The “Unheard” project by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica represents a new kind of partnership between journalist and source, and a new benchmark for survivor-focused reporting on sexual violence.
Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault and child sex abuse in the nation. Yet for generations it has been an unspoken epidemic. Predators have assumed, often correctly, that victims would remain silent or no one would listen.
That is where we began. By listening.
Over the past two years, our newsrooms have spoken with hundreds of survivors of abuse and rape. As the journalists got to know the survivors, we asked some if they would be interested in being part of a first-of-its-kind story sharing collective.
We recognized that as reporters, these were not our stories to tell. They belonged to the survivors.
Ultimately, we partnered with 29 women and men of different races and socio-economic backgrounds, some indigenous and some not, all seeking to inspire change and de-stigmatize being a survivor of sexual violence.
We invited them to take an unprecedented role in creation of the work, beginning by discussing every step of the publication process and deferring to the survivors’ wishes whenever possible. Each woman and man was photographed in a place of their choosing, surrounded by people they love, if they wished, and wearing clothing such as traditional Alaska Native regalia representing the story they wished to share. All told, Daily News photographers traveled 10,000 miles to make the portraits; symbolically and geographically making every effort to “meet the subjects where they are.”
Each story and portrait was presented online the same day, on a single web page. Participants could share a link to their individual story if they liked, but we did not share the individual stories separately online or in social media in order to avoid doxxing and to respect survivors who wished to be presented as part of a collective. (We did write some longer profiles that ran separately, with survivors’ permission.)
In every case, we upheld the highest standards of our newsrooms. Every detail in every portrait was fact-checked, corroborated and sourced. Sometimes our journalists were the first person to ever confront the abuser or assailant about the attack. Some survivors became active in the investigations themselves, helping to request key documents from law enforcement.
Among the lasting images from the Unheard project is a blank front page that appeared after the stories ran in print every day throughout June 2020.
On July 1, when the ADN arrived on doorsteps and grocery store newsstands across Alaska, Page One was left intentionally empty. An unmarked canvas except for a few words near the fold:
“Talking about rape and sexual assault is difficult. Many survivors may not be in a position to do so right now. This space is dedicated to those not ready to share. We’re leaving this open for you.”
One reader said she kept the blank front page and on it wrote, by hand, the story of her sexual assault.