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2018 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

On the Fire Line

An investigation into rape, harassment and retaliation in the U.S. Forest Service

 

About the Project

Amid the flood of #MeToo stories this year, the PBS NewsHour launched a monthslong investigation of sexual harassment and rape in a field far removed from the rich and famous. This digital package examined a longstanding culture of harassment and assault in the ranks of the U.S. Forest Service, which employs 30,000 people, nearly a third of them women. The story took a particular focus on the misconduct faced by female firefighters. It also laid bare a less-talked-about aspect of harassment: the retaliation that follows when women report.

The initial story, “They reported sexual harassment. Then the retaliation began,” featured a powerful longform written piece with graphics, looping videos and still photos to capture the experience of women firefighters in the agency, as well as a 12-minute video report that aired on the PBS NewsHour broadcast. The piece was a result of four months of reporting and 100 hours of interviews with 34 current and former U.S. Forest Service women, spanning 13 states.

Just days after the story published, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service (who the NewsHour reported was also facing harassment allegations) resigned from his position. The U.S. Forest Service appointed a female firefighter as its new chief and undertook a review of its harassment and retaliation policies. A Forest Service statement acknowledged the impact of the work: “The stories the Forest Service employees shared during the ‘PBS NewsHour’ piece are important to hear, difficult and heart-wrenching as they may be. Stories like these have underscored that there are elements of sexual harassment in the Forest Service that have existed and continue today. We acknowledge that we have more work to do.”

The Forest Service also promised sweeping changes in response to the story, which have now begun to go into effect. These include listening sessions with employees, standardized harassment training across the entire Service, stricter reporting procedures, and employing outside investigators to look into misconduct because of mistrust in the process.

Since the stories published, the NewsHour has received hundreds of emails to its anonymous tip line from Forest Service employees thanking the NewsHour for the investigation and sharing their own stories of harassment and retaliation in the service.