ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: ‘After the Fall’ Reporting Team, Indiana Daily Student, Indiana University
By Samantha Puleo & Mary Kate Viggiano, CMM correspondents
In fall 2013, a trio of student journalists at Indiana University stitched together a compelling special report focused on the aftermath of an IU student’s sudden death.
Rachael Fiege, 18, died just two days into her freshman year after falling down some basement stairs during a house party. Through their enrollment in a core IU journalism course called Words & Pictures, Jessica Contrera, Anna Powell Teeter and Emma Grdina collaborated for more than three months to tell the story of what happened next.
“Something important we tried to emphasize the whole time was that this wasn’t about the night of the fall,” says Grdina, a recent IU graduate who is now a digital designer at The Washington Post. “It wasn’t about who was there, who wasn’t there, who did what. We could never prove exactly what happened, and even if we backtracked the story, there were things we could never answer. … So I’m always quick to emphasize the story is not meant to be about the night. It’s meant to be about after the accident.”
As Contrera, also a recent IU graduate, writes at the start of the piece:
“In the days before they buried her, no one knew how not to come undone. Her roommate dropped out of school. Her father kept abruptly needing to leave the room. And her mother, who looked so much like her already, started wearing her daughter’s clothes. … The news cameras rolled in, the university offered condolences and curious students looked for Rachael’s profile on Facebook. No one knew what role drinking had played in her death, but many were quick to assume. In online comments, news columns and whispered conversations, people were eager to cast blame. … But as Rachael’s family pieced together the details of what really happened that night, they realized something that others would prefer to ignore: what happened to Rachael could have happened to any student.”
Contrera, currently a Washington Post reporter, wrote the story. Grdina handled the multimedia elements. And Teeter, a senior majoring in journalism and studio art, captured the photographs. Although, by their accounts, this stated division of labor fails to even remotely capture the true teamwork and journalistic synergy involved in the report’s creation.
The report — headlined “After the Fall” — is a roughly 3,000-word, three-part tale stocked with iconic visuals and video supplements. It ran in early December on the Indiana Daily Student front page and is featured separately on its own permanent website.
The piece has been named the first-place winner of the 2014 ACP News Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.
While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.
In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Contrera, Grdina and Teeter graciously took time out to talk more about the origins and reporting rigors of “After the Fall.” They also share their reactions to the published story package they produced and offer advice to student journalists charged with reporting on a similar set of unfortunate circumstances.
How did “After the Fall” first take shape?
Contrera: All three of us were in a class together called Words and Pictures, which is essentially three classes in one. There is a class for writers, a class for multimedia people and a class for photographers. They meet separately once a week and then they meet together once a week. And you are put together in groups of three. We were able to request people for our teams, so I requested both Anna and Emma. … We officially had to pitch to our professor ideas for a project that could be a narrative long-form work of writing — something very visual that you could add photos to and then also be designed into an app or a website.
Grdina: We pitched three ideas. We had to pitch ideas knowing we would have to follow them all semester. So we pitched them knowing we would be working on them for a very, very long time and knowing we would be working very closely with our sources. And just to be clear, we were totally terrified to do this story. … This had happened maybe a couple weeks before. We were having a meeting, and by meeting I mean we were hanging out at Chipotle. And Rachael’s death was by count the fifth one, in four years, with unexplained circumstances, somewhat related to alcohol … and that just seemed a little bit outrageous. Her death was also really shocking because it was the first week of school and she’s a freshman. Just so many things about it would draw you to the story. And we all kind of felt that everyone had just kind of forgotten about it already.
How would you describe the story to outsiders?
Contrera: There was a girl who during her very first weekend at college fell circumstance to something that could be taken as kids being irresponsible or college drinking problems. But really what happened to her is something that could happen to any one of us, yet because of the way it was covered it’s easy for all of the other college students to be like, “Oh, she must have been really drunk, that could have never been me” or “That could never have been my best friend.” And so I think by getting to know her better and getting to know what her family was going through you come away with the idea that this isn’t a freak occurrence. That now it’s going to shape the rest of her family’s lives, and the rest of this girl’s friends’ lives.
Grdina: Something important we tried to emphasize the whole time was that this wasn’t about the night of the fall. It wasn’t about who was there, who wasn’t there, who did what. We could never prove exactly what happened, and even if we backtracked the story, there were things we could never answer. … So I’m always quick to emphasize the story is not meant to be about the night. It’s meant to be about after the accident.
