Reporting “Rape on the Night Shift”

June 23, 2015
by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Investigating a story about sexual assault is never straightforward. When an alleged attack happens, it’s often one person’s word against another’s, and knowing who or what to believe can sometimes seem close to impossible.

Things don’t get much easier when the assault in question is committed against one of the most invisible members of the population — the undocumented women who work overnight, often alone or isolated, cleaning the office buildings where we work, the banks where we do business and the malls and stores where we shop. And whether it’s for fear that they’ll lose their jobs, or anxiety about being deported, countless women do not report what happened to them, making any determination about their assault that much more difficult.

These are just a few of the challenges that the reporting teams faced on Rape on the Night Shift, about the abuse of women in the janitorial industry. The film, a collaborative investigation with Univisionthe Investigative Reporting Program at UC BerkeleyReveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and KQED, tells their stories of assault and abuse on the job.

We sat down with four of the reporters to understand more about how they navigated these issues. Andrés Cediel is a producer for FRONTLINE. Daffodil Altan is a video producer at CIR and Bernice Yeung is a CIR investigative reporter. Sasha Khokha is the Central Valley bureau chief for KQED radio in northern California. Here is an edited transcript from that conversation:

Reporting on a rape case is not easy, but you were also investigating this story against the backdrop of the Rolling Stone/University of Virginia controversy. How did lessons from that factor into your work?

Andrés Cediel: I feel like it reinforced the reporting that we were already doing because we had come from a position of wanting to use best practices, and what it served as was a reminder of how important this is. Reporting on sexual assault is very difficult for many different reasons, but it made us go back and double-check the work that we had been doing.

One of the main things from the Rolling Stone article is that the alleged perpetrators had never been contacted, which is of course one of the first things and one of the main things that we’ve been doing in our reporting. So that stood out for us. It made us want to contact them more. So we made multiple attempts even when it was clear that they weren’t going to talk. We felt it was very important both for their side of the story but also to be showing how diligent we were in our own reporting.

Daffodil Altan: The other thing with some of the reporting around rape is the use of anonymous sources. And from the get go, we were looking for cases that were already in the public record, that included sworn testimony, that included police reports.

The next thing that we were very intentional about was working to see if we could get victims who would go on camera. Even though this is an extremely sensitive topic, and very traumatic for victims or survivors, there is something to be said for letting the viewer and the audience take in a face that is shown on screen. And so if you are willing to put your name and your face to your own testimony, before a national audience, that is saying something about what they believe to be true.

Anonymity raises all sorts of questions, whereas if you find a victim or an alleged perpetrator who is willing to talk about allegations on camera, on the record, I think that adds to their credibility.

Getting someone to speak on the record is one thing, but how do you actually verify what a victim is telling you?

Andrés Cediel: One thing that comes up basically in every case is that the alleged perpetrator denies that the assault takes place. Either they completely deny that anything happened, or they say that it was a consensual relationship and she’s making this up.

What we try to figure out from the victim is much the same that law enforcement or other people might look for in terms of credibility — what’s the story? Does the story sound believable? Is there a lot of detail in the story? And most importantly for us, is the victim telling us the same thing that she told the police, or that was stated under oath? We want to see that there is a consistency in the stories that are being told in that the key details aren’t changing. So we do a lot of the same assessments that law enforcement might do in the same way.

Now, we have a different standard than law enforcement does. In a criminal case, you have to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt — basically 99 percent sure this happened. In a civil case, it’s the preponderance of evidence — more like 51 percent. Our journalistic standards are probably closer to the beyond reasonable doubt standard.

I think what’s really important also is what would motivate someone to do this? I think a lot of times the defendant would say that the person is in it for the money, or for a visa. In some cases that may be true, but you have to weigh that against everything that that person is sacrificing by putting themselves out there as having been abuse victims, all the stigma that goes around that, all the shame that goes around that, outing themselves not only to their families and friends, but to everybody — very emotional testimonies, and years in court fighting and often without much hope of any kind of reward. So why would anybody go through that process just to make it up? You have to really look at each individual’s circumstances to see what they have given up to tell this story to us.

“One of the main things from the Rolling Stone article is that the alleged perpetrators had never been contacted. … That stood out for us. It made us want to contact them more.”

Bernice Yeung: These cases have so much to do with the quote/unquote “credibility” of the individual, and I think as reporters we brought our ability to assess credibility to the project as well. Does this person come off in a way that seems reasonable, given what she’s telling us? So I think we’ve got that to bear, but I think also we learned something really interesting through the process of reporting, which is we learned a little bit better how to look at credibility.

The EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which takes on a lot of these cases, lays out the best way to look at credibility — that was something I was thinking about through the course of reporting.

But also, we encountered a really interesting researcher who does a lot of training — for the U.S. military, U.S. law enforcement and judges and so on — on how to interview and interact with people who have been victims of trauma crime, including rape and sexual assault. He says that essentially, the way that you remember a very traumatic incident, there’s actual brain science that kind of affects your memory, so you’re going to remember things in fragments, you’re going to remember things in flashes of sight, sound, smell. And so that also informed the way in which we thought about potential inconsistencies that we might hear. We had to see if it was a big enough inconsistency that it completely calls an individual’s credibility into question.

