Expert Commentary

How they did it: A reporter-researcher partnership deepens public understanding of untested rape kits in Cleveland

An informal, collaborative partnership between reporter Rachel Dissell and sociologist Rachel Lovell reveals not just how, but why so many rape kits went untested in Cleveland.

(The Noun Project)

Rape kits often went untested in Cleveland before police there discovered the remains of 11 women in late October 2009 at the home of serial rapist and killer Anthony Sowell, who was sentenced to death in 2011.

Rachel Dissell, then a reporter with the Plain Dealer, covered the story from the start, at a time when even rape kits submitted for testing were not always processed for DNA evidence.

In the five years before the remains were found, only one-quarter of sexual assault reports had been forwarded for felony prosecution, Dissell and her then-reporting partner, Leila Atassi, learned. They revealed that although 860 rape allegations had been reported to Cleveland police in 1993, 300 rape kits from that year were languishing untested more than a decade later.

Following reporting from Dissell and Atassi, then-Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty in 2013 started a task force to begin testing untested rape kits. From 1993 through 2011, about 7,000 rape kits had gone untested.

Rape kits are made up of physical evidence that medical professionals collect from victims following a sexual assault. Lab practitioners consider the police report and victim’s statement to decide which evidence to test — to narrow down which evidence is most likely to have biological material from the perpetrator.

Law enforcement agencies around the country did not widely use the national criminal DNA database until the early-2000s. Congress authorized the database in 1994, but “it took years to build up the number of profiles in the database,” according to a 2019 National Institute of Justice report.

McGinty invited Dissell and Atassi into the room where the task force discussed cases. Alongside the reporters was a team of academic researchers, including sociologist Rachel Lovell, now a research assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University who studies sexual assault. The researchers were there to help parse the data and identify trends. They had access to police and forensic reports, and created a database of untested rape kits.

“We’ve now accumulated, I think, the best database on sexual assault in the United States that has the level of detail that we do,” Lovell says.

Direct access to the task force ended in 2017 when a new prosecutor took over. But what followed from initially being in the room was an informal, collaborative partnership between Dissell and Lovell that lasted throughout the decade. Their partnership revealed not just how, but why so many rape kits had gone untested in Cleveland since the early 1990s.

“Despite their differences, researchers and reporters can have more than a brief, transactional relationship,” Dissell and Lovell write in “Dissemination and Impact Amplified: How a Researcher–Reporter Collaboration Helped Improve the Criminal Justice Response to Victims With Untested Sexual Assault Kits,” published March 2021 in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. “When fostered, the relationship can be symbiotic — where there is a cross-learning of each other’s craft and where dissemination and impact are amplified for the greater good.”

Dissell and Lovell sat next to each other during task force meetings and compared notes. They asked questions of each other that spurred new reporting and research directions. They went out to dinner to process what they were learning. They explored themes in the cases, like rapes occurring near transit stations, which law enforcement officials had overlooked. Their interactions over years informed both Dissell’s reporting in the Plain Dealer and Lovell’s analyses of task force cases.

Eventually, the rape kit tests led to hundreds of convictions in Cuyahoga County, but, by the mid-2010s, only a few dozen across the rest of Ohio. With help from Lovell, Dissell developed the Ohio Rape Kit Survey Project, launched in August 2017. More than 100 community volunteers surveyed nearly 300 Ohio law enforcement agencies on whether and how they followed up once rape kits were tested.

I recently spoke with Lovell and Dissell about what they learned from each other and how partnerships like theirs can inform the public in ways researchers and reporters can’t on their own.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • Journalism is often urgent and deadline-driven. Research takes time. Exploring how and why social and cultural systems developed can inform the public in deeper ways than the news cycle usually allows.
  • Both jobs can lead to secondary trauma — trauma from engaging with victims and survivors who directly experienced trauma. “The main mechanism for people to deal with secondary trauma is having a mechanism for processing it,” Lovell says. “And it’s literally being able to verbalize it.” For Dissell and Lovell, their partnership was an outlet to process secondary trauma.  
  • Researchers can help journalists learn to put their work into the bigger picture.
  • Journalists can help researchers learn to highlight aspects of their work that will have a greater public impact.
  • Journalists should add researchers to their roster of sources and build relationships with them.
  • Researchers should get to know what local reporters are covering and their interests — and build relationships with them.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Clark Merrefield: You write in your paper that the researcher-reporter partnership is “vital for curating more accurate, contextualized depictions of sex crimes.” Why is this type of partnership particularly vital toward achieving that goal?