You spent a lot of time with Rachael’s family and friends. What were some of the related ethical or practical reporting challenges?
Contrera: The class was extremely helpful. I don’t want to say we weren’t ready to handle it. But, you know how it is, being students. … At what point in your career are you ready to spend time with a mom who just lost her kid? I don’t think you’re ever ready for that, so as a 21-year-old that was really hard. We were very lucky to have three knowledgeable and experienced professors who were there for us. But there were certainly emotional challenges because this was all very fresh.
We were very fortunate Mrs. Fiege [Rachael’s mother] let us in, but she was very raw. I don’t think we went to speak with her one time when she didn’t start crying. And we went to speak with her once a week for two or three months. … We first met her September 29th. It was almost exactly a month after Rachael’s death. And the story was published on December 6th, so pretty much at least once a week for every week in between except for maybe Thanksgiving. … It’s hard not to cry yourself, especially when you’re getting to know the person. But you can’t sit there and cry because we don’t know her daughter even though we were trying to learn. It would be wrong to sit there and cry. But we cried a lot when we went home.
Teeter: It was hard to know we were going over to make her cry and make her talk about her daughter. Even though she told us she loved seeing us and we reminded her of Rachael, I couldn’t help but feel bad that we were bringing up things she didn’t want to deal with.
Contrera: We tried to make it clear in the beginning that if we ever called her or were coming over and she didn’t want to deal with us at that time, to just tell us. And that did happen once when I called her and she said, “Not today.” … We never made her do anything she wasn’t already doing. So, we were up there reporting for the second or third time and obviously we wanted to follow her to her daughter’s grave because that would be such an awesome reporting experience. But we would never ask her to take us. Yet, it was something she brought up completely on her own. She said, “Well, girls, after you leave, I’m probably going to go to Rachael’s grave, but if you want you can come with me.” So we were never putting her in a situation where she was doing something she wouldn’t have done if we weren’t there.
Grdina: We always kept in mind it was a fresh event, so we had to try to remember what all these people were going through. There were so many people we would have wanted to talk to, like friends for example. But they were dealing with losing their friend their first week on campus. So we had to be mindful and considerate as to what they were going through. It was hard to learn at first. We never wanted to take advantage of Mrs. Fiege letting us into her home. We were so gracious for her letting us tell her story in the first place.
Along with interviewing and observing Rachael’s mother, what else went into the reporting process?
Contrera: There were a lot of other things that went into it. Talking to Rachael’s other family members and different friends. Talking to people from the hospital. Talking to students. Trying to gather as much information from the police that we could. But, yes, most importantly spending time with Mrs. Fiege.
I imagine you guys were a lot more helpful with her than even you might have realized.
Contrera: Yes and no. I think it helped her process. I think some days were made more painful for Mr. and Mrs. Fiege. They were pleased with the story, as far as what it did to help other students, but I do still worry that Mrs. Fiege used to joke, “Oh, you guys are my therapists.” That’s not what your job is as a journalist. You’re not supposed to be a therapist. We never felt like we needed to say anything to her. I do hope the story was helpful to her. But, at the end of the day, writing the story was not about being helpful to her — so we have to kind of live with what it was, if that makes sense.
From what you observed and heard, what was the general reader reaction to the story once it ran?
Teeter: I think it got an overall positive response. Jessica probably received a lot of feedback as the writer of the story. But I had a lot of people come up to me personally saying what we did was really great in giving a voice to the voiceless, telling her story, making her known as more than just the girl who fell down the stairs the first weekend. I felt like we received more positive feedback than negative. And even today, it’s still receiving some feedback.
Grdina: I was nervous for the piece to run. I was nervous to see how students were going to react. As you know, working in the media, everyone has opinions. Were they going to say we took advantage of the situation or that we were nosey or we forced people into talking to us or we covered it with distaste? I was just nervous because I knew that was not what we did and we handled it with the utmost care. I was surprised at how positive it was. We heard from people who had tweeted about it and who mentioned the story and talked about how Rachael’s story was one that was going to stick with them.
What were each of you happiest with about the published story package?
