Katie J.M. Baker is a reporter for BuzzFeed News who has spent much of her career engaged in investigative coverage of sexual assault. Dating back to her time at Jezebel, Baker’s work has consistently uncovered institutional injustices regarding sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexual assault. Over the course of 2016, Baker’s groundbreaking work for BuzzFeed News has set a new standard for rigor and empathy, initiating a shift in the way the media reports on sexual assault cases and survivors’ stories. Notably, her investigation of the Baltimore County Police Department revealed widespread mishandling of rape reports and led to calls for changes in policy by Maryland state lawmakers. Baker also published the full text of the courtroom statement from the woman assaulted by Brock Turner, a member of the Stanford university swim team. The letter went viral and sparked a national conversation about the judicial system’s role in managing the aftermath of assault for perpetrators and survivors alike. What follows is an edited interview with Katie Baker.
CPCJ: Katie Baker, you are a national reporter for BuzzFeed News, and the majority of your work this year has been on sexual assault, though you’ve been covering sexual assault stories for far longer, going back to your time at Newsweek and Jezebel. Can you start off by describing how you made this a beat for yourself?
Katie Baker: I covered reproductive health and other women’s issues before, but when I started working at Jezebel in 2012, I wanted to pick a new beat. I settled on campus sexual assault, since I wasn’t too many years out of college and had always found it really fascinating how colleges have their own police and courts and can thus create and enforce their own laws, so to speak. In 2011, the US Department of Education sent out the Dear Colleague letter on sexual violence to colleges about their obligations under Title IX, so more schools were facing Title IX complaints, but no one really knew what Title IX was yet. In many ways, Title IX is an exciting, important statute —the goal is to make our educational spaces free of sex and gender discrimination —but in practice it can be a confusing disaster for both accusers and the accused, and I wanted to figure out why. Now, campus sexual assault is a national issue, but back then there was very little awareness.
CPCJ: What do you think has changed in 2016 in the way in which members of the media and the larger public talk about sexual assault, and how do you approach this in your writing?
KB: Reporters and the general public are more willing to take reports of sexual violence seriously, even when there’s no “perfect” victim. For a long time, the only sexual assault stories the media covered were very clear-cut, but increasingly more reporters are willing to delve into complicated stories with nuance. I think that’s fantastic, because I always try to elevate the gray area in my reporting, rather than ignore it.
CPCJ: What kinds of issues are important to be aware of when you’re dealing with this gray area?
KB: I feel strongly about encouraging people to challenge their own assumptions around sexual violence. For example, I wrote a feature on Juanita Broaddrick, a 73-year-old woman who accused Bill Clinton of rape. Obviously, the stories of women who have accused Donald Trump of sexual misconduct need to be heard, but I was personally drawn to Juanita Broaddrick because she wasn’t getting any mainstream media coverage. Just because you are a Republican or support a Republican candidate doesn’t mean you weren’t raped, in the same way that just because you didn’t call the police doesn’t mean that you weren’t raped —it all comes back to challenging the idea of whose rape allegations deserve to be listened to and reported on.
CPCJ: The idea of the perfect victim is problematic, as we witnessed with the backlash to Rolling Stone’s retracted story on a University of Virginia gang-rape incident, titled “A Rape on Campus.” What’s important for media to respond to in the wake of this journalistic failure?
KB: With the UVA case, I think the reporter wanted to find the perfect story and, as I’ve said, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” victim. If the reporter hadn’t been so set on a clear-cut narrative, perhaps she wouldn’t have failed to see the holes in her source’s story. I really don’t think that reporting on sexual assault should be harder than reporting on any other type of trauma. It’s more than possible to be respectful and empathetic while also fact-checking. If someone doesn’t want to be fact-checked, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lying, but it does mean they shouldn’t be interviewed by the media. If someone is too traumatized to remember facts, they’re not the right subject for a reported piece.
CPCJ: How do you go about reporting on the story in the fairest way possible?
