Earlier this year, The Globe and Mail ran a series called Unfounded, which revealed that approximately one in five sexual assault cases are deemed “unfounded” by police. Journalist Robyn Doolittle had led the twenty-month-long investigation, gathering data from more than 870 police forces. Since her story, more than thirty police forces working in more than 1,000 communities across Canada have committed to further investigations into the issue.
On November 30th at the CJFE Gala, Doolittle will be honoured with the CJFE/CWA Canada Arnold Amber Award for Investigative Journalism, which celebrates a journalist, investigative researcher or media worker who has made a significant contribution to advancing investigative public interest reporting in Canada.
We caught up with her this week.
SDTC: Can you describe your education/career trajectory? When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
RD: I went to Ryerson University and studied Journalism. The plan, back when I was in high school, was to be an actress. I’d settled on Ryerson’s theatre program. But I thought I should have a back up. I noticed the school also had a JSkool and I figured that could be fun. I did like writing.
As I looked into it, I realized I would need a portfolio of published work to apply to the journalism program. I made a pitch to the editor of the Sarnia Observer that he let me write a teen column and in a stroke of luck, he told me that the paper had actually been considering adding a page for teenagers. So I was a grade 12 student with a regular space in the local paper. It was an incredible experience and I was hooked. By the time it came to applying to university, I didn’t even bother with theatre school.
What were the biggest challenges you overcame in putting your Unfounded series together?
The biggest hurdles involved collecting the data. I had to gather the statistics through hundreds of freedom of information requests over a period of many months. I began looking into the unfounded issues in June 2015 at a time when the Ghomeshi trial was dominating headlines, and it seemed no matter where I went, people were talking about how “the system” was failing sexual assault victims. As a member of The Globe and Mail‘s investigative team, I was wondering if there was a way to actually look into that very broad issue, to take an anecdotal problem and focus on one aspect. That’s when I found a small study on this thing called unfounded rates, which I’d never heard of.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you would do differently in your career? What advice do you have to other young women who are just starting out in this field?
I wish I had learned French. I will one day. As for advice: Don’t be a jerk and work really hard. I realize that’s not earth-shattering advice, but there’s no magic pill here. When I was a young reporter, I made sure my editors knew I was always willing to make the extra call, to wait a bit longer at a crime scene, to make one more door knock, and it paid off.
What do you love the most about the work you do?
I feel incredibly privileged to do the work that I do. I’m incredibly proud of The Globe‘s Unfounded series and the change it has prompted.
What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
Five years from now, yikes! I had a baby in June, so these days I’m just trying to get through the next five minutes.