How Unheard Worked with Sexual Assault Survivors in Alaska to Tell Their Stories in Their Own Words

by Lauren Brown & Kate Denhart


Sexual assault and rape culture runs rampant across the world and has become embedded in the Alaskan culture in a way that’s incomparable to the rest of the United States. Unheard, published by ProPublica and Anchorage Daily News, is a journalistic project that creates space in society for victims of sexual abuse in Alaska to share their stories and recovery journeys. The Unheard project focused on the collaboration between the writers and the community members that this issue directly affects. In doing so it allowed for a powerful insight into the emotional and physical effects sexual assault and abuse can have on an individual and their community.

Organization Background: Unheard was co-published with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. They run mainly on members, one-time donations, foundations, and grants. ProPublica also created a webpage detailing where their funding comes from.


Project Goals: Following best practices in engaged journalism, ProPublica and the Unheard team let their project goals form as the story grew and as they interacted with Alaska natives and locals. While their goals were somewhat open-ended, to begin with, and their focus was listening to the community, they did express four goals from the beginning:

  •  Always maintain the journalistic standards of accuracy.
  • Collaborate as much as possible with the survivors they’re interviewing.
  • Be as transparent as possible throughout the process.
  • Create a system of support for those coming forward.

Project Resources: The project lists eight different contributors at the top of the article, with a combination of members from ProPublica and Anchorage Daily News. Their team consisted of writers and photographers that worked on interviewing and capturing the stories of the final 29 men and women featured. One of their biggest resources was the village communities across Alaska. Including the Kotzebue community where they held a “town hall” of sorts, they were able to speak to individuals about their experiences and gauge a more realistic idea of how people are dealing with sexual assaults in Alaska. Similarly, the team also featured six professionals who work with survivors in the aftermath of a sexual assault. These professionals included law enforcement, state prosecutors, therapists, victim advocate groups, and medical experts.

Tools & Technology: The team initially sent out two questionnaires and heard from hundreds of people through the questionnaire, other sources or via email response. They used email and the phone to interview as many of the respondents as they could, and in doing so we’re able to identify five major themes of assault. As previously stated, they held community events in person and on zoom to report back to anyone across that wanted to learn more about what they were doing and why. To fact-check stories as much as possible, the team pulled police reports, court records, and medical records.

Impact: The Unheard Project has impacted not only Alaskan communities but has reached people across the country. The project won the 2021 Gather Award in Engaged Journalism and has illuminated the pressing issue within Alaska. Similarly, the project also led to a powerful museum exhibit in downtown Anchorage with the pictures, stories, and audio of the 27 men and women who were a part of Unheard. While they ran a survivor’s story every day in the Anchorage Daily News for a month, the paper also ran five longer pieces on Sundays to highlight individuals whose stories capture the five themes they uncovered in their research.

Furthermore, one of the main contributors to the Unheard Project, explained that she “still hears from the sources…the person [she] hears from the most is someone who dropped out…She continues to do work on sexual assault in the state …she thinks of us as thought partners,” explained Adriana Gallardo in an interview. Overall, the impact of Unheard can be felt amongst the community of survivors and in the engaged journalism sector. Gallardo explained that many survivors felt heard and respected, which is something that’s a rare occurrence in Alaska surrounding sexual assault. In terms of engaged journalism, the Unheard Project showed journalists an ethical way to incorporate sources in the writing and fact-checking process, something that hasn’t been done a lot, especially surrounding topics like sexual assault or trauma reporting.

Here’s How it Happened

Background: In 1973, Sue Royston was attacked at knifepoint by a stranger who broke into her Fairbanks’s home through a bathroom window. During this time rape kits were being developed, police doubted victims, people lost their jobs, and survivors of attacks like Royston’s were pushed aside by society. A now-retired grandmother and great-grandmother, Royston still feels the effects not only from the assault but from the way she was treated by the police and the people around her. There are thousands of stories like this one that lay buried because people never took the time to hear them.

Starting Out: The Anchorage Daily News began the research and writing process back at the end of 2018 by sending out Google forms asking for stories of sexual assault in the state of Alaska. Once ProPublica’sLocal Reporting Network joined their reporting, they sent out a second callout form in May 2019. This issue has run rampant throughout the community, and even though this is the case, many people were and still are reluctant to speak out. So surprisingly, they received many responses from people ready to share their stories and expose the people and systems that allow this continual abuse.

Interviews: After receiving hundreds of responses, the team began calling individuals for interviews about their stories. In addition to interviews, they held a community event in an arctic village on the northern coast of Alaska that focused on face-to-face interactions between survivors and their community. It allowed the Unheard team to learn about the culture surrounding this topic and how the community speaks about this tough issue.