KB: Before I start the interviewing process, I make sure I give my source a clear idea of what I’m going to need from them in order to do my job —that I have to contact the accused and that I’m going to have to go through very personal documents in order to corroborate their story. I understand why people want to be sensitive around victims of sexual violence, but it’s possible to make your source feel comfortable while also doing your job. The reactions can be different in the interview process. I’ve had sources have panic attacks, some people want to laugh and joke, and some people cry. Either way, I try to combine empathy with professionalism, which is not easy, but it is necessary.
One thing I like about reporting on institutions is that there’s always a paper trail. In these stories, you can focus less on lurid details of the assault and ask questions about institutional injustice: “When did you report this to the school, and why did they ignore you?”
CPCJ: Probably one of the biggest media moments this year was BuzzFeed publishing the entire Stanford victim’s letter to Brock Turner. The post went viral, and impact was not lost because you chose to publish the entire letter, rather than quote parts of it. What do these types of stories contribute to public discourse?
KB: I posted the letter in its entirety because it was this beautifully written, emotionally wrenching description of how hard it is not only to be sexually assaulted but to report it, even if you’re in the tiny minority of victims who has a “successful” outcome. Her story shows that even if you get a trial, and even if your attacker is found guilty, it can still ruin your life to go through this process, which is why victims often don’t report.
CPCJ: Your body of work this year brings up a lot of important questions as to how institutions at various levels deal with sexual assault, whether you are questioning if a world-famous ethicist crosses the line with his students, what happens when rape culture trickles down to high schools, how women in LA’s comedy scene react to sexual harassment, or what happens when police fail to investigate rape cases seriously. What has your trajectory been like in reporting these stories?
KB: I tried to cover the full spectrum of what women are experiencing now in regards to sexual violence. I think there is a lot of community organizing going on, which is why I wanted to write “Standing Up to Sexual Harassment and Assault in L.A.’s Comedy Scene." These female comedians couldn’t report to the police because their allegations weren’t all “criminal”—it was more complicated than that. They weren’t protected by employment laws since they were working for free —or in some cases were paying to take improv classes —so they had to take matters into their own hands, and it got messy. People in all sorts of communities feel their institutions are failing them, so they are turning to vigilante justice.
I think a lot about power imbalance, which is why I wrote “Ethics and the Eye of the Beholder.” A common link in my reporting is that whether it’s the comedy world or academia, young women are not succeeding due to these power imbalances. These stories ask, how do we solve these problems? How do you fight back against power when your institution won’t listen to you? That’s something that I really like thinking about. I have some ideas.
CPCJ: What are some of those ideas?
KB: In my reporting, whether on college campuses or police departments, the institutional injustice typically starts with entitled men who think they can abuse their power to get what they want because they have done it without getting caught in the past. Putting more women in positions of power in higher education and elsewhere won’t solve all these problems, but it would be a start!
I also think we need to talk about the men who commit these crimes or misdeeds and find ways to include them in the conversation. If someone is expelled from a school or shut out of a community, they still exist and they are just going to go elsewhere. I want to see more conversations about restorative justice and rehabilitation. But no one wants to talk about that. I’d also like to do more reporting on the effects of alcohol on sexual violence. It’s a thorny subject —no one wants to blame women for drinking or take the blame off rapists and say, “Well, he was drunk” —but I think we are doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring it completely.
CPCJ: A little bit of challenge is telling, especially if the stories we write are going to make a real impact in public life.
KB: When a story that exposes serious injustice leads to real change, I feel like I did my job. One example from this year is the story I wrote about the Baltimore County police —they changed their policies after my colleague and I exposed their practices. I do believe the best reporting gives a voice to people who are powerless.
There’s an assumption that if you write about something that’s complicated, people are not going to read it, but I don’t think that’s true —my stories often do very well, pageview-wise. I actually think that people prefer these more complex stories, which is validating because those are the ones that I care about.