Rape in America, Behind the Emmy-Winning Story

CBS News Investigative producer Laura Strickler after her Emmy win.
Keith Summa
CBS News Investigative producer Laura Strickler after her Emmy win.
Keith Summa

CBS News Investigative Unit producer Laura Strickler won an Emmy Monday night for Outstanding Investigative Journalism in a Regularly Scheduled Newscast for her report with Armen Keteyian, "Rape in America: Justice Denied." Strickler tells the back story to CBSNews.com's Erica Anderson.

1. What drew you and the CBS team to investigative this story?

Thousands of untested rape kits had been exposed in Los Angeles by the LA Times and Human Rights Watch, but the last national data was more than 10 years old. I brought the idea to Keith Summa, our senior producer and said we should try to find out how many untested kits there were in 25 to 30 cities.

We soon found there were two kinds of untested kits: kits that sit in police departments and are never sent to the crime lab for various reasons and kits that are sent to crime labs but are waiting to be tested because they don't have enough resources or staff to test them. In some places the wait at the crime lab could be a few months. In others like Alaska and Louisiana it could take years. Josh Scheinblum - one of our interns - and I called dozens of police departments for months to get the information - everyone wanted to blow us off.

2. Over the course of the five-month investigation what did you learn? Any significant lessons you want to share?

I learned how much effort is involved in trying to get people to tell their stories - especially if their story is something traumatic like rape. In our second story we featured a woman from Oklahoma who was raped. The perpetrator had raped someone else 6 months earlier but the rape kit from the first victim had not been tested, so he was still free to rape again and attack his second victim. If the kit had been tested she would not have been raped. Her story was very important but she kept changing her mind about talking, later telling me that she was understandably afraid.

So I waited for days in a small Oklahoma town. She would set up a meeting and then cancel. One night outside her house I knocked on the wrong door and someone called the police and I had to explain to the officers that I was a journalist. The next day I waited outside her house for three hours, again, expecting to meet with her and her roommate came out the door and yelled at me to go home. I felt awful and left immediately. I was twenty miles away on the highway when the victim sent me a text saying she changed her mind and did want to talk. I made a U turn and met her at a restaurant. Within a few weeks we had her story on camera. She is a very brave person.

3. How did you collaborate with other CBS News bureaus or affiliates to get the story?

The most important element in this story was time. We worked on it for five months. The show - Anchor and Managing Editor Katie Couric, and Executive Producer Rick Kaplan- gave us permission to devote that much time to the story and it would never have happened otherwise.

A team of interns in Washington and New York spent many hours calling police departments nationwide. The script writing process in our team is always collaborative between Armen Keteyian, Keith Summa and I and we wrestled with it for a long time. Armen's interview with Valerie Neumann, the rape victim in the first story, was critical to conveying the outrage of the story and Armen did an excellent job of chasing down and interviewing a local prosecutor who wanted to avoid us. The New York camera crews that filmed in the NYC crime lab with Armen did a great job of illustrating the great progress New York has made in testing rape kits. We had a DC cameraman, Gabe Stix, shoot a rape kit in a studio and that allowed us to show viewers exactly what a rape kit looked like up close. Keith and Armen's constant encouragement and guidance kept it moving despite frequent roadblocks. Our editor Seth Fox made sure the story was both haunting and moving.

4.Finally, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism states that "the central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society." At a time of transition in our industry, what do you think, if anything, this Emmy says about the network's ability to live up to that mantra?

Our story on rape kits brought to light thousands of untested rape kits and highlighted that 75 percent of rapes do not result in an arrest. This is important information for people to know. The media is often accused of pursuing "entertainment journalism" but I think this story offers a far different view.