Case Study – “Breaking the Silence”, by Matthew Brown of the Baltimore Sun

“Breaking the Silence”, by Matthew Brown, is a feature that chronicles the lives of seven men that have been sexually assaulted while serving in different branches of the military. From each of the victim’s mini-biographies, three common themes emerged: memory suppression, disbelief from authorities, and rape-induced psychological distress. The story contains a ‘low-level’ interactive insert where the reader clicks to learn the military affiliation, details of the assault, and long-term effects of each of the seven victims. For example, Greg Jeloudov, 39, from San Francisco enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2009. “Within weeks of arriving for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., Jeloudov says, he was gang-raped by fellow recruits,” said Brown. Jeloudov’s suffering includes flashbacks, a broken marriage, homelessness, and zero support from the Veteran’s Administration (VA). The main text documented the men’s stories too, but did so as a means to express the disparities of male rape victims in the military. Brown cited that when men report a sexual assault, military authorities are less likely to take action than in cases in which the victim is a woman. Additionally, while men and women have to worry about being ‘ostracized’ and damaging their careers, men have to also worry about appearing ‘weak’ in a ‘warrior’ culture when reporting a rape to their commanders. Then, the feature mentions several actions that have been completed to address the problem of commanders being the sole authority to refer sexual assault charges and either uphold or ignore the jury’s findings. Finally, using Peter Vouaux’s story, the article reports that even though several advocacy programs have been started since 2005, many victims and lawmakers still feel that the current system is rigged in favor of the assailant.

The article exploits many of the text elements presented in the course. For example, the story featured an engaging and meaningful topic in documenting the lives of seven service members who were raped. Sexual assault is also a universal topic, understood by everyone. Additionally, the article documents an uncomfortable truth about sexual assault because it exposed that the sex crime could happen to both women and men. The story appeared to be created with the audience in mind because the direct quotes, vivid descriptions, and flow of events sparked strong emotions. The authors included an effective usage of characters by including detailed information from seven male sexual assault victims that chronicled their lives before, during, and after being sexually tormented. Many of the victims chose to hide their experience from their families and friends, which served as their ‘mask’ to cover-up the awful events that happened to them. This concealment is part of the inner conflict felt by the victims of whether to disclose their experience. While the story did not contain an element of surprise, the sexually explicit content, objectivity, and skillful way of writing about an uncomfortable topic grabbed (and kept) my attention.

The story could also be analyzed based on its usage of links, lists, and chunking. First, note that the story does not contain any links or lists. While “The Art of Linking” states that linking should not be ignored and “The Problem With Listless Listicles” provides many reasons why lists are effective, “Breaking the Silence” benefitted by not containing links or lists. Including either of those would have been distracting to the reader. Additionally, the story is broken into five sections based on different components related to the issue of sexual assault among men in the military. From the art of chunking article, the sections could have been divided into better chunks that included bulleted lists, highlighted keywords, or links to more details to help visitors skim through the page and find specific answers. However, the sections appeared to purposefully be separated so that the problem could be introduced (allowing the audience to be sympathetic and wanting to view the rest of the story) followed by an explanation of why men rape victims are treated differently, a synopsis of how the problem is currently being addressed, and the bleak future that many victims face. Therefore, the story was separated into appropriate chunks.

The story does not contain any parts that are strictly from audio files. However, there are several photos and one video. The beginning of the feature contains a scrolling screen that displays a photo of one of the victims. As the photo from the Baltimore Sun article shows, he appears to be distraught for having to remember being sexually assaulted by a high-ranking shipmate.

Brian Lewis, from the Baltimore Sun
Brian Lewis, photo from the Baltimore Sun

Additionally, the photo of another victim, Michael M. Mathews (from Lloyd Fox of the Baltimore Sun), displays an older man with a stoic, dispirited and almost grimacing expression. The image portrays a certain vulnerability of the 20-year veteran of the Air Force, and conveys that he still remembers being raped at Whiteman AFB in 1974.

Michael M. Mathews, photo from Lloyd Fox of the Baltimore Sun
Michael M. Mathews, photo from Lloyd Fox of the Baltimore Sun

The photos of Heath Phillips (from Bob Ellis of the Baltimore Sun) and Peter Vouaux (from Algerina Perna of the Baltimore Sun) show two men who have a ‘mile-long stare’. The images are effective at showing how a victim of a heinous crime can become disconnected from the rest of the world.

