There is one very special kind of email that occasionally finds its way into a reporter’s inbox. It’s from a reader who identifies in some way with a story you wrote — and has something they’d like to share.
Almost two years ago, Washington Post investigative reporter Amy Brittain received one of these emails from Carole Griffin, a baker in Birmingham, Ala. Brittain had recently published a story about Lauren Clark, a D.C. hairdresser who was sexually assaulted by a prominent local chef. That story followed Clark through the D.C. justice system, where prosecutors ultimately charged the chef with misdemeanors and a judge sentenced him to 10 nonconsecutive days in jail.
Griffin read that story, and recognized the name of the judge who doled out the sentence: Truman A. Morrison III. It was the man who she says sexually assaulted her when she was 16.
Brittain immediately followed up, and decided to visit Griffin in Birmingham. Thinking the story might be a good fit for “Post Reports,” The Post’s daily podcast, Brittain brought along a tape recorder.
That tape was the beginning of “Canary: The Washington Post Investigates,” The Post’s first long-form investigative podcast.
“Canary” — produced by Reena Flores and Bishop Sand — braids together the experiences of Griffin and Clark, bringing listeners into the difficult decision to come forward with a story of sexual assault. I talked to Brittain and Flores about how they shaped this powerful project, years in the making.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It includes light spoilers for the podcast.
Caroline Kitchener: At what point did you decide that this should be a podcast, not just a written story?
Amy Brittain: When I was down in Birmingham for the first time, I was just blown away by the material I was gathering — just the way Carole was able to immediately articulate the struggle of coming forward. I felt like that was really rare to hear, and to be given permission to record. When I came back to D.C., I remember telling Reena: I think there’s something bigger here than a daily podcast episode. I asked, “Can you just listen to this material and let me know?”
Reena Flores: It was a treasure trove. Audio of Amy getting on board the plane, traveling from interview to interview, person to person. Searching for documents. All of those things and more.
CK: What was it about this story that made it such a good fit for audio?
RF: Lauren and Carole were able to articulate their struggles in ways that came off so clearly in an audio piece. And in addition to those central characters, there are a number of other very interesting voices involved: Carole’s ex-husband, her partner, her parents. The fact that we had all these voices on the record and also on tape, and with them all being so different and textured, I think that all lent itself really well to an audio story.
AB: In my previous reporting of sexual assault and harassment cases, I’ve often had these extremely meaningful, emotional conversations on the phone for hours about the struggle to come forward. But I’ve never had permission to tape any of that. I’ve never in any way been able to describe that process so the reader gets it.
The call you hear in episode five really stands out to me in the reporting process. When Carole called me, I thought there was a decent chance that she had changed her mind, and she didn’t want to do this anymore. And honestly if she had made that decision, we would have pulled the plug.
CK: How far into the process were you at that point?
AB: That was months into it. What that call shows is that I’m a human being before I’m a journalist. And if I hear someone struggling to that level, if I feel like I’m contributing in any way to that person’s mental anguish, I’m going to back off. Because no story is worth that. So I just listened and we talked through it, and she went through this transformation on the call. She felt so compelled to speak what she said was the truth, publicly, that it had become a guiding force in her life.
CK: Listening to this podcast, there were moments when I could feel myself shaking, getting emotional. When you’re putting something like this together, how personally and emotionally invested do you allow yourselves to get?
RF: Back when we were still in our offices, still at desks, I remember listening to the tapes of the phone calls Amy had, being on some of those phone calls — and I remember not being able to be a composed human being. The moments when I think you felt shaky and emotional, Caroline, those were probably some of the same moments that I remember at my desk.
In some ways, I think not being so distant from the emotion of a story can really help you editorially. It helps you craft a better story. It helps you craft a narrative that will also resonate with other people. At the end of the day, the people who are listening to it will come away with a deep connection and emotional experience, in addition to the facts.
CK: When I’m interviewing a victim and it gets emotional, I feel this intense impulse to comfort — to be there for her as a person, not just as a journalist. And I’m never really sure if that’s the right thing to do as a reporter. Would you say you comfort people like Carole and Lauren during these conversations?
AB: I wouldn’t say that I comfort people, but I let them know that it’s okay to have that reaction in a conversation with me. They don’t have to feel like they somehow need to compose themselves. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to curse. You hear all of those moments in “Canary,” and I think those are the moments that have really connected with listeners. We’re not cutting anyone off, making it seem like a rosier version of reality. We’re letting people sit with those moments. Those moments can be really intense but I think we owe it to the listener to present them in full.
CK: By the end of the podcast, you have several emails from Judge Morrison. But he never agrees to an interview. What was it like to do this podcast without talking to him?
AB: As an investigative reporter, my goal was to get Judge Morrison to agree to an interview with me. I very much still would like to ask him questions, but I can’t force anyone to do that. If someone doesn’t agree to engage with you in a meaningful way for a story, you have to go down different reporting pathways to learn as much as you can from people around him.
CK: You end up weaving in the voices of Morrison’s friends and supporters, some of whom are very critical of Carole. What were you hoping to get across with those perspectives?
RF: We wanted to showcase that this is a viewpoint people have — the things that Carole feared about coming forward in this process, they’re real, they’re legitimate. Hannah Jopling, [a close friend of Judge Morrison’s,] says, “Why hasn’t Carole been in therapy?” And Amy pushes back and says, “Well she actually has been in therapy for several decades now.” The listener can synthesize that for themselves without Amy having to editorialize. The tape speaks for itself.
AB: I didn’t want to tell people how to feel about these moments. We want to show that people view Carole, Lauren and Judge Morrison in very different ways. And I think there is a lot of validity to letting the listeners realize that in the year 2020, years into the #MeToo movement, people view those who come forward with allegations of sexual assault in different ways. Like Reena said, some of Carole’s fears were realized. She feared that people would blame her for ruining his career, and on the podcast you hear someone saying that it’s not worth telling the story because it will hurt [Morrison’s] reputation.
CK: How did Lauren and Carole react to “Canary”?
AB: Throughout the process, Carole was repeatedly puzzled by the fact that The Washington Post was so interested in her story. She had a lot of doubts. She’d say, “Are you sure that people will care about this?”
I’ve been in touch with both Carole and Lauren since the podcast was released. Carole binged it in one day, and Lauren is still making her way through it. Last time I talked to her she was on episode three. I thought since I had told Lauren’s story previously, perhaps it would be easier for her to listen to this in one sitting, but that has proved not to be the case. Lauren has said that she experienced a profound sense of grief when listening to the initial episodes, acknowledging the trauma that she and Carole have both experienced. It’s a reminder to me that the path of dealing with trauma does not look the same — story to story, person to person.