Editor’s Note: The following was written by the Ithaca Voice reporter Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs about his experience working on the investigative story, “Sex in the Shadows: An inside look at prostitution in Ithaca.”
[do_widget id= text-55 ]
ITHACA, N.Y. — While on this assignment, I learned a lot about the people around me, but also lessons on how to be a better reporter, and person.
Below are four things I learned, both funny and serious.
1 — I look like a police officer
On Aug. 23, sitting on cement steps with a prostitute, I was excited to begin my first interview.
I was nervous, but trying to act both professional and relaxed. A few neighbors, as they walked by and saw me with a tape recorder, would ask, “are you police?”
Searching for some way to prove that I was not a police officer (my friend later suggested a face tattoo), I babbled about why journalism is important while fumbling with my phone, trying to find an article I’d written about a wrongful arrest case in Ithaca, as if that was proof.
2 — I also look like an armed suspect
When I began the article, I knew that there were some risks involved; for example, most of the women hung out around neighborhoods where crime is more common.
My editor, and parents, had reminded me to be safe many times. I never, though, expected to be ordered out of my car while multiple police officers aimed their guns on me.
On Sept. 2, I was driving down West Hill with my friend who was helping me find women to interview. We heard police sirens, and as we drove down the hill, about 10 police cars passed us.
Some of the police cars turned onto Route 13A, and, after letting them pass, we followed them. I pulled over to call The Voice’s crime reporter, Jolene Almendarez, and alert her that there was a large police presence on West Hill.
I hung up, and my friend and I decided to turn around and grab a bite to eat downtown.
Almost immediately after pulling back onto the road, an officer from the Ithaca Police Department pulled us over, and four other cars swarmed the scene. At least three officers were aiming their guns at our car. One shouted for me to turn off the car and for us to put our hands out of the window.
I began pleading, repeatedly, “Please keep the guns down. We have no weapons. I’m from the Ithaca Voice. I’m reporting on the police presence.”
We complied with all of the officers’ requests, which meant walking backwards, one at a time, with our hands in the air. They kept their guns trained on our backs and handcuffed us, explaining that we were not under arrest, just being detained.
While we stood by their cars in handcuffs, the officers searched my car and looked in the trunk for an armed suspect. According to an IPD officer, I matched the description of the suspect, which is why I was pulled over and why the guns were raised.
Once they verified that I was indeed Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, they let us both go, explaining that stops like these are for the safety of the community.
Knees shaking from fear, we got back in the car and drove to get food.
3 — Be quiet and let others talk … usually
When some questioned whether I was really a reporter for The Voice, I quickly realized my best bet was to shut up and let my friend, who set up the interview and was familiar with the neighborhoods, explain that I was not an undercover cop.
Despite the awkwardness of being described as “a journalist looking for prostitutes,” the locals always were satisfied with her account of my motive, and would carry on their way.
Before I began my first interview, I sat on cement steps with my friend and waited as the woman I was about to interview took hits of crack with her boyfriend nearby.
“You gonna watch me throw up?” she asked, glaring at me, before she threw up on her ankles. I offered my water bottle and resumed my spot on the steps, assuring her that I was in no rush.
An awkward 60 minutes after pressing the record button, I had completed the first interview. Later, transcribing the interview on my computer, I cringed as I heard myself interrupt the source multiple times, cutting off what could have been useful information.
So, before my second interview, I told myself to make sure I was letting the source finish. Unfortunately, this advice was in no way applicable to the second interview.
The woman, who was covered in scabs from heroin injections, was very kind and also very high. The interview lasted just 10 minutes, and I received almost entirely one-word answers, at times prodding just to hear a “yes” or “no.”
At one point she told me, “I think if my medical condition wasn’t so fucked up, I’d be able to actually answer your questions.”
4 — People will be suspicious, and rightfully so.
For many women, a chance to tell their story was worth their time, and for that I am extremely grateful. For others, this was not enough.
At one point, two women came up to my car and asked if I was the reporter from the Ithaca Voice. I said yes, and asked them if they had stories they wished to share.
The women told me they would only tell me about their experience with prostitution if I paid them $150. When I said I could not offer any money, they scoffed and walked away.
When, the next night, a man angrily asked me how the Ithaca Voice had published details of his arrest that the Journal had not, I responded, honestly, that I had not even read the article he was talking about. Later that night, friends told me there were rumors I was gathering informatio
I was the 18-year-old boy armed with a notepad, pen, and tape recorder, asking women to spill their incriminating life stories to me and trust that I would do them no harm.
Acknowledging this, the trust and compassion locals afforded me was unbelievable, and I cannot thank them enough for allowing me a glimpse of their world.
[do_widget id= text-61 ]