The Reporter and the Rape Victim

When an American journalist and a cadre of aid workers in Haiti set out to tell a horrible story, they thought they were on the same side. But it didn't turn out that way.

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AP


On September 17, 2010, magazine reporter Mac McClelland climbed into a car in Port-au-Prince. The driver, a Haitian man named Alain Charles, was speeding a young rape victim and her mother to the hospital, and had invited McClelland along. Parts of the Haitian capital had disintegrated into chaos following the earthquake earlier that year, and the sprawling refugee camps were producing stories of horrific and frequent sexual violence. McClelland, on assignment from Mother Jones, where she works, had come to investigate.

Within two days of arriving in Haiti, McClelland linked up with Charles, whose work as a driver and translator for some of Haiti's largest foreign aid organizations brings him into frequent contact with journalists. He's also the project coordinator for the Patricia Fleming Fund, which provides safehouses for Haitian rape victims. By taking a ride with one of those victims, a then-24-year-old mother of three, McClelland was hoping to put a human face on Haiti's rape epidemic.

Instead, their day together became the subject of a heated and still-roiling dispute over what really happened between McClelland and the young Haitian woman, over how McClelland told the story, and over the basic nature of the relationship between journalist, subject, and the intermediary who connects the two. Nearly a year later, the incident has divided much of Haiti's once tight-knit community of Western journalists and aid workers.

•       •       •       •       •


McClelland and the Haitian rape victim she shadowed on September 17 share no common language. The young woman, who now identifies publicly as K*, does not speak English, and McClelland lacks Haitian Creole, a notoriously difficult language for non-native speakers. Before and during her time with K*, McClelland relied on Charles to serve as interpreter. He assured McClelland that she had K*'s consent to ride along on the trip.

McClelland, an active Twitter user who today has over 12,000 followers, began tweeting from her smartphone shortly after getting into the car. "On my way to the hospital with a girl whose tongue was bitten off when she was raped," she wrote. And later: "This dr's consultation room has used gynecological exam materials lying about. And she will not look [K*] in the face." Her tweets throughout the day reported K*'s name, her medical exam, the story of her rape, and her return home to a camp McClelland described as "rape central."

Within hours, the riveting, revealing tweets had circulated widely, sparking a debate over whether K* was psychologically capable of giving consent so soon after such a traumatic incident. MotherJones.com posted a selection of the tweets, calling them "amazing real-time reportage" and asking readers to "Help fund Mac's Haiti trip." But when McClelland's in-depth, 6,000-plus-word feature ran in Mother Jones' print magazine in January, the article contained no mention of K* or of the ride-along that had earlier generated so much interest.

"You have no right. I did not speak to you."

Sorting out what exactly happened between September and January is difficult. By one account, K* never really consented to having her story told. This is the view of Jayne Fleming, a San Francisco lawyer and the founder of the Patricia Fleming Fund. Named for Jayne's mother, who left her collection of dresses to needy Haitian women just before she died in April 2010, the Fund provides housing and emergency medical care for Haitian rape victims. She says the plan was only for McClelland to go along for the trip. She adds that she and McClelland had agreed, through Charles, that anything McClelland eventually wrote would have to go through Fleming for approval.

"I am VERY careful to set ground rules when I work with reporters and I have worked with many, including in Haiti," Fleming wrote in a lengthy September 30 email to McClelland's editors, which she later posted in the comments section of a related article. "I thought I had set these rules with Mac when I asked her (through Alain) to speak with me before writing about my clients. I have never in ten years had a reporter violate such a verbal agreement."

Mother Jones editors-in-chief Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffrey dispute the Fleming account. They say that McClelland initially had the consent of K*, but she later revoked it, putting Mother Jones in a difficult position. McClelland and her editors insist they never agreed to give Fleming a veto over what McClelland wrote. "I think my understanding -- and I talked to Jayne quite a bit about this -- is we're all agreeing that Alain called her pretty much on the spot and got permission for the ride-along. And you know he then connected with the family and assured Mac that she had their permission," Bauerlein told me. For Fleming to request prior review would have been unusual; for a national publication like Mother Jones, known for its investigative reporting, to consent would have been very unusual. "I guess there are scenarios when you would want to do that but they would be few and far between," Bauerlein said.

In either case, the result was the same: K*'s story, which at one point was to be the centerpiece of the print article, barely appeared in the final version.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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