Teeter: It was by far the hardest story I’ve ever worked on. I think I speak for all three of us saying we were emotionally drained by the end of it. It was such a hard story to tell, but we knew it needed to be told. I was most happy we could make Rachael more of a person. When news of her death initially hit, there were a lot of horrible comments on the IU website about IU being a party college and “stupid freshman girl falls down the stairs” and just things that are really rude to say about someone when you don’t even know them. I think that happens a lot in tragedies like this. It explodes, gets national attention and then it all goes away. So I think we tried to make Rachael more of a person. It meant a lot to me that we could try to give her a voice on this campus.
Grdina: I feel like there isn’t just one part of the whole story I would point to and say, “This is the one thing.” Of course, we’re happy about the parts we each worked on, but … my favorite part is that it works very well together. As the multimedia person who put it all together, I like to think it’s not meant to be consumed one piece at a time. It’s meant to be an entire story with the photos and the multimedia and the words. And that was the whole point of the class we took. That was the best part for me.
“Emma and I have a chalkboard that has a quote on it right now from Amy Poehler. It says, ‘Great people do things before they are ready,’ which I think is for us what happened. I think we easily could have said, ‘We can’t handle such an emotional, complicated story.’ I think a lot of people fall into that trap where they tell themselves, ‘Oh, when I’m older I’m going to do that kind of work.’ But in college you can do anything you want! That’s the great part about it. So why not do what you want to do ‘one day’ now?” – Jessica Contrera
What is a standout memory from the whole experience?
Grdina: This might sound a little intense. The biggest thing I remember is the first time I cried in front of a professor. I don’t usually like to show [emotions]. You know, we’re journalists. I don’t like to do that in front of anyone. And when we were putting together the piece on one of the last nights … I lost it. It was just so sad. It affected me on so many different levels and I think it was so important the emotion didn’t go away. It sounds a little funny, but I think it was really important we remembered why we were telling this story and why it mattered. Certainly, I didn’t necessarily want to bring tears to the readers, but I thought it was important we captured all the emotions we were feeling. And, so, I think the first and probably only time I’ve cried in front of a professor will definitely stick with me.
Contrera: I think that is representative for all of us. We all had a moment. … The three of us separately — luckily it wasn’t at the same time — but we all, for lack of a better phrase, we all lost our shit. My moment was when there’s a paragraph in the story … that says something about all the things Rachael would never see or do. … That came to me because there was this day where — we’re all in really close friends group and we had a really great senior year — and one day we all went to this football game. It was really beautiful outside. The leaves were changing. I was using it as a day to get a break from the story. And I was just feeling really appreciative of my friends and everything as I went to bed that night. And then I totally, within a second, snapped because I realized, you know, I get to have all of these things and Rachael doesn’t.
And despite all of those other things — the drinking, the politics of the university, Rachael’s mom — all those things sort of went away and in that moment I just couldn’t stop thinking she’s never going to get to do all this stuff I’ve gotten to do in college. So I went in my roommate’s room and I lost it. I cried for like an hour. … That definitely still affects me.
Teeter: The memory that sticks out to me the most was the week when the story was going to run. I think it was Monday and the story was going to run that Friday. And it all became very real. We were self-checking. I was going back through every single photo I’d taken in the last three months, you know, making sure the ones we had selected were the right photos and they worked best with the story. … There was one night we all went to Emma’s house. It was so late. It was the end of the semester. And we had all neglected our other classes so much because the story was everything to us. It was the focus of our semester. So Jess had printed out her story. We laid it out on the floor, and I printed out big pictures of all my images and we were inserting all the photos within the story and kind of planning out the website together. … And we have a picture — Jess took a picture of us that I look at often — because it all became so real then that all this hard work was for something bigger than, like, a piece for our portfolios. We were not doing this for ourselves whatsoever. This was all about Rachael and her family. And it was that night when it all started to come together, like, “This is the real thing. This is really going to happen.” That was kind of a turning point for me.
Tell us about the story’s multimedia component.
Grdina: Very early on we realized if we wanted the story to have a wide-reaching impact, it really needed to be made into a website. … I was really interested in exploring different ways we could use digital media in trying to tell the story, but I felt it was kind of insensitive to put a camera in front of Mrs. Fiege just a month or two after her daughter had passed away. So I didn’t want the multimedia videos to be interviews of Mrs. Fiege, you know, crying or anything that was too invasive like that. So we talked through exactly what we wanted the multimedia presentation to be. We thought it was important that we addressed how this is a big issue and how can we maybe fix it. So we quickly set out to say, “These are the available resources on campus, should you find yourself in that situation or if you are trying to avoid that situation or if you are working through that situation.” And that was how we identified how the three videos were going to come together. Then from there we realized we could use photos and audio to explore other aspects of the story, so that was how Anna’s audio slideshow came together.
