Ronan Farrow and Robyn Doolittle are investigative journalists whose large scale investigations into sexual assault led to widespread shifts in how the public views legal systems and sexual violence. Farrow’s investigation into sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and Doolittle’s deep dive into how police forces handle sexual assault cases across Canada have impacted widespread conversation around sexual violence survivors.
In the process of their reporting, both journalists were faced with obstacles that threatened their entire story. Farrow said he was repeatedly threatened, receiving death threats. While going through a 20-month reporting process, Doolittle said she was also concerned about her sources getting sued.
On Sunday night, the two powerhouse journalists came together at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts to discuss the process and implications of their reporting for the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s J-Talks. Here are five major points addressed in their conversation around reporting in the era of #MeToo, whether it’s dealing with sensitive sources, contentious roadblocks or the long and gruelling process of investigative work.
1. Building relationships with sources starts with listening, but that doesn’t mean it’s a friendship
Doolittle says she feels as though there has been a shift in the way journalists handle their relationships with sources. She says it has usually been a professional interaction where the reporter is “in charge,”
“When reporting something as horrible and raw as sexual assault, you do develop relationships with your sources and it can be hard to keep that professional distance while also maintaining trust,” she says.
Farrow says he believes there’s been a “paradigm shift” in journalism where reporters are now able to report stories of “he said, she said” like they were never before. He says in addition to having witnesses, it is crucial to have sources who can corroborate the victim’s stories.
Farrow adds that he tells his sources their relationship is going to feel “adversarial” at times when he has to press for facts.
Farrow says one of his sources still calls him a few times a week just to chat. “I’ll be in the middle of 10 different things, but I do always try to sit down and give her my time because she gave me the time and she didn’t have to.”
2. Make it clear that you’re a journalist not an activist
Doolittle says she can’t write “I believe survivors in a story” because she says is a journalist and not an activist. “I’m doing [a source] no favours by not rigorously investigating their claims,” she says.
Fascinating to hear from @ronanfarrow about how scary it was to break #weinsten story. Says as a journalist “I can’t say, ‘I believe all survivors’. I listen to all survivors”. Adds he listens to all the facts. Activism vs. Journalism #cjfjtalk
— Farah Nasser (@FarahNasser) November 5, 2018
Farrow says he doesn’t subscribe to the “I believe all survivors or I believe all women school of thought.”
“I subscribe to listening to all survivors, listen to all the facts, listen to all women,” he says.
3. You have to think about the impact the story has on the accused as well
Doolittle says she feels that journalists are expected to pick a side and that there’s a much more clear divide lately. She adds that she sees people on social media asking, “Are you on the right or are you on the left?”
Doolittle also says that a common criticism of #MeToo is that it “robs the accused person of due process.” She adds that she dislikes when people say that the movement “has gone too far” and she stresses that many claims do not meet the threshold of criminal proceedings.
I am not in the business of trying to create a big sexy headline – I am in the business of trying to get to the truth, says @RonanFarrow on reporting #metoo allegations with care and responsibility. #CJFtalk
— Kathy English (@kathyenglish) November 5, 2018
Farrow says he thinks about this in every story he writes, and he feels like the concern about how the story will impact the accused is “completely valid.”
“You have to think about journalistic due process, you do have think about being meticulous and fair at every turn,” he says.
Farrow says he always presents the side of the accused, which he says can further complicate the story, but it is necessary in being fair. “You owe it to anyone who is accused to really lay out any kind of argument that is presented.”
4. There should not be even the slightest doubt about your story
“There comes a time in every story where you can really wrap your arms around all of the facts,” says Farrow. With Weinstein, he says he had so many sources telling him strikingly similar stories independent of each other.
A few weeks ago, Farrow got off a flight to meet a “high profile political source” that had asked Farrow to meet. He says the source’s claims would have made a “huge story” that most publications would have run with, but Farrow didn’t go with the story because he couldn’t bring it to his threshold of journalistic standards.
“There’s so much on the line,” says Doolittle, adding that even getting one thing wrong can damage the story’s credibility.
5. “It’s a hassle being a reporter, but it’s worth it”
Farrow says when he started investigating the Weinstein story, he was going through a rough time–he had just gotten fired, his book was dropped by a publisher, and he wasn’t taking care of his health. He says he got into a cab to go in between interviews with sources and he had a meltdown. “I just broke down in the cab, I was weeping. It was pretty pathetic.”
An inspiring night listening to @RonanFarrow. He articulated our industry and the efforts of journalists around the world correctly when he said “…it’s a hassle but it’s worth it.” #CJFjtalk pic.twitter.com/oDfsUxwn2r
— Crystal Goomansingh (@cgoomansingh) November 5, 2018
But Farrow says journalism is important work that is necessary in holding people accountable, especially with stories as difficult to tell responsible with #MeToo.
“It’s so fulfilling,” says Farrow. “I am so grateful every time I have the chance to expose something meaningful and to amplify a voice that isn’t being heard.”