Rachel Dissell: Journalists are translators for the community. You have to have relationships, right? If we have trusted relationships, you can be a better translator for the community. In a situation like this, it was even more unique because we were all learning as we went. This is a word I learned from researchers, in situ, it was happening as we went. We were all kind of having these fresh learning moments and then discussing and digesting them and what they meant as this process went along.

Rachel Lovell: Rachel always says it shorter and better than I do — I think that’s being the reporter. Most of my interactions with reporters have often been to cover a story based on my research and I’m giving a soundbite. Then [the story] goes out and there’s not a lot of conversation or dialogue about it. It’s really just like, “Here, let me tell you the story. Let me help you find the human angle.” Then they move on. Or, they’re writing about some terrible rapist and the research that I have done provides some insight. Both are great approaches, but they don’t provide the ability to really form, as Rachel said, those relationships or really be able to influence each other. I could see that how she was digesting information and spitting it back to me was useful and helping me have the better picture of what this means and what I should be striving to do with the research.

Merrefield: What’s one big thing you each learned from the other during your partnership?

Rachel Dissell
Rachel Dissell. (Tim Harrison)

Dissell: I learned a lot about how to think about systems in context. Reporters are often looking at things situationally. Through conversations with Rachel, I was learning different ways to contextualize things. For instance, when we were talking about why sexual assault cases got closed, we were always doing this deeper “Why?” conversation. Rachel’s was always, “Why does this happen in the world of this culture?” And mine was like, “We need to explain this to the community, of how and why this happened.” At one point, she came up with a really good way to visualize this, as like a conveyor belt. She was trying to think of all the reasons that the conveyor belt wasn’t working properly. You know, in journalism we often want to be like, “This system is broken, someone should fix it.” But that’s not enough. We have to go deeper into why and how it got broken and what does that mean in society and culture — if we want to get to the point where people are like, “Yes, this needs to be changed.” I felt like some of that deeper exploration helped us explain how things could actually be fixed.

Lovell: I tell this story, and Rachel always laughs. But one of the first times I met her, we were having lunch. Sometimes academics get — sometimes undeserved — but they get this kind of reverence. But leave it to reporters to be like, “Not enough, what else. What else do you know?” It’s that dig. In a way, that was really useful to me. She was like, “Ok, well, what else? What are you going to do with this?”

Dissell: I’m not that mean!

Lovell: No, not in a mean way! But in a reporter way that was like, “What else? What else?” And I was like, “I don’t know what else. But let me also think on that because those are great questions that no one else is asking me.” And then, I would say definitely with my writing. Some of the first [white papers] Rachel read from this project, she was just like, “Your headlines are buried at the end,” and, “Let’s get a little bit out of your comfort zone and make some bigger statements.”

Dissell: One of the things I kept thinking about was that this felt like such an urgent thing in the community. Journalism can feel so urgent, which is the opposite of research. I think each of us pulled the other in a different direction in terms of, “How can we tell the community what they need to know and what is useful now that we feel pretty confident, based on the research.” Rachel was able to think along the lines of, there’s so much more long-term change and so much more nuance that we need. That won’t be in a daily news story, but it can be really important for the community.

From the beginning of this, sitting in a courtroom and watching jury selection, very few people even knew what a sexual assault kit was, to four years into it, sitting in a room during jury selection, everyone knew what it was. That took a lot of little stories, but also coming back and telling the public what meaning we were getting out of this. We did several stories that were just like, “Here are several things we’ve learned from this information.” That’s not something reporting alone could have done because it was very deep statistical stuff that we had to make sure was right. But we were able to come back and say, “We now know this about how the perpetrators acted here.”

Every week, we were both in this room as this task force did its work and we were thinking different things. It was very organic, like, “Hey, did you notice a lot of cases they’ve mentioned in the past couple weeks involved a bus stop?” I would be like, “Feels like there’s something there.” And then Rachel would be like, “Well, we could look at that. And we have a lot of data. We can see how often these reports mention a bus stop.”

Merrefield: You meeting and getting to know each other through the task force was coincidental, in the sense that without the task force you might not have met. Can researchers and reporters form more intentional collaborations? Or, was there something about the coincidental nature of your meeting that was fundamental to your work together?

