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Journalists and their methods are and should never be beyond critique or reproach from sources, especially when it comes to accountability journalism. That journalism most directly serves its sources, and especially sources who have experienced trauma. It is the kind of reporting I take more seriously than anything.
In August, I reported a story for which I interviewed two women who accused composer Jeremy Soule of sexual misconduct. One of those women is Nathalie Lawhead, who had previously written a blog post alleging some of his misconduct.
Nathalie and I initially connected over email. She asked that I conduct the interview over email, but I encouraged her to speak with me over the phone because I wanted to thoroughly walk her through what the reporting process might look like and understand Jeremy Soule’s alleged pattern of predation for my article. It is not recommended for journalists to report out sexual assault allegations through email alone.
Over the phone, before the interview began, I spoke with Nathalie for five minutes describing the article and its intent, the vetting process, “on the record” and “off the record” and noting to her that, if there’s anything she didn’t want published, she could tell it to me off the record. Nathalie agreed to go on the record. She did not want gratuitous details of her assault published, and I said that we would not publish anything gratuitous. I told her she would be one of at least two women on the record in the story. (I contacted others, but they were unwilling or unable to be sources.)
Nathalie and I spoke on the phone for an hour. Nathalie spoke for the great majority of that call about her interactions with Jeremy Soule. I interjected every now and then to agree that the behavior she described was not okay and check in on her emotional state or ask if she wanted a break. Halfway through, I asked Nathalie whether she would be comfortable with me broaching the topic of her assault and told her that, if I asked anything she was uncomfortable with, she could say so and did not have to answer. I did not ask her to detail the specifics of her assault, but I did at one point tell her that, while I’m not here to judge what does or does not constitute rape, I would like to know what led her to describe what happened to her as rape in her initial blog post. This is a journalistic convention for reporting on sexual assault--before we quote a person describing a rape, which is a crime, we need to understand what happened.
I quoted four sentences from her answer in my article. You can read them. My editor and I later discussed keeping the description vague enough to respect Nathalie’s wishes while also offering important clarification on her allegations. Those four sentences were given on the record with informed consent.
After that first call, the company’s lawyer needed to vet the article, which detailed accusations that Jeremy Soule had committed a crime. At that point, Nathalie still had not told me what happened to her with enough detail for me to feel comfortable publishing the allegation of rape. So on a second call, which was strictly for off-the-record fact-checking and legal review, I asked Nathalie to clarify again why she called it rape. To understand, I asked her whether there was penetrative sex. Nothing from that call is quoted in my article.
After the article was published, I sent it to Nathalie and checked in with her. She replied with an email expressing gratitude and said she was happy the interview was with someone who understood and in the context of holding him accountable, which was the express goal of publishing the story.
Months later, last Saturday, Nathalie reached out to me saying that the article was attracting unwanted attention. She wanted the article to be edited so details would be removed. She also said that, in our interview, I said I would not publicize details of the assault.
I responded to Nathalie twice then. In the first email, I told her how sorry I was that she was receiving unwanted attention. I reminded her that she and I talked through how the interview would work prior to it. I also asked for more clarification on which line she felt was gratuitous. Finally, I told her that journalists generally do not alter stories like this post-publication unless they’re issuing a factual correction, but I would love to talk on the phone about this so I could at least try and help her with the messages. I then immediately sent her a second message noting that I would understand if her recollection of the interview differed and added that my notes were at home (I was in the office).
Nathalie indicated she did not want to talk further. I sent her a final email explaining how seriously I took this, thanking her for her bravery and offering to speak whenever she’d like.
Days later, I learned that Nathalie contacted my former boss at Kotaku. I do not know the contents of that email, but I understand that she reiterated her same criticisms in stronger terms and did not indicate that we had spoken. My former boss said he would consider her ask and get back shortly. Nathalie published her blog post a couple of days after.
Both before and after reading Nathalie’s blog post, I reviewed the recording of our first interview. My description of events was reconstructed from our emails, that interview recording and conversations with editors.
At this point, I understand that Nathalie’s blog post has circulated. It is enormously disappointing that she has a negative memory of our interview process. Reporting on sexual assault constitutes a tough balance between empathy and journalistic rigor. (The infamous Rolling Stone story is a case study in this.) And interviewing people who are unaccustomed to the reporting process can be tricky because it is impossible to know what they do and do not understand about it coming in. It would be outlandish to say I’ve never made a reporting mistake in my career. In this specific instance, I believe my reporting method was by the book.
Please be kind and empathetic. Please remain generous and trusting. Thank you.