'Go-to' sexual assault reporter Maggie Rahr on minimizing further harm
The award-winning journalist hosts Carrie Low VS., a new investigative series from CBC Podcasts
In the spring of 2018, Carrie Low reported to police that she'd been drugged, kidnapped and raped. But Low says police mishandled her case and caused further anguish.
Now, she's fighting back against the institutions she says failed her. Award-winning investigative journalist Maggie Rahr has been reporting on this case since 2019, and now hosts the latest release from CBC Podcasts that chronicles Low's ongoing quest for justice, titled Carrie Low VS.
CBC Podcasts spoke with Rahr about the making of the podcast, and the experience of reporting on such troubling stories. Here is part of their conversation.
How did this case come across your radar, and what's your involvement been with this story since?
I've reported on many violent sexual assaults in Nova Scotia. Without intending to, I kind of became the local go-to reporter for this type of story. When someone calls you and describes a terrible incident and then says "I hear you're the person to talk to" it's a massive privilege, and a duty. I heard about this story from an advocate of Carrie's. She reached out to me and said Carrie would like to meet. That was back in May 2019, and I've been working on the story ever since.
What can you tell us about the case being explored in Carrie Low VS.?
I think most people have an idea that if you're violently attacked and you go to police, that officers will apprehend the people responsible, and justice will be served. Unfortunately, what we hear from sexual assault survivors is that this so often isn't the case. Carrie's story is extraordinary because she has persisted in working with the police despite many, many barriers. She has never given up, and she's still trying to find out what actually happened in the investigation into her (alleged) rape.
The details are horrific: Carrie was out at a bar, an average night. She reported to police that she was drugged, abducted by strangers, and gang raped.
But really the story is about what was actually going on in the police investigation.
What's your experience been like, recording a podcast and conducting interviews in a pandemic-restricted world?
The only real barrier for me personally has been not being able to attend court in person. A lot of the important details that take place can get lost if you're not in the actual room. I was able to phone in to the court — but there's often a lot of mumbling and sometimes the devil really is in the details. By and large we've been lucky in Nova Scotia and I've been able to conduct in-person interviews which is crucial in a case as sensitive as Carrie's.
I have tremendous respect for Carrie. - Maggie Rahr, journalist & host
What's your relationship to Carrie? How has it been working so closely with her throughout this process?
Carrie really is a remarkable person. As I mentioned before, I've worked on investigations involving sexual violence and systemic failure, and often, my sources are people who have not only been traumatized but who are actively living with the impacts of trauma. I think this is actually a really important aspect of journalism that we don't talk enough about — we have so many journalistic standards and practices in place to protect the necessary rigours of the work, but often that does not include what I believe are the necessary approaches to telling these types of stories. So after two years of Carrie telling me about one of the most horrific experiences a person can endure, we have gotten to know each other quite well. It's not what you'd consider a typical source/reporter relationship, because it can't be. Here is someone who has given me details of an extraordinary trauma, and shared all of the developments in her experience with police and the legal system in real time. I have tremendous respect for Carrie.
Too often the media, and journalists, are responsible for re-traumatizing victims and/or survivors of crimes.- Maggie Rahr, journalist & host
Why is it important to you to build this type of relationship when telling someone else's story?
Too often the media, and journalists, are responsible for re-traumatizing victims and/or survivors of crimes. I think it's entirely possible to do this work with all of the fact-checking and sourcing and research without further harming the person at the centre of the story. But this isn't how these stories have traditionally been told. And I think it's time to change that.
Some true crime content has been criticized for sensationalising elements of a story or de-centreing the victim and their humanity. How do you tell a story about a true crime ethically?
That's exactly it. I think at the end of the day it comes down to being humane. And knowing how to ask questions with respect — and humility — because of course there are difficult details that need to be mined. Very difficult territory. But it is absolutely possible to do this without contributing to harm. And I think a lot of that comes down to being able to be personally responsible. We as journalists have to consider our own language, our actions, our past flaws and failures in order to sit across from someone who has suffered such a violent trauma and to be able to tell that story.
Did anything shock or surprise you while investigating Carrie's case?
Yes. It's been a non-stop ride with this story and I can honestly say I've never covered anything else like it. But to reveal too much would give it away! I can say the most surprising experience in reporting this story is Carrie's willingness to keep going. Truly.
There are many traumatic, troubling elements to Carrie's story. How has it affected you, and how do you work through it?
It does affect you. There are tough days. But this story is not about me. And I try to see all of this pain in front of me, that this person is living through, as (and I don't want to sound grotesque here) an opportunity to explain to others what it's actually like to go through this. Carrie's unshakeable willingness to tell her story is actually a gift and it's a privilege for me to be able to try my best to tell this story. If even 10 people can understand rape culture, and how systems respond to such an incident — and are able to think differently about their role in these kinds of traumas — it's a victory.
This story is part of an ongoing legal case. What happens now?
Carrie's case is still before the criminal courts. A trial has yet to happen. So she must prepare for that. The story is ongoing.
Finally, what are you hoping that listeners will take away from this series?
I hope that listeners will gain an understanding of what it's like for survivors to come forward. What the cost is. And what happens when they do.
Q&A edited for length & clarity. Written & produced by Émilie Quesnel.