Teeter: That was helpful for me because we only got to see Mrs. Fiege about once a week, and each of us individually didn’t get to see her. … We would talk to her, but it was only every two or three weeks that I would be able to get a photograph. And something I really struggled with doing this project was, as a photographer, how do you photograph a feeling? Or how do you photograph a person who’s no longer there? So, from a photography standpoint, that was really hard. Photographing Mrs. Fiege was kind of all I had. And I wanted to be able to expand the story beyond just Rachael and make it relatable to other college students too.
So that was a way I could keep working and keep photographing. … Even though the point of the story is not at all that “drinking is bad” or you shouldn’t do it, we wanted to really emphasize this could have happened to anyone. So, for those three months, I went to so many parties and shows and I just took photographs of party culture. Not to say that party culture is bad, just to say that this is what we do as college students and there are resources available to us when things get troublesome or scary. … So that was a big part of how I could contribute photographically and add something else that was visual to the story.
What advice would you offer student journalists tackling a similar topic or multimedia story package?
Grdina: You have to work with people you trust. With us, we are each other’s, like, “go to.” Very early on, I said to them, “I don’t like to let my walls down.” I remember Jess calling me and being like, “I do this, this and this when I’m stressed, so if I’m doing that you need to tell me. You need to call me out and cut me off.” And I came back and said, “Well you need to watch for when I do this.” So, that’s my biggest piece of advice: You have to trust the people you’re working with. Be able to trust them to talk to the sources without you there; to be able to explore with them a different part of the story you haven’t yet considered; and to be able to bounce ideas off of each other. Because we would never have been able to report this story without each other.
Teeter: Collaboration was definitely what made the story a success. Without one of the three parts it wouldn’t have worked. … Also, with reporting such a sensitive and intense topic, we were all 100 percent fully committed to the project. It trumped every other commitment or meeting or class we had. This was definitely our priority. … We worked on this story every single day for three months — and if we needed to meet it really didn’t matter if one of us had a class or another obligation. All those other things got kind of pushed aside because this was what we knew was important.
Contrera: Emma and I have a chalkboard that has a quote on it right now from Amy Poehler. It says, “Great people do things before they are ready,” which I think is for us what happened. I think we easily could have said, “We can’t handle such an emotional, complicated story.” I think a lot of people fall into that trap where they tell themselves, “Oh, when I’m older I’m going to do that kind of work.” But in college you can do anything you want! That’s the great part about it. So why not do what you want to do “one day” now?
Teeter: It’s the best way to learn. When will you ever be ready to do it if you don’t just try it? We all learned so much from this experience it made us better journalists and also definitely affected me as a person and affected my everyday life. If you would have asked me the summer before the class started, “Oh, do you want to cover this story on a student death?” I would’ve said the same thing: “No, no way. Maybe when I’m done with college. Maybe when I’ve done a few more big stories.” I definitely wasn’t ready for it either, but just jumping in and doing it made all the difference.
Contrera: Something that they repeated to us over and over in the class — and something that was incredibly important for getting the story at the level we got it — is you can never assume people don’t want to talk to you or don’t want you to be there. Because first off, your instinct is like, “Oh, this stranger is grieving over the tragedy of losing her daughter. … Who am I to go up to her and say, ‘Tell me all about it’?” That’s a really scary thing to do.
Grdina: So the thing all semester was, “Just ask.” We’d be sitting there like, “Well, why should they let us, like, follow them to the grocery store?” And [the course professors] would be like, “Well, they haven’t said no yet, have they? Why don’t you just ask?” And then we would ask, and we were shocked at the fact Mrs. Fiege asked us to go the gravesite with her.
Contrera: Here’s an example: the photos on her phone. We knew early on there were photos on Rachael’s phone from, like, less than an hour before she died. … And that’s such a hard thing to ask for, right? I’m sure her mom doesn’t want to look at those photos let alone let a stranger look at them, because maybe that person’s going to judge them or whatever else. There are a million reasons why you could be too afraid to ask, but having those photos was so crucial to the story. … You can never just assume you’re not going to get access. Of course, sometimes you won’t. We went and knocked on the door of the house where Rachael fell and they totally shut us out. So, that’s that. But you have to be willing to ask.