Dissell: I think it could be done more, for sure, if people can get over institutional barriers and traditional barriers. We’re all smart enough to set our boundaries and know what our own ethics are.

One thing I think a lot about is that research is very de-identified. Journalism must be more human in certain ways. So we have this gap. When we can link really good, human-centered narratives with research that explains the larger things behind that, that’s one thing I think can be done more intentionally.

Lovell: Most social science researchers, they’re passionate about their research. They find it the most important thing ever. So they want to get that information out. I would strongly encourage reporters to have those key people, those key researchers in areas they’re covering, especially researchers who want to do more applied work. And then the same thing for researchers: Get to know reporters. Get to know their beats. Get to know what they’d be interested in covering.  

Dissell: Also, reporters can ask for information differently than researchers can. Researchers have these formalized partnerships and they take forever, although they have great outcomes because you often get a lot more information. Whereas reporters are like, “I’m just going to put in the public records request and get that.”

This was all in the furtherance of learning about this pretty important topic. I don’t know — maybe this isn’t for every kind of partnership, but this is some really horrible stuff. These are hundreds and thousands of reports on people who are physically attacked. And each of us digesting those and then also being able to have those moments where you’re like, “This is horrible. Did you read that?” You know? And having someone else that actually read it and understood it.

Merrefield: I wanted to ask about secondary trauma. Do you have tips for journalists and researchers covering and analyzing these horrible things that happened to other people? Sounds like having this partnership was helpful.

Rachel Lovell.

Lovell: It’s actually one of the things that, overall, researchers don’t talk about so much. But it certainly impacts us. I think reporters have that same stiff upper lip sort of thing. Both disciplines have that culture. But there’s no way you can take in information like this and not have it impact you. You’re not going to walk out at the back end of it the same person you walked in. That’s OK — as long as you’re willing to acknowledge that it changes you. At the point that it’s no longer affecting you at all, maybe it’s time to transition or take a break, which actually happens quite a bit.

When the trauma is secondary, it often doesn’t come in the same way as if you were the one experiencing it. It creeps in, in ways that you’re not quite expecting. So some days, you’re walking in a parking lot and all of a sudden you feel this great sense of anxiety and stress that is not proportionate to whatever’s around. There’s no risk. Then you’re like, “Oh, I remember this rape report I read that started off like this.” You’re like — shit, that’s creeping in.

On the team that I lead we started a book club, to have opportunities to process things. I also had training provided around vicarious trauma, and there are standardized assessments for it, as well as strong research on how to mitigate the secondary trauma. I was bringing this back to Rachel and being like —

Dissell: — why don’t you read this chapter and come to our book club? I’ve done a lot of training with the Dart Center [at Columbia Journalism School]. So I have a lot of trauma training and trauma interviewing training and neurobiology of trauma training. I think, especially for journalists, it is harder to step away and harder to have boundaries. Your job feels very urgent. The problems feel very urgent. Nobody that you work with is like, “Oh, it seems like this is affecting you. Maybe you should step away.” That conversation often does not happen in newsrooms. I think it’s starting to happen more now with younger journalists. That’s really, really good. I do think being able to process with someone that understands is really important.

One thing I have been thinking about recently is that we focus a lot on the exposure to the actual material. I’ve interviewed probably hundreds of people that have been victims of violent crime. I can listen and process and set a boundary for letting that information sit somewhere else.

But the part that was always hardest for me is what I’ve now learned is called moral injury. The fact that you know all of this information and you feel like your job is to help make [the situation] better or do something about it. The conversations Rachel and I had where I was feeling the worst were where I was like, “We’ve given people all this information! They know how to fix these problems! Why aren’t they doing it?” Being able to share those frustrations and talk about, “What else? What else can we bring up? How do we talk about this in a way that makes sense to people?” That has made me feel a little bit better. Because just writing stories about people’s harm doesn’t change things. But having concrete things like, “This is a way. This can be done better.” That feels more helpful.

Lovell: The main mechanism for people to deal with secondary trauma is having a mechanism for processing it. And it’s literally being able to verbalize it. The first reaction is often to do it with those that are close to you. For example, I was telling my husband this stuff and he doesn’t work in this field. Then I realized, “OK, well, that’s not the place to process this.” Both disciplines really need to work in this space and be able to talk through that together in a way that didn’t feel like it was on the record. If you have this larger mission or purpose, that helps to contextualize that secondary trauma.