Creating the Story: After conducting interviews and holding community events, the team had listened to survivors speak, saw the effects of sexual abuse in the community, and had some data, but still had no idea what their piece was going to be or that it would eventually turn into Unheard. After analyzing their responses, the team was able to identify five themes that arose from the responses. These themes included: those who were victimized more than once, those who didn’t report their assault because they thought no one would believe or help them, those who reported their assault but didn’t get justice, and those who felt they didn’t fit in so they couldn’t get help, and those who felt the system intended to help had traumatized them further. They categorized the stories under these five themes, presented them to their editors, and Unheard was born.

Photographing Unheard: After creating a design plan for the stories based on a first-person perspective, the Unheard team decided that the survivors themselves should choose how they want to be photographed with their stories. Each person profiled had choices in how they were represented. The team asked each participant to think of a place, person or activity that they enjoy that is meaningful to their story and who they are. Each person interpreted this prompt differently, as can be seen through the images of Unheard. Some chose to be portrayed with their families, others decided to wear treasured clothing given to them by people important to their lives. Each participant also decided who else they wanted to include in the picture and to what extent they would be identifiable in the portrait. The goal was to show who has helped the survivors on their road to recovery, what they might wear to feel empowered, and where a safe and comfortable place is for them.

Designing the Layout: By this point in the process, they had about 30 stories with accompanying images that needed to be organized in an original way, they didn’t want to just publish a long list of stories. They designed a website where their content could live in a way that allowed space for each story, each quote, and each image to exist. The site also provided a guide for sources and support as well as links that offered insight into their methodology.Post-Publishing Effects:  While publishing Unheard online, The Anchorage Daily News made a point to publish individual stories every day for a month to spread awareness of each personal journey, and each Sunday five of these stories expanded into longer, feature stories. The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica also provided links to resources that walk people through what to do after experiencing a sexual assault and what the steps are if you want to report one. Additionally, the Anchorage Museum reached out to create an exhibit that included portraits of each of the people, their stories, and the audio of the interviews.

Here’s What Worked

1. Collaboration between sources and photographers

Anchorage Daily News photographers traveled over 10,000 miles to take survivors’ portraits in their hometowns or special locations that provided special meaning. The Unheard project allowed subjects to choose the location of their portraits, what attire they wore, and who, if they chose to, would accompany them in their portraits. For example, one source chose to include their spouse and two young children. This allowed compromise to occur since the collaboration between sources and photographers was considered unusual for a traditional print newspaper. It ultimately helped share ownership of the work and gave the survivors more power over their own stories.

2. Callout Forms

The Unheard Project used callout forms to allow sexual assault survivors to share their stories in their own words. This not only provided survivors who were ready to tell their story, a space to share but the questions included in the callout form helped journalists see where the justice system fell short in preventing sexual assault.

3. The Blank Page

On July 1, Page One of the Anchorage Daily News was left completely blank. Only a few words near the fold explained: “Talking about rape and sexual assault is difficult. Many survivors may not be able to do so right now. This space is dedicated to those not ready to share. We’re leaving this open for you.” This blank page had an impact on readers. One survivor kept the blank page and wrote her own story by hand. Another became inspired to pursue a criminal investigation after reading the series.

Here’s What Could Have Worked Better

1. Arranging Counseling

Those working on the Unheard project often heard from survivors that after they reported their crime, the police went silent. Many had no clue if their case was still under investigation. It may have been helpful if journalists offered to help the survivors who had a difficult time finding their status. According to Hopkins, “While we took pains to talk to publish stories that gave survivors an idea of what happens when a sex crime is reported, and what they might expect from the different institutions involved, we didn’t consider arranging for counseling or professional follow-up help for the story subjects. If we could do the project over, I think we would want to consider baking that into the process.”

2. Long-form Follow-Ups

Five longer-form pieces were published, and written by the team of reporters. Due to the follow-up being written in the traditional news article format, the story was filtered through the lens of a reporter instead of through the words of the survivors.

Here’s What Else You Should Know

  • Museum: The stories featured in the Unheard project as a photography installation at the Anchorage Museum. 27 portraits are printed on nine-foot panels along the building and audio from the subjects detailing their stories is also featured.
  • Awards: The Unheard Project was the recipient of the 2021 OJA/Gather Award in Engaged Journalism – Overall Excellence, The Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, The Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism, The Ethics in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Inaugural winner in the community journalism category with The American Society of Magazine Editors.

Learn More

To learn more, check out the following to learn about the project:

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