‘The Invisible Crime’

The work entitled ‘The Invisible Crime’ has been awarded the prize of Equality and Women’s Promotion Best Graphic Awards (Digital). The work was published in The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) and one of the reporters behind the piece, Nicole Precel, shares with us some of what went in to creating the piece and the challenges they faced.

Could you briefly explain the idea of the story? 

Sexual violence in Australia is pervasive but rarely prosecuted, much less punished. In this investigation, we wanted to track, for the first time, the journey of sexual-assault survivors through criminal justice systems across Australia, hoping to find why perpetrators of this ‘invisible crime’ are not just rarely convicted but rarely reported at all.

We spent more than six months reporting the story, made 20 data and freedom of information requests, corresponded with 45 victims of sexual violence, engaged survivors in more than 30 hours of in-depth interviews and spent months wrangling with authorities, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. 

The result, we hope, is a feature that grounds its storytelling in data, but never loses sight of the women and men such numbers represent.

The “Invisible Crime” project includes a range of visualisations, each adhering to this austere theme of grays, whites and reds.

What was the process of working on the graphic? 

The idea underpinning the series was to shine a light, revealing crimes of sexual violence too often left invisible, not just unpunished but unrecorded. Video producer Kelly Bergsma created a short clip using small white lights to illustrate the scale of the problem, the vast majority of sexual assault cases in Australia dimming out to darkness without consequence for the perpetrator. This video both established the basic visual language of the series and formed the kernel of a short documentary Rachael Dexter, Elle Marsh and I used in a pitch to help fund the series.

Screenshots of The Age/Sydney Morning Herald video producer Kelly Bergsma’s original video visualisation (left) and the particle cloud it inspired (right).

After winning support from the Google News Initiative, newsroom designer and developer Soren Frederiksen came aboard, taking Kelly’s theme as the basis for a series of visualisations, attempting to illustrate the huge numbers at play while giving substance to those they represent. In the case of the particle cloud that opens the piece, this was done by interspersing a discussion of the scale of sexual violence in Australia with short audiovisual portraits of its victims, the dots used to chart such numbers transforming into images of each victim as their story arises.

The piece’s particle cloud visualisation is used not only to illustrate the scale of sexual violence in Australia, but transforms into portraits of survivors whose stories add substance to the numbers in the piece.

Particle cloud aside, each visualisation started as a red-pen sketch in Soren’s cluttered notebook, some resemblance of the final outcome appearing alongside a confusion of maths and to-do lists. But it’s important to note that none of these things were designed in a vacuum, with Soren and Design Director Mark Stehle drawing inspiration from a wide range of works, among them awarding-winning features by The New York Times’ Adam Pearce (“Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys,” 2018) and freelancer Aditya Jain (“Rape in India,” 2018).

A look at The Age/Sydney Morning Herald newsroom designer and developer Soren Frederiksen’s sketch book, more a place for thinking on the page than design specifics.

Both of these pieces used variations on the sankey plot, enriched with animation, to illustrate how institutions funnel people from one point to another, giving readers an overview of how they work and inviting them to consider whether they “work” at all. The team attempted to build on these and other attempts to highlight systemic issues, first animating the journey of tens of thousands of victims through the justice system of Australia’s most populous state and then using the resulting chart as a visual anchor, orienting users in the ensuing discussion of problems arising at each stage in the process.

The feature’s particle-sankey plot was used first to chart the path of victim reports through the criminal justice system of Australia’s most populous state, then – in miniature – to anchor the ensuing discussion of issues at each stage in the process.

What has been the challenge of this story? 

The investigation posed huge challenges, with months spent negotiating with authorities – state and federal – for access to the numbers underpinning its visualisations, and weeks spent making sense of them if and when they were provided. (Like the United States, Australia has a federal system of government, with states handling most criminal matters, including sexual violence, resulting in not one but eight systems of classification.)

Data journalist Craig Butt played a key role in the data’s interpretation, ensuring the numbers were understood by both the team and our readers – a tricky thing to do when your data spans two levels of government, eight regional governments and multiple institutions within each jurisdiction. We made sure to keep all of this number-crunching transparent, publishing a comprehensive methodology – another key contribution of Craig’s.

The particle-sankey chart visualises data spanning multiple datasets, posing visual complications.

Stitching together datasets from different institutions also posed visual challenges. For example, the particle-sankey chart that maps the paths of victim complaints through the system in New South Wales spans both police and court data. Many successful police investigations that result in charges never result in a prosecution for all sorts of reasons, none of which are publicly recorded by either agency, leaving some to disappear in the “gap” between the datasets and others to be “stacked” with other charges in the prosecution of a serial offender. There’s a real break in our knowledge at that point – and that’s something that was a challenge to honestly visualise.

There’s also something inherently challenging about covering such difficult subject matter. We worked hard to ensure survivors felt safe and supported, both while being interviewed and afterwards, as the series began to take shape. When someone is brave enough to tell you this kind of story, telling it right is important – and that’s as true of the graphics as anything else.

The reporting team - Nicole Precel, Rachael Dexter, Elle Marsh and Craig Butt - worked alongside designer and developer Soren Frederiksen and design director Mark Stehle to tackle the pervasive but rarely prosecuted issue of sexual violence in Australia.

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