Saturday January 19, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- One day 25 years ago a woman came storming into the offices of the Reformer with a letter in hand, enraged about an article that had just run in the paper.

That article was headlined "Assault suspect sought," gave little detail about the assault other than where it occurred, the age of the victim and that the police were asking for information.

"I knew it was a piece of dynamite," said Norm Runnion, who was the managing editor of the Reformer at the time.

But after talking with the woman, he knew exactly what he had to do.

That letter ended up running on the front page with its own headline across all six columns: "Rape victim: ‘Enraged,' not ‘embarrassed.'"

Runnion also assigned one of his reporters to talk with the Brattleboro Police Department about how it reported crimes such as rape.

Runnion told Steven K-Brooks, who wrote an article about the April 20, 1988 front page for Editor & Publisher magazine, that he saw running the letter as "an opportunity to deal with an issue that's been swept under the rug for too long."

Runnion believed calling the rape an assault minimized the impact the crime had on the victim.

In an interview, the woman said she wrote the letter because she was enraged at how both the police and the newspaper reported the crime.

"I wanted people to know that this dangerous thing had happened in Brattleboro; why didn't people know?"

"Members of the public have a right to know every detail of an event such as that which has happened to me for two reasons: To help apprehend the perpetrator and to help protect themselves," she wrote in the letter.

She wrote that both the police and the press had the obligation to report the facts of a crime because "The community needs to know the type of criminal activity being carried on here, and ... (it) is best done through focused discussion and conscious thoughtful press releases."

Runnion told K-Brooks that when he received the letter from the woman, he said to the victim, "I've been looking for those words for years," because he had believed rape was a crime of violence and not a sex crime.

In an editorial explaining why the Reformer decided to run the letter on the front page, Runnion wrote that secrecy and misinformation did nothing more than encourage stigmatization of rape victims.

"If, on the other hand, victims are ‘enraged,' not ‘embarrassed,' they will pick up the phone immediately. If police have that information quickly, they can act quickly. More rapists will be arrested, more jailed."

In an editor's note accompanying the letter, which Runnion said was the first time an unsigned letter had ran on the front page of a newspaper, he wrote that the letter "Offers lessons to be learned, and raises major issues of policy in how the police and the press treat such crimes."

The next day, the Reformer ran an article titled "Rape suspect sought," in which Bruce Campbell, who was then the police chief, said the department had not called the assault a rape because "Publicizing such a serious and personal assault on the woman in her own community seems to me to make her twice a victim."

He was concerned that though her name was not released, in a small town it wouldn't be too hard for people to figure out who the victim was.

The incident changed the way both the police and the newspaper reported sexual assaults.

But Runnion told K-Brooks all the credit belongs to the woman who walked into the newsroom with her letter.

"None of this would have been possible without her courage ... I think we have been able to change the perception of rape as a crime of violence in this community. I think other newspapers, the public, and the police ought to think about what has been accomplished in Brattleboro."

Linda Ducharme was the night editor at the time.

She said she was not surprised by Runnion's decision to run the letter on the front page.

"We knew it was the right thing to do and we felt proud we were doing it," she said. 

This is an example of how a small-town newspaper can influence a national discussion and change the way news is reported, said Runnion, who was the Reformer's editor for nearly 20 years and now lives in Brookfield.

K-Brooks said it took courage on the Runnion's part to handle the matter the way he did.

"If you're doing something that dramatic about such a sensitive issue that's never been done before, you either catch Hell or are a hero," he said.

K-Brooks said Runnion's action was in a long tradition of "crusading" newspapers.

"When somebody feels impelled to take a risk and take the lead on something, they can make a difference."

Theresa "Tego" Maggio entered the initial report in the newspaper and felt she had "dropped the ball" by not reporting it as a rape.

"From then on I looked at the word ‘assault' differently," she said.

Maggio said how Runnion handled the letter and the ensuing discussion was "courageous, innovative and new."

Even though it's been 25 years since the letter was published, a small-town newspaper still has to find the balance between protecting the identities of victims while providing a provocative and thoughtful voice that asks the community to grapple with these issues and not just report on the individual incidents, said Donna Macomber, the co-executive director (with Vickie Sterling) of the Women's Freedom Center.

And though the way people think about rape and sexual assaults has changed in 25 years, she said, the discussion still has a long way to go.

"There is still a lot of ignorance in how society views a woman who has experienced a sexual assault," she said. "They focus on the behavior of the woman and what she should have done, rather than on how dare someone feel they have the right to invade her body."

And then there is the nature of the judicial system, which is often long and drawn-out, making victims relive the experience a number of times when the recount the assault to investigators, lawyers and a judge and jury.

Convictions are rare, she said, and even when a perpetrator is convicted, sometimes their sentence is time served or probation, said Macomber.

"It just doesn't feel like justice. Many women want to forget it and put it behind them."

At the same time, Macomber said she is grateful for the women who are able to overcome the stigma and speak honestly about the experience of being assaulted.

"We feel an urgent responsibility to educate our community about how prevalent and how devastating these assaults are," she said. "People don't know that every single day in Windham County, women and children are victims of domestic and sexual violence."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.