and Moskin, the story was not the tip-off they received on or off social media. It only began with it.
Food writers Severson and Moskin, soon after their newsroom had published detailed investigations against Weinstein, decided to look at the restaurant industry and find out who the “Harvey Weinstein on their beat” was. Moskin invited tip-offs on social media: NYT even had a secure encrypted submission system for victims to share their stories.
Once the stories started coming in, Moskin and Severson listened hard and then did what good journalism demands: corroborate. Severson says, “We would ask for ways to corroborate their stories—emails, texts, any witnesses to the incident. We would even contact friends and family who they might have mentioned these stories to.” Both were clear that they would avoid anonymous sources as much as they could. In fact, the reporters decided to drop an anecdote narrated by a woman who wanted to remain anonymous because they had five others who were willing to go on record.
McCrummen echoes this reticence towards anonymous stories. In her investigations of the allegations against Moore, the most serious charge she found came from a woman named Leigh Corfman who said she was 14 years old when Moore, then 32, initiated a sexual encounter with her.
McCrummen had her task cut out. Piece by piece, she corroborated the allegations. She dug into Corfman’s background: Corfman’s personal history, criminal records and financial statements. The picture wasn’t pretty; Corfman had filed for bankruptcy protection three times, she had two minor charges, was divorced three times and was a Republican voter.
McCrummen’s actions came from a deep conviction—she wanted her readers to know everything that could form their judgment about the case, even if it the details were unflattering to the accuser. “If we had left out some unflattering detail from their past, we felt it likely that someone might subsequently use that information to discredit her and the story,” says the Washington Post reporter, who sat Corfman down and made her understand the need for this.
But more importantly, McCrummen says, she wanted to ensure a watertight investigation that would stand all tests. “A reader might have sceptically suspected Corfman to be a Democrat and dismissed her accusations. That’s why we wanted to explicitly state that she’s actually a Republican voter.”
All three Pulitzer Prize winners reiterate how they came to believe all the accusers only after having corroborated their testimonies in every way possible.
But how then must the media respond to accusations made by women on social media? India’s own #MeToo movement was driven largely by Twitter and Facebook, where women came out, some anonymously, and called out predators. Most often, these stories were then picked up by news outlets and published without independently verifying them.
McCrummen is uncomfortable with such reporting and believes that it’s damaging to journalism in the longer run. According to her, by merely reporting on these allegations, news organisations end up mirroring social media. She says, “You, as a news organisation, are giving up that one thing that differentiates you from social media, which is that you ascertain facts and verify them. If you stop doing it, you are no better than social media. Over time, people won’t feel the need to read you anymore.”
#BelieveHer but also perform your duty as a journalist
At a time when newsroom agendas are driven by trending hashtags, the three Pulitzer winners underline the need for journalists to remain detached from the passions and pressures of public opinion. Severson insists that though her sympathies lie with the victims, “at the back of my head, I am always an NYT reporter first, whose responsibility it is to give readers the fairest story I can”. You feel for the people, she adds, but at the end of the day, “it is a great story to report”.
McCrummen mentions “fairness” repeatedly while describing how she stuck to the ground rules during her investigations. “Fairness to the victim, fairness to the accused and fairness to the reader,” she says.
She believes that journalists, while reporting on sexual harassment allegations, must walk the extra mile to corroborate details and present strong stories. A weak story around an accusation might harm the credibility of those making the accusation.
The scepticism, she insists, helps. “In a way, we owe it to the women to be sceptical of their stories.”