The Backstory: Rosa Goldensohn and Rachael Levy

Goldensohn and Levy discuss cultivating sources, reporting on law enforcement agencies, and creating a reporting plan.

Last summer, national media focused on a new law in Tennessee which defined illegal behavior while pregnant as a crime chargeable with assault. The law allows up to 15 years in prison as punishment for narcotic drug use while pregnant which opponents feared would drive pregnant drug users underground. For an Investigative Fund story published in The Nation, Rachael Levy and Rosa Goldensohn traveled to Tennessee to investigate whether these fears had been realized and found that pregnant women were unable to access drug treatment programs and were afraid to give birth in hospitals, leading some to take desperate measures to keep their children. —Queen Arsem-O’Malley

Rosa Goldensohn: My name’s Rosa Goldensohn. I am now a reporter for DNAInfo New York, which is a local website. At the time we did this story, I was a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, that’s the City University of New York.

Rachael Levy: My name is Rachael Levy, I’m currently a reporter at Absolute Return; we’re a trade publication covering the US hedge fund industry here in New York, and I met Rosie as a grad student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, also in New York.

Queen Arsem-O’Malley: This story is about the effects of criminalizing basically an entire population of women in Tennessee, and your subjects were the people who were going underground to escape the surveillance of the state. How did you find and contact these sources for your story?

RL: We started very broadly—we hadn’t covered this issue before. I had never been to Tennessee before — I think Rosie had — but we hadn’t reported there before on this issue. So we started very broad. First, we’re just reading everything we can about the law and just anything and everything and contacting every organization, every person pretty much that’s cited in these stories and just starting from there, from New York, making tons of phone calls and doing as many kind of informational interviews as we can. Then we got to Tennessee, and we went for a week and it was just jam-packed every day, we had meetings set up and we asked everybody we could, “Hey do you know any women who were affected by this?” Okay, you have a friend of a friend? Can you put me in touch with them? And that was a very hard process, you know, getting people who were willing to speak with us, to trust us. But I think that was the only way we could — we had to be there on the ground so people could see us in person, know who we were, also.

RG: I think we started with the obvious stakeholders, like advocacy organizations. There’s certain national organizations that will have branches, like the ACLU, and then other national organizations that work on this, like NAPW [National Advocates for Pregnant Women]. And then from there, they know about local organizations on the ground, so then NAPW pointed us to Cherisse Scott, who was in Memphis, who’s doing local work with impacted people, and then from there she’ll connect us with other people who are on the ground. And I think the big leap is always from people who provide the services to people who are really impacted, and not that that always is a huge leap because there are some places where services are provided by impacted people, especially in the drug treatment world, but there’s also often a big gap so I think that got bridged in a few different creative ways. I mean, we reached out to anyone who was quoted in any local news, we Google Alerted for every person that was arrested, we had key words for any kind of local coverage. So we relied a lot, actually, on local media because anytime a local person was mentioned who was arrested we found them, we tried to find them, we tried to talk to them, and one person that we talked to who connected us to another source was somebody who the Tennesseean had interviewed. We followed other peoples’ trails so a couple people we talked to came through advocates, and we also did just some really direct outreach like going to methadone clinics in the morning when people go to get their dose, and we talked to people. So we went where we knew people who were affected would be.

QAO: And when you’re talking to these sources, you’re from out of town, you’re talking to them about very personal issues and often maybe even dangerous for them to be talking about. How did you build your relationships and trust with these sources when you were talking to them?

RL: For me, I just try to be as sensitive as I can and as understanding as I can; I don’t want to come off as judgmental. Rosie can speak to this a little bit more, but there’s a lot of kind of ingrained stereotypes that we learn about drug users, language that we say even “being clean.” So instead of “Are you trying to get clean?” you ask, “Are you still using?” Terms like that. That was something that I had to learn also so I don’t want to be judging people, I don’t want to scare anyone off obviously, but I also want to be a human being, understand where someone else is coming from. So I think that helped and — this is something I mentioned to you a little earlier — but I think also I’m not sure if a male reporter could have gotten the same access that Rosie and I were able to because these are reproductive issues — this law targets women only. I think it’s something that would have been a lot harder for a male reporter to find and to talk about.

RG: I think that we were very conscious of the fact that this is an incredibly stigmatized behavior. All drug use is so stigmatized and so we proceeded with that knowledge all the time, that okay, I know that whoever I’m about to talk to is expecting me to be coming at them with a certain set of beliefs about who they are, they may have those beliefs, they may have a lot of really negative feelings about the content of what I’m going to ask them about. So I personally try to really counteract that. I said to Jamillah Falls — who you might know has gone to prison now — when I first interviewed her, “I don’t think you’re a bad person for using drugs.” I don’t know journalistically what my professors would say about that, but I think that the assumption is so strong, especially people who’ve been kind of roasted in the press. People are used to being very antagonized by the press for criminal behavior, so I personally tried to counteract that a lot and also to use the language that people who use drugs use, and not talk about quote-unquote “these women.” I said to Rachael, “We’re not saying ‘these women’ anymore.” There’s just something monolithic about it that I really don’t like. So I think that’s part of it, and we were very conscious like, “okay, these women have been grilled on what they do and don’t do by law enforcement, there’s a law enforcement part of that, and we’re not going to sound like a prosecutor.”

QAO: And so before you met some of these sources in person, you friended them on Facebook and had used some other online ways to research them and contact them. Is this a strategy that you’d used before, and how do you think it played into then building a relationship with them when you got to Tennessee?

RL: The timeline is a little bit different on that. We did use Facebook a lot to find, to connect with some of the women — we’d get these Google Alerts saying there’s been another arrest, and so we’d scour online to see whatever we can find — is there any way to contact her? But I feel like we did most of that after we went to Tennessee, and to me being able to contact them through social media, for one it shows especially if I’m not there in person, shows I’m a real person, they can see my photos, my life, just as I can see theirs, I guess. It was just one way to just start the conversation and say listen, I’m coming from an understanding place. As Rosie was saying, I’m not here to judge you, I’m not here to get you in trouble, I’m not a prosecutor. I’m here to understand your story, and I want my story that I will eventually write to reflect your side, what you’ve been going through because that’s, a lot of times, what’s been missing in the conversation. So I’d start with something like that and then usually from there I’d get a phone number, schedule a time to talk, that kind of thing.

About the reporters

Rosa Goldensohn

Rosa Goldensohn

Rosa Goldensohn is a politics and government reporter for Crain's New York Business.

Rachael Levy

Rachael Levy

Rachael Levy is a reporter covering Wall Street investors for Business Insider in New York.