So there was a lot of just weighing all of this information along with the documentation. But it is a really tricky thing — it starts to kind of explain and get at why it’s so difficult to prosecute and investigate these cases in a criminal justice context.

On the flip side of that, how did you approach the challenge of getting the other side of the story? I can’t imagine any of the accused perpetrators were jumping at the opportunity to be interviewed. So how do you fill in the gaps?

Sasha Khokha: I think all of our reporters were extremely consistent in trying to get all of the sides of the story. It’s hard because these are not necessarily folks who are jumping to talk to us — I mean, none of them are, neither the alleged perpetrators nor some of these women who are making these claims. It’s difficult and messy and uncomfortable all the way around, but we really did make an effort, particularly in the cases where we were going to spend a lot of time highlighting the women’s stories. We were able to encounter the alleged perpetrators in most of those instances and at least let them know what we were doing, give them a chance to respond. They didn’t want to do that on camera, but we were able to talk to them without tape rolling and to at least get a sense of where they stood on things. We also had videotaped depositions, which appear in the film, so we at least allow the viewers to get a sense of who these alleged perpetrators are and to hear about their perspective.

Daffodil Altan: Our intent is to be fair. And none of the cases that we investigated — except for one — none of them were criminally prosecuted. So if people had made allegations of serious crimes against these alleged perpetrators, our due diligence is to engage with them and be fair with them because these are allegations that have not resulted in criminal convictions. So we cannot assume that they are guilty. And we don’t.

And so we made real and serious efforts to find out where they lived, get phone numbers, to engage with them, to visit them, to talk with them off the record, to try to get a sense of their side of the story, which some of them shared with us, off the record. And then to try to give them as full a picture of what it is that our work is and what we’re doing as possible. We’re going to talk about this case involving this victim, these allegations — we want to give you every opportunity to respond to that. Because if you’re maintaining your innocence, you’re going to want to defend yourself, or at least give your side of the story, at least give your version of events, at least contextualize how you were seeing things from your perspective if you’re maintaining your innocence and it’s important to you to defend yourself.

We made very serious efforts and we did engage with the alleged perpetrators in these cases and gave them multiple opportunities to sit down with us. We weren’t trying to jump out of bushes with the camera on them and entrap them. We approached them without cameras, and we engaged as human beings, understanding that they have families, they have lives and their names are about to be on national television and what would they like to do about that.  How would they like to respond? These are allegations and so we were hoping to have their responses. We didn’t get any from any of them. They did not want to respond.

Of course, this is also a story about assault in the workplace, but it’s not as though you can just walk into a company’s HR department and start combing through their records to see how they may or may not have responded after learning about an assault by an employee or supervisor against a coworker. How did you go about gleaning how companies respond?

Daffodil Altan: We were trying to engage with companies, and remember there are companies that are legitimate and bigger, but that’s not a lot of them. And then there are many, many, many small companies, and some of them are registered with their state and some of them aren’t. And then there are companies that are contractors that are just not even registered. They’re just totally off the radar. And so with them, of course, you can’t know what’s going on.

But based on what we saw going on at the big companies, which are some real problems, and given the nature of the industry and how scattered it is, you see that it’s hard to sort of keep tabs on all of your employees. And you can see how something like this would happen.

“These are some of the most invisible workers, and they are also some of the most vulnerable …”

We tried to engage with the companies because we wanted to understand these challenges that they have. If they’re based in one city and they have contracts all over the country, how are they managing all of those sites? What kind of training do they give their HR department? And we were really hoping to understand from their point of view why this might be really hard. Unfortunately the biggest company just wouldn’t engage with us on that level. And so we had to piece together what was going on internally based on depositions and testimony and whatever records were presented as exhibits to get a picture.

Sasha Khokha: One challenge here is not only that employers keep confidential records or sometimes settle with people making complaints before they even get to the legal system, but also that government agencies aren’t keeping track of this. So there’s no government data. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can respond to complaints of sexual harassment after the fact, and we did feature in our documentary a significant case that the EEOC brought involving 21 female janitors in one class-action suit, but in terms of the workplace agencies that are there to protect health and safety on the job, they’re not really looking at this — this is not on their radar screen.

What do you hope the takeaway will be from this story?

Sasha Khokha: We started this with our work with farm workers, which is really just to shine a light on a segment of the population whose work benefits all of us, yet who’s been missing from the national conversation around sexual assault. And we are all implicated in this story because many of us occupy the buildings that janitors clear during the night — whether its office buildings, hospitals, airports, courthouses. So I think this is a population that is intentionally supposed to be invisible, they are supposed to be just vacuuming up our crumbs and taking out our garbage and doing it in a way that’s not intrusive or visible. So I think part of it is just being aware and having people ask questions about the cleaning companies that do take care of the building they work in and what policies they have to make sure their workers are safe.

Bernice Yeung: These are some of the most invisible workers, and they are also some of the most vulnerable for a variety of reasons having to do with immigration status, language barriers, low-wage work, work done in isolation — it’s just a workforce that can get overlooked and there are a number of potential risks that they are facing in doing their work. It would be great if people started thinking and talking about the people who are working around them and doing a lot of really important work to kind of keep our lives and businesses humming.

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