Dissell: I remember halfway through, when the task force was doing its work, folks who run the crime lab where they were testing all the kits were saying their people were burning out at an alarming rate. Their first reaction was like, “Well, they’re just opening boxes and running tests. Why are they burning out so much?” But they were also reading portions of crime narratives and rape narratives to figure out what to test. It was interesting. For the first time ever that I had seen in law enforcement, they took a day, went down to the lab and had the detectives and prosecutors share some of the success stories and reactions from survivors to  getting the information that they had wanted and needed. Folks in the lab were like, “Oh my gosh. We couldn’t see what was on the other side of this.” Being able to see that end effect is really important.

Merrefield: Timothy McGinty was Cuyahoga County Prosecutor at the time. He’s perhaps best well known for criticism of how he handled the 2014 police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. But, he’s a party to your partnership in the sense that he had the task force conduct its business in a pretty remarkably public way.

Dissell: He was just crazy enough to let both of us in the room. I would say that to him, too. In his mind, he was like, “What do I have to lose? We’re failing at this and we’re not going to fail more if people are watching us.” I also think he thought people needed to know what this work is. And it was definitely a risk because at any point Rachel could have pointed out every flaw they had. Or they could have failed horrifically at prosecuting these cases and I would have written about that. But I think his bet was that the community understanding what was happening with the failures and how it could change was more important. And, frankly, he got more funding because people were more aware of the problem. Had a lot of stories and white papers not been coming out about serial rapists, that task force probably would have shut down five years ago.

I also had to have at least a couple conversations with them along the lines of, “You just need to keep in mind that I don’t work for you. I’m not on your team, but I am in the room. I get that you could kick me out of the room. But that’s going to look bad if you do that.”

Lovell: On the research side, it’s more of a formalized partnership. But, eventually, we both got kicked out of the room. So I guess that tells you a lot about that. I think Tim’s calculus was correct. I wish more politicians would have that. You can’t always craft the story. You don’t own it like these victims do. It’s their stories. You don’t get to always craft and manipulate the message.

I’ve talked with him several times recently. We’ve seen him quite a bit, I guess, in the last year. Whatever “recent” is. COVID makes “recent” feel like both 10 years [ago] and yesterday. I guess back when we were seeing people. I think he just greatly values research. Not for a pursuit of knowledge, but I think he sees the value in being able to use research to support an initiative like this. Or sort of say, “Well, the research says this, so I’m going to switch gears,” or whatever. You can really use it to elevate policy.

Merrefield: I wanted to go back to something that was mentioned earlier, this trend you found of “in-transit” assaults. The ones that occurred while survivors were walking to or from a bus stop or train station. How did each of your particular skills serve to reveal that trend and how did that part of the story grow?

Lovell: It was from sitting at those task force meetings. The prosecutors would be talking about cases that were about to go up for trial and they would present a summary of the case. And transit was coming up quite a bit. Prior to me getting on this, Rachel and another reporter had done coding of 300 cases —

Dissell: — I don’t even know if you would call it coding. It was like a spreadsheet with us manually entering lots of details and trying to find meaning. The task force, at that point, they weren’t like, “Oh, let’s assign all the bus stop ones to someone.” They were just giving summaries and then not really connecting those things. Because if you look at a police report, there was nothing that said, “This is a bus stop.” They just had an address or it was in the narrative sometimes.

But when you’re sitting in a room, hearing it out loud — or, they would have projected on the screen these bullet points [explaining details about the alleged assaults]. And you’d be like, “How do you not see that?” But they were all different prosecutors, different detectives working on them. They were just very much focused on each case: “What can we do to win this case?”

Rachel put them on a map and coded them and came up with some really interesting things that I never would have been able to imagine pulling out of the data.

Lovell: I think you provided us the opportunity to elevate our data because we’ve now accumulated, I think, the best database on sexual assault in the United States that has the level of detail that we do. A third of cases are in transit, where victims were walking or waiting or moving. They’re normally characterized as “outside rapes” or “stranger rapes.” But those are actually very different kinds of things. They have different risks. They have different characteristics. The perpetrators do things differently. That has a much larger context for what the public’s role is in this. If women are just existing in space — you know, “I’m going to the grocery store. I’m walking home from school” — then we have a much larger role in the safety of that space while also trying not to stigmatize certain communities, particularly communities of color in Cleveland. [In-transit rapes] are heavily disproportionately in communities of color. In Cleveland that means primarily African American. 

