National Press Club

Reporter tells how she used transparency, empowerment to earn trust of sexual assault victim for Post article

July 28, 2019 | By Kristina Groennings | ksgroennings@gmail.com

On a night in Northwest Washington in April 2013, Lauren Clark was out for a jog when she was sexually assaulted by a man who soon after was hired by a restaurant near her apartment. After enduring years of the justice system’s failure to ensure her safety, Clark reached out to The Washington Post.

Through transparency and empowerment, Post investigative reporter Amy Brittain established and maintained an extraordinary level of trust with Clark that resulted in Clark telling her full, haunting story detailed in a Post article published last January.

In a National Press Club Journalism Institute event at the Club July 25, Brittain and co-author Maura Judkis joined Clark and her counsel Kristin Eliason in a discussion of the mutual trust that enabled the article, entitled “The man who attacked me works in your kitchen: Victim of serial groper took justice into her own hands.”

“Trusting somebody with this information -– they can do so many things with it. It’s out of my control once I give it to them,” Clark said of her decision to reach out to the Post. “I had a lot of worries and zero experience -– I was pretty nervous,” she said. It was encouraging, she noted, that her counsel regarded Brittain as a trusted reporter.

Brittain said she knew that the process would be particularly demanding for Clark as a primary source, and that establishing trust was key. “With a story this sensitive, there had to be a level of trust that had to be built -- where she [Clark]knew that her story was safe with me,” Brittain said.

Knowing that she was going to need transparency from Clark, “in return, I offered full transparency on our end,” Brittain said.

That transparency included visibility into the reporting process. As Clark said to Brittain at the Institute event: “You always checked in with me and explained deadlines, and what was going on. Every step of the way, every question I had, you answered. And it made a world of difference."

Brittain also empowered Clark with a sense of control over what would be published. “That was crucial for me,” Clark recalled. “I could relax and tell you my story without being very worried about what I was saying.”

Yet Brittain was careful not to compromise editorial integrity in doing so. For instance, when Clark wanted it to remain unknown that it was she who had distributed flyers containing photos of the assailant, Brittain objected.

“My editor and I were both in agreement that if she wasn’t willing to say that she made the flyers, then we didn’t feel like we could do the story. Because you’re missing the full story and you’re selectively omitting something that we know to be true,” Brittain said.

Judkis, who collaborated with Brittain on the article, also struggled to establish trust with her sources. As a reporter covering the food and culture beat, it was the first time she had worked with sexual assault survivors.

At one point, the trust that Judkis and Brittain had so diligently fostered was in jeopardy. The article’s publication had encountered extensive delay due to the high-profile story of the firing of CBS and PBS talk show host Charlie Rose for sexual harassment allegations.

“It was prolonging their trauma to have to wait for this story come out. I think that was a moment where it was hard for everyone to trust us,” Judkis said.

Just 12 hours prior to the story’s publication, the trust Brittain had established with Clark was called into question one last time when Clark raised additional concerns.

“I was concerned about how [the story] would portray survivors of sexual assault,” Clark told Brittain. “I wanted there to be some sort of message that this is not insurmountable,” she said.

Brittain said she panicked, went home and re-read the story.

“Have I totally messed this up,” the reporter said she asked herself. “I was looking for any sort of red flags, any problematic language, hoping I didn’t fall into a trap along the way,” Brittain said.

Turning to Clark, she added, “[and] I called you or texted you and I said, I think we’re OK. And the story went live the next morning.”

In April 2017, Clark succeeded on a motion to have her attacker’s mental and drug abuse assessment reinstated that had been permitted to lapse. The Post article drew widespread attention to the case. Inquiries from the Post caused the perpetrator to leave a subsequent job as head chef.