TV journalist Kim Fischer reports on the trauma of sex assault victims with the determination of a survivor

‘It can eat away at your soul sometimes — but the last thing you want to do is stop.’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) ABC4 News reporter Kim Fischer has carved out a niche telling the stories of sex-assault victims and survivors — a story she knows all too well. Fischer sits on the Channel 4 set in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, November 22, 2017.

ABC4 News reporter Kim Fischer has a bubbly-as-pop-rocks-in-soda personality — as one would expect of a broadcast journalist who in her career has covered more than her fair share of parades and quirky community events. All that effervescence, however, obscures a deeply embedded pain.

From the age of 2, Fischer was sexually assaulted by an uncle: an experience so traumatic she still grapples with it today — fighting to keep her own demons of anxiety and depression at bay with a microphone.

A Texas native, Fischer joined Channel 4 in 2011, when she began carving a niche in the Utah broadcast news world tackling the tough issues of sexual assault, consent and the treatment of women in the state. She has found it a worthwhile but challenging task.

She recalls the female viewer who complained of her low morals for wearing a short-sleeved shirt on air. As recently as last spring, Fischer received an email from a male viewer instructing her that if she was going to continue reporting on sexual assault, she needed to wear blouses with collars above the collarbone and she should stop using red lipstick.

These comments, of course, don’t even scratch the surface of the too-disgusting-to-publish barbs that Fischer regularly fields when blocking social-media followers.

On the flip side of such criticisms and obscenities, Fischer has won praise for her coverage — including being named this year as a recipient of the Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media for her reporting on sex-assault prosecutions in Utah. Her drive to slowly move her viewers toward greater understanding of the crisis of sexual assault is informed and empowered by her personal experience. But reporting with the goal of changing hearts, minds and attitudes is not easy.

“Every story is just barely chipping away,” Fischer says of the misinformation she seeks to counter. And while she can exult in a story giving voice to another victim ignored by the system, she says it’s usually the case that the next week she’ll get contacted by multiple other women with similar stories..

“It’s like