Heath Phillips, photo from Bob Ellis of the Baltimore Sun
Heath Phillips, photo from Bob Ellis of the Baltimore Sun

 

Peter Vouaux, photo from Algerina Perna of the Baltimore Sun
Peter Vouaux, photo from Algerina Perna of the Baltimore Sun

One video was placed in the ‘Introduction’ section of the story. As seen below, the video includes testaments from two of the rape victims along with general comments about military sexual trauma from Sarah Nett at the VA Medical Center.

The informative video, with victim involvement, was a favorable choice compared to an abstract storytelling format, such as the “In Jennifer’s Room” video. The video is valuable to the viewer because it allows two of the victims to be seen and heard and displays post-traumatic stress disorder through the shaking of Vouaux. The video was effective in its current place to transition from multiple paragraphs that document the shortcomings of male sexual assault reporting in the military to the victims’ stories and a broader discussion of the sexual assault reporting issues. However, it might have been more appropriate to place it before the story about Michael F. Matthews.

Multiple statistics are presented throughout the story to show the disparity between men and women when reporting a sexual assault. For example, as displayed in the figure below, during 2012, only three percent of sexually assaulted men reported it and two percent agreed to an investigation compared to 21 and 17 percent of women reporting and agreeing to investigate, respectively.

Sexual Assault Reporting Data from 2012
Sexual Assault Reporting Data from 2012

An interactive data display was also included. The two figures below provide an example of how the outcome of investigations differed for both males and females who alleged forcible sodomy. From the images, fewer males’ cases were referred to court martial, but of those, a higher percentage resulted in conviction.

Sexual Assault Investigation Outcomes - Male Victims
Sexual Assault Investigation Outcomes (Forcible Sodomy) – Male Victims

 

Sexual Assault Investigation Outcomes (Forcible Sodomy) - Female Victims
Sexual Assault Investigation Outcomes (Forcible Sodomy) – Female Victims

The statistics were brief and meaningful. They were also placed at suitable locations inside of the story. Their format allowed them to be easier to understand compared to the charts from the arrested development project. However, another option for the interactive statistics would be to show them using a slide show, similar to the ones shown in a collection of USAtoday snapshots.

Besides a comment section at the bottom of the article (currently includes 22 comments), the story does not contain other embedded social media content. The story was presented well with the existing images, video, and text. A story told using only Twitter posts, such as the Japanese mountaineer climbing Mount Everest, would not fit for this topic. However, a few embedded posts from Twitter or Facebook might have provided a snapshot of the public’s thoughts regarding male veterans who are opening up about being sexually assaulted by other military men.

In determining the type of story format, I referred to some of the course content, such as the Nieman article that compared news features and narrative stories. “Breaking the Silence” should be considered a narrative because it contains multiple little stories inside of a larger story. Also, the details of the wrongful treatment and psychological trauma felt by the victims are discovered as the story unfolds. The story is informative, but not of a particular current event (or, recent news peg).

Other storytelling elements included timeline navigation and some low-level interactivity. All of the victims’ stories are told chronologically, from military service, to the assault, to the long-term effects throughout the years after being attacked. Also, the politics and developments associated with military men reporting sexual assaults are told chronologically throughout the sections in the main text. As mentioned earlier, low-levels of interaction exist when clicking through the seven victims’ biographies and from the graphic that showed the different outcomes for men and women.

Overall, the Baltimore Sun team produced a well-written and nicely formatted narrative about a difficult topic. The small amount of multimedia compared to other feature stories was appropriate for the topic that was presented. The story was short enough where the text did not feel overwhelming. A potential pitfall that might cause a reader to not engage with the full story is that the ability to read the short biographies about each of the victims is located at the top of the page (on a computer and tablet). The risk of placing the biographies at the top is that the reader (especially someone with a short attention span) might not view reading the rest of the story as worthwhile because of already viewing the ‘important information.’ However, the disciplined reader will realize that the short biographies provide seven samples, but do not tie all of the information together (which is what the main text does). Additionally, the two advertisements that the story contained were distracting, but not enough to click away from the site.

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