Dissell: That reminds me, we were sitting at a conference and I had pulled up this lead poisoning map because I was working on a series on lead poisoning. And we were talking about, “Huh, this is interesting. I wonder how this aligns with these cold cases that weren’t solved.”

Lovell: Literally, we both had our laptops out and I’m like, “What’s your map?” And you’re like, “Lead poisoning. What’s your map?” And it’s like, “Rape kits.” And we’re like, “Shit — those are the same map.” Now we’re digging even deeper and have found all these risk factors, increases in rates for individuals walking and waiting.

Our relationship, for sure, is unique. But if other folks have that sort of comfort level and if reporters have the time to do investigative stuff, I think that lends itself very much to these types of partnerships.

Merrefield: The last thing I wanted to ask I thought was really interesting, among many things, was the 2017 survey conducted in large part with community volunteers. How did that come about?

Dissell: Honestly, it was born out of desperation. In Cleveland, we were keeping such close track of what was happening with these cases. There was an open question of, what’s happening everywhere else? People would call me all the time and be like, “What’s happening with all these kits?” And I was like, “I am one human in one newsroom. I don’t know. I know what’s happening in Cleveland.”

“Well, what’s happening in Columbus? What’s happening in Cincinnati? What’s happening in the suburbs?” We could see in the data that the largest proportion of cases being solved or prosecuted were in Cleveland. So we knew the same thing wasn’t happening everywhere, either around the country or around Ohio.

Finally, I was talking to my bosses and was just like, “I cannot call all these police departments. It will take me a year.” And, actually, I had a friend who had done some community participatory research. Their research was very simple, it was around condom availability, and they were like, “Well, we just get a bunch of people together and train them. Then we send them into stores and they collect the information, all in the same way.” I was like, “I wonder if we could do that?” And it became a lot more complicated because it was dealing with law enforcement and some pretty technical stuff about sexual assault kits. But I think we figured, “There’s not a lot to lose, right?” The government wasn’t gathering this data. Nobody was gathering it. So we put out a call for volunteers. And we were shocked at how many people wanted to help.

Then we came up with the materials. Here’s some background information. Here’s the types of questions we’re going to ask. Here’s why. But we also knew the questions had to be very structured so the information we got was useful. That’s when I was kind of like, “Rachel, so how can we ask these questions of law enforcement in a way that is useful?” Because if we ask them what they have done with their rape kits, we weren’t going to get sufficient information. We wanted to draw meaning. Why have they made certain decisions? I think we would have had a 100-question survey if we could have, but we whittled it down to, what, 20? 25 questions?

Then we made it the work of the volunteers to be persistent and do follow-up. Anyone who has ever done reporting knows that the most tedious part is asking someone a bunch of times for something and keeping up with them. So we basically had all these helpers to call and remind [law enforcement agencies] and be like, “Oh, you know you didn’t finish your survey.” And they were really motivated. They thought this information needed to be out there. We made a Facebook group and we would report back to the group, “So and so got one.” People got excited. It’s kind of a cool thing. We were able to look at the data and draw not all the conclusions, but some. Once we got information, we shared it with other newspapers around the state. So we collaborated with some of the other newspapers.

The other thing that made me really comfortable is that we had two pools of volunteers. We had one pool that solicited the surveys and another pool that their job was just to verify. Verify your police chief filled this out. From the reporter kind of ethical sense, we had a system for making sure that this was correct.

Lovell: I think what’s unique is the social science part of it, especially in the field of sexual assault. Part of being a victim of sexual violence is having that control taken away from you. Having control and having a voice is a core part of a survivor’s journey to healing. And many of the volunteers were survivors of sexual assault, they were family members of survivors — they were people who really wanted to be engaged. I think that also helps give that important meaning and value to people who were really passionate about doing this. I thought it was a really great idea. It was a lot of work to organize them.

Legal and other support services for victims and survivors of sexual violence include SurvJustice, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and RAINN.

For more information on covering sexual violence, learn why sexual assault survivors may not come forward for years, the economic costs of sexual violence and three themes from national news coverage of three sexual assaults.

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