The making of Proof

As is the case with any regular news story, a team of six of us at the BDN didn’t know what, precisely, we would create when we set out to make what we’d call Proof.

We knew the online presentation, which launched June 25, would center on the issue of rape and sexual assault in Maine. We knew it would have a multimedia format similar to The New York Times’ Snow Fall or The Guardian’s Firestorm projects, which combine text, video, audio and graphics online to tell a story in a powerful, creative way.

But how would we write about a subject so often kept secret? We were documenting an issue, not an event, so what would the videos depict?

It wasn’t until we interviewed our first rape survivor, who used the pseudonym Louise, that we more fully understood our mission: To represent the many emotions associated with the experiences of sexual assault survivors, not just relate what happened to them. They expressed horror and pain, but they didn’t want the crime to define them.

So we set out to show that reality visually. “It was a chance to kind of be artful,” Visuals Editor Brian Feulner said.

Much of Proof is in subdued colors or blackness, with grains of light. Moving tree branches frame the moon. Louise’s face is in darkness, but her hair and profile are lit up. Meanwhile, advocates and a nurse provide context in their filmed interviews, and graphics by Graphics Manager Eric Zelz let the reader grasp quickly the statistics associated with sexual assault in Maine.

In the beginning, we prepared ourselves for the possibility that the survivors we connected with might realize they weren’t ready to talk about their past. It’s common and understandable for victims to have difficulty trusting others, and giving an interview requires trust. It’s difficult for many people, let alone trauma survivors, to share personal stories publicly.

But our survivors were ready. They delivered their stories with eloquence and conviction. After our first interview, with Louise – where she explained how she was drugged and woke up as an acquaintance raped her – we fully understood just how powerful Proof could be at generating awareness.

Zelz put it well: “I feel that it’s important to pursue this topic, in this medium, because it helps makes a subject that is so seemingly inaccessible to many suddenly accessible or, to some degree, understandable. Once understood, positive action might follow. As a culture, we’ve become so immediate, so ‘now.’ Problems like this are not just ‘now’ but go on and on.”

Newsroom Administrator Natalie Feulner, Editorial Page Editor Erin Rhoda and Graphics Manager Eric Zelz work on streamlining components of Proof, a multimedia project about sexual assault in Maine. Brian Feulner | BDN

To find some of those we interviewed, Newsroom Administrator Natalie Feulner and I drew from the network of professionals we met during our 40-hour training in April to become advocates with Rape Response Services in Bangor, in addition to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. MECASA is one of the BDN’s partners in its long-term domestic and sexual violence project — part of the BDN’s new MaineFocus initiative.

These professionals work every day to support victims and end the cycle of violence, and we couldn’t have done Proof without them.

The project “pulled together so many people and so many different talents into one project, to tell a story that is compelling and needed to be shared,” Natalie Feulner said.

In about a week, we completed the interviews, some video editing and wrote a draft text. We then collaborated with Online Editor Will Davis and User Experience and Audience Manager Pattie Reaves to create a storyboard. What video would go where? What text could we keep? When would we use photography?

Then Davis and Reaves created the finished product. They wrote thousands of lines of code and ensured Proof would display across a range of web browsers and devices. They reshaped the content and audio, making it as streamlined as possible.

Along the way, we made sure to balance our depiction of the survivors’ feelings of trauma. We worked carefully to not play up or play down the effect of sexual assault in their lives.

User Experience and Audience Manager Pattie Reaves, left, and Online Editor Will Davis, right, work to create Proof. Marketing Manager Kate Bielinski is center. Brian Feulner | BDN

In terms of what amounted to one story, Proof is “probably the most integrated project we’ve ever done at the BDN,” Davis said. The piece, which was the idea of Chief Operating Officer Todd Benoit, gave all involved an appreciation for one another’s work and was a valuable learning experience.

Reaves agreed: “It couldn’t have worked without everyone working together to articulate the big vision.”

After Proof launched early Tuesday, June 25, we got phone calls from members of the public who wanted to share their story. Others called seeking resources. More and more, it seems, sexual assault is an issue people are willing to talk about.

What reaction did our survivors see? Louise said she only told seven friends — people she could trust — about Proof, and “they were all really amazing.”

One friend sent her a text that read, “You are incredible! I’m so proud of you for being a part of that! I’m sure it takes so much to talk about that kind of thing. The fact that you’re going to be helping people with the same issues is astounding. I love you, and I’m so proud to be friends with you.”

As for Proof, Louise said, “I really hope it reminds people that you never know what other people have been through. … We have a rape culture, on TV, in our music, in literature, everywhere. We need to raise our children to think differently, and if it becomes a topic that is more casual to talk about, the more people will realize what’s going on.”

Bill Lowenstein, president of the board of directors of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services in Auburn, agreed to use his name for Proof and spoke about being abused as a child. He said he wanted someone he could trust — his daughter — to be present when he watched Proof for the first time.

For Proof, Bill Lowenstein talked about the abuse he experienced between the ages of 5 and 7. Brian Feulner | BDN

It was scary at first, he said, as there is power in holding onto secrets. It means you stay in control of them. But participating in and watching the presentation with his daughter “was a real positive experience, I think, for both of us. We ended up having kind of a depth of conversation we’ve never had before,” he said.

“To be able to take something which caused a whole lot of pain and to be able to turn it into something that is extremely positive, beneficial and that other people can use to grow from is a really empowering piece which I will be forever grateful for.”

People often believe it’s not possible to recover from sexual assault. Though it might take time and work, it is possible, he said, and no one has to go through it alone.

When I talked to Lowenstein on Thursday, he shared something I hadn’t known: He was diagnosed two years ago with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a blood and bone marrow disease.

That news put the project into perspective even more — how precious and fragile our lives can be, how important it is to record and reflect.

Proof is a part of that now. Lowenstein said, “It is a nice legacy for me to leave.”

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.