Looking In From Afar

Katie J.M. Baker, a staff writer for Jezebel.com (tagline: Celebrity, sex, fashion for women), traveled to Missoula to examine what some were calling a growing rape culture. Her story, “My Weekend In America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital,’” caused quite a stir, to say the least. MJR reporter Ric Sanchez called her to discuss the feedback she received.

MJR: How did you get started in journalism?
KB: I worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for a year and a half, I worked at Wired, I interned at a number of publications in college. I got my first internship at 16 years old. I’ve been involved in journalism for a while.

How did you transition to working at Jezebel?
I wanted to move to New York and Jezebel was one of my favorite websites. I really like writing about — for lack of a better word — women’s issues. I moved here and met with my current boss and pitched her stuff for a while and eventually a spot opened and they hired me.

For your story “My weekend in America’s so-called rape capital,” how did you hear about it? What motivated you to write it?
I report often about rape culture on college campuses — I write about all sorts of college campuses. I have Google alerts and people send me stories. I’m constantly writing about this issue. And that week, my boss and I had been discussing it would be great to actually go to a college that was dealing with some kind of issue related to rape culture. I was kind of mulling it around in my head. After the conversation, when I got back — I forgot whether someone emailed me the link or if I just saw it online — I read about the federal investigation. Without knowing anything about it I thought, “This is the first investigation of its kind. Why Missoula? Why this school? What’s going on there that makes Missoula specifically of interest to the federal government?” And then I found a source—a 20-year-old who had just moved back. He had moved out of Missoula because he was dealing drugs and he was doing drugs himself. He had attended the University and dropped out… and he agreed to talk to me about it. I met with him and he was describing what it was like and how the next weekend was the week before everyone graduated. He said he would take me and I could meet all his friends, that way I wouldn’t just be a reporter all on my own. My boss liked the idea.

How did you choose your sources? Do you feel the people you met in Missoula are a fair sample of everyone you talked to?
Something that I find interesting about people who report on college issues is that they rarely talk to the kids. They rarely talk to the students. They rarely go to the bars where the students hang out. They rarely go to the places that are supposed to be, you know, sketchy. I got incredibly positive feedback on this piece in general, but I got comments from people who said, “How dare you go to Missoula and not write about our amazing Farmer’s Market?” That was literally a comment I got. I think — sorry, this is a little bit of a tangent — my conclusion of the piece was Missoula is not any different from any college town. This is an epidemic. Rape culture is something that happens on every college campus across the country. It’s not about Missoula. That’s why the federal investigation, while it sets a precedent and it’s a good start, it’s not going to solve issues unless we stop thinking that some women deserve to be raped and others don’t. And I was very clear in my conclusion that it’s not specific to Missoula. I think people were uncomfortable with the idea of someone coming in from Manhattan and coming into a town that she doesn’t know. I talked to a few dozen people. I spent five days there, I didn’t spend months, but I do feel that the people Italked to were definitely representative of the people that are contributing to the problem that instigated the issue.

Who were the people who gave you negative feedback?
They were all from Missoula. There was one man in particular who harassed me extensively. He posted my phone number on the Internet. He sent me emails calling me horrible names — I can give you his name, I think it was Peter—he really harassed me. He was very upset that I dare talk poorly about Missoula because it’s a beautiful town, a beautiful city — and it is, I loved Missoula, I thought it was incredibly beautiful. But bad things can still happen in a beautiful place. Bad things happen all over the country in beautiful places.

There are some people whose names you withheld or changed, but there were also some people who weren’t necessarily attributed. Does Jezebel have some sort of policy on that?
No. I mean I consider myself an ethical reporter and I took notes everywhere I went and I mean the (San Francisco) Chronicle — the newspaper that I worked at — didn’t have a policy like that either. I mean Jezebel’s a Gawker Media blog and we are way more lax with anonymity than newspapers are. My piece was kind of a narrative essay as well as a reported piece. It was about observing things. It was about being at a bar and overhearing things, because that’s what makes up our culture—the things that people aren’t going to tell you on the record, the things that you overhear and seep into your consciousness. That type of environment is what I believe fosters rape culture. Obviously for the interviews, the at-length interviews, I got their names even if I kept them anonymous. I want to be clear that everyone I spoke with at length, I have their first and last name and all of their contact information.

Did you share those with your editor?

Did you get any feedback from anyone at the school?
Yes, off-the-record. I got a lot of feedback from administrators; a lot of people said off-the-record, “I’m so glad you wrote this story.”

If you had a message for people who you feel misunderstood your point, what would you say?
I would say the message was this was not something about Missoula. This was everywhere. Until we stop thinking of rape as something that happens in the bushes to people we don’t know, that rapists aren’t our co-workers and friends and acquaintances, then nothing’s going to change until those men and women stop thinking of differentiating between women who are “legitimately raped” and women who deserved to be raped. The federal investigation isn’t going to solve anything because it’s the mindset that is really contributing to these issues. A lot of people are writing about the issues with the police and the issues with the administration, but what I found from the dozen people I spoke to is that they weren’t as upset with the police and administration as they were about the culture.

With your report and all the coverage that Missoula got, what do you hope happens to Missoula as a city in terms of how it changes?
I wouldn’t say specifically to Missoula because, again, that’s not what it was about, but communication is really the key. College students need to be respectful of each other and of their needs. You have to listen. Consent is crucial. People have to understand what sexual assault means and what rape means. I think awareness is a really powerful thing. I hope that the national reporting on it is more cognizant of rape culture and how pervasive it is. Some of the students I talked to said, “My friends don’t believe that I was raped.” There’s just a lot of shit-talking with these women that are dealing with a lot of stuff. I hope that maybe with more conversation around it, people will look at it with a different perspective.