Unbelievable on Netflix: For journalists and police, lessons in how to report and investigate rape

Be sensitive, empathetic. Don’t blame the victim.

WrittenBy:Niraja Rao
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In 2016, the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting was awarded to An Unbelievable Story of a Rape by T Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project “for a startling examination and exposé of law enforcement’s enduring failures to investigate reports of rape properly and to comprehend the traumatic effects on its victims”.


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This category of the Pulitzer Prize is given to journalistic writing that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation.

An Unbelievable Story of a Rape is written like a screenplay from multiple perspectives that come together to tell a horrible story of a serial rapist, his victims and the institutional responses to sexual assault in America, both good and bad.

The backstory of how this article was written is equally fascinating. The two journalists had been covering the case from two ends for seven years, and they came together pooling their investigations and research to tell the story with depth and empathy.

They then collaborated with Robyn Semien on the podcast This American Life and wrote a book on the subject that was published by Penguin Random House. Now, their story has been turned into a Netflix series.

As Armstrong notes on Twitter, “This 8-part series is the 4th way this story has been told.”

It is an effective and honest series. “It was such an incredible story that it didn’t need any enhancing,” the showrunner Susannah Grant told People.com.

I found myself uttering the word “unbelievable” several times through the show. There have been many books and films, even TV series and journalistic exposes on the treatment meted out to victims of sexual assault and the systemic failure of law enforcement agencies time and again across the world. Yet, Unbelievable has a freshness in its simplicity. The conscious need to let the victims’ pain and helplessness come through but with empathy, the fact that the criminal was never made the point of focus so as not to sensationalise the story, and the courage and camaraderie of the women police officers make this show engaging and emotional.

Unbelievable is the true story of a series of rapes in America that went unsolved between 2008 and 2011 because the rapist was a military veteran who had inside knowledge of crime investigation procedures. Once he got away with the first rape, he was emboldened and perfected his modus operandi. The police were thoroughly misled by the variation in the victims, scene of crime, and the lack of evidence. They did what came to them naturally – blamed the victims. With unintended consequences.

Until two fine women law enforcement officers, Detectives Grace Rasmussen, played by Toni Collette (and based on the real-life Detective Edna Hendershot of Westminster, Colorado) and Karen Duvall, played by Merritt Wever (and based on the real life Detective Stacy Galbraith of Golden, Colorado) make it their mission to not only catch the rapist but convict him.

At the other end of the story is the first victim Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) who is victimised twice by the police department of Seattle, where two male police officers not only downplay the rape but also get the victim to retract and then throw the entire weight of the legal system at the teenager.

The contrast between the men and women police officers is stark. While the men spend all their time justifying their lack of an investigation, the women officers collaborate not just within their force but also rope in the FBI and use all their resources with single-minded devotion. This is the only way a leviathan law enforcement agency can take on a nimble serial criminal.

The women succeed and their success also brings life to Adler, alone and struggling. Not only is she found to be telling the truth, but successfully sues the state and wins compensation, thereby managing to salvage her own life.

Sometimes being shown a mirror to your own ghastly visage has a salutary effect: there have been changes in the American policing system about sensitisation to the pain and suffering of victims of sexual assault.

The coming together of stellar investigative journalism and solid police work have thrown the spotlight on the victims of rape and sexual assault in this instance in America. If the Netflix show can sensitise even a fraction of the police forces around the world it would be a great effort.

Unfortunately, in India we have become so insensitive to sexual assault and victim-shaming that reading about rape daily in the newspapers no longer evokes outrage.

In March 2019, Netflix aired a show called Delhi Crime about the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, but it was an uncritical police procedural.

Would any broadcaster in India be able to make an unbiased and real Unbelievable?

What can law enforcement agencies do to modify and sensitise their personnel and way of functioning so that the perpetrator does not slip through their net and the next rape victim is provided the full protection of the law?

That should be the key takeaway from Unbelievable for the police, for journalists and for the audience.


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