In the first week of my first journalism class at community college, I was told, as so many students are, never use first person. Never say “I.” The story is not about you.
Using “this reporter” is not a work-around. Stay out of the story, no matter what. And also: Spell everyone’s name right, don’t use passive voice, and don’t screw up the reporting.
Everything I needed to know about journalism, I learned in that first week.
Shortly after starting school, I went out on assignment to interview a guy running a local access TV show in a rural area of California. The tiny studio was housed in a barn with electricity. I didn’t know what exactly running a cable TV show entailed, and it seemed like a fun story (more fun than, say, my incomprehensible visit to the mainframe in the computer studies wing of the science building, and not understanding what bits and bytes were).
I drove out to the boonies and soon was scrawling in my new Reporter’s Notebook. I was on the staff of the college tabloid, getting my first bylines, learning to ask better questions than “Who’s your favorite teacher?” But I was confused by technology like the computer lab or the TV station in those analog days. I didn’t have a larger frame of reference — no iPhone, no laptop — like today’s new journalists do. (Realize that the student newspaper was still using typewriters for stories, a darkroom for photos and light tables for paste-up. We manually counted points for heds. There was no Google, only the Yellow Pages.)
The TV guy showed me around, pointed out the equipment, nattered on about how great it was to run a cable station, and then invited me to the comfy couch to finish the interview. I sat down to ask a few more not-so-probing questions, and then he put his arm along the back of the sofa toward me and said, “How about a neck rub?”
What would you have said? I was 18 and in my first semester of college. I was a good girl who did what she was asked, including going out to a remote barn alone with a man I had never met before — without a cell phone.
I said, “Uh, ok.” He laid his head in my lap and I massaged his neck. Was I weirded out? Completely. Did I want to get out of there? Absolutely. But I didn’t know how to say no to a command from an adult yet, and I was trying to learn the ropes in this new world of journalism. Maybe this was part of the job.
Lucky for me, he had enough neck rub after a few minutes and wanted to go somewhere for a drink, but I said the equivalent of, “I think I hear my mom calling.” I wasn’t 21 and couldn’t drink, and I had to get the car home or I’d get in trouble. That adherence to the rules is probably what saved me from more than a neck rub.
I didn’t tell anyone at home or at the student newspaper about the incident because it didn’t occur to me in 1981 that there was anything that wrong with him asking. I had already been exposed to bad behavior from a couple of creeps on the local transit going to and from college — you’d put your backpack on the seat next to you and pray that Andy wouldn’t get on the bus. And that he wouldn’t sit next to you. And if he did, that he wouldn’t pin you in the corner and try to grab your boobs or your ass — which he did every single time. It was just a hazard of riding the No. 70 bus to Santa Rosa, any day of the week.
Two years later, I transferred to San Francisco State, where in my news-writing class, the professor asked if there was anything we had learned from our reporting so far that we wanted to share with other students. I raised my hand and boldly said that female students should be careful going alone to interviews because of the neck rub incident, explaining what had happened to me. And for the rest of that semester, the professor insisted on asking me for a neck rub as often as he could. It was a joke the whole class enjoyed.
Things hadn’t changed a few months later when a fellow journalism student, who’d come over to do homework, sexually assaulted me from behind in my own apartment. I didn’t pursue any police action, and I certainly didn’t tell the school or the student newspaper; I’d already seen what could happen to people who tell.
In the 30 years since then, how much have things changed? Is it safe for female reporters to go out into the world in search of stories, and do they come back unscathed? Whether something inappropriate like a neck rub, or worse like blatant sex acts, is she allowed to leave unscathed? And when she tells someone about it, is she greeted with scoffs and bawdy jokes and taunted about the incident for as long as it amuses the crew? Does talking about it affect her career?
I’ve pondered the questions endlessly over the years, as a freelancer, a reporter, an editor and an author — that “What should I have done, what would I do next time?” conundrum. And I always come back to: I wouldn’t tell. I might fight, scream, swear or drink heavily afterward — or refuse to cover their story. But would I tell? Would I write about it? I haven’t yet — until now.
Flashbacks of the neck-rub incident and the assault at my apartment came up for me as I read of the Bill Cosby rape accusations and the victims’ hounding in the media. The Rolling Stone article about rape at the University of Virginia, and the fallout after Rolling Stone had to retract parts of its story because of its incomplete reporting, has a similar result: excoriating the victim’s choices, intelligence and intentions.
Coincidentally, shortly after my own assault, another student said she was raped on campus, and one of our staffers reported on the incident. But the campus police couldn’t corroborate her story. There were no witnesses, and she dropped out of sight. After reporting her assault in the paper one week, the next week we had to recant. The experience led the entire journalism program into discussions about how not to be duped by subjects of a story, and how to pursue due diligence in reporting from every source. Truth — and trust — is everything in reporting the news.
Of course, that only underscored my fear of telling my story. Not only would I be exposed, but I would be cross-examined — By a reporter! By an editor! By the copy desk! By whoever sought to poke holes in my narrative in case I was lying. And could I blame them? Who wants to be the reporter caught not doing his or her job? Even if doing that job (or my homework) got me raped?
It took me a while to say what happened, even in therapy. As a journalist, it was OK to tell stories, just not your own. I got the interviews, wrote the stories, got my assignments in by deadline. And I kept quiet, which is what the perpetrators wanted, and what society still seems to want: strong women who focus on the work, who get the job done and don’t talk about what might have happened.
I understand completely how the Cosby women did not have the guts or the stamina to tell their stories back when it happened. I do believe something bad happened to Jackie, the University of Virginia student; but, traumatized, she couldn’t tell it or told it badly. And with Rolling Stone’s ham-fisted reporting, her shot at justice is as good as gone. It doesn’t take much to assault the victim again in the press.
Telling your secret may seem like the path to a book or a movie deal, but that doesn’t usually happen to average people. Rape, though, happens to average folks — to about 20 percent of all women, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Statistically speaking, you’re sitting in an office or a subway car with a handful of assault victims. You just can’t tell by looking at them.
It’s taken a long time for me to start talking about it, to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, because it isn’t an easy story to tell. My story, if not on the front page, is written into my body — in my refusal to walk the neighborhood alone after dark, in the way I startle violently when surprised, in my loathing of elevators and stairwells where people stand behind me. My story is written under my skin as permanently as the quill pen tattooed on my sacrum.
Have things changed since I started journalism classes? When I see the #yesallwomen hashtag and the #nomeansno campaign, I hope that the tide is turning. My four daughters — feminists, all of them — have so far escaped the statistics; their stories are still unfurling.
Only now — three decades later — this reporter is beginning to tell what happened, reopening old wounds. Because it turns out my first professors were wrong. Sometimes you have to become part of the story to change it. And you have to face down the fear of telling to step toward true healing. And I consider that a good ending.
What would you have done if you were in my shoes, back before cell phones or Twitter-shaming or hashtags to share your feels? Whom would you have told? How would your story have been different — or would it? And — be honest — how many of you journalists, male or female, haven’t told your stories yet?
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Julia Park Tracey is a reporter, blogger and author from Northern California. She is the founding editor of the Alameda Sun newspaper and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express and Thrillist. On Twitter: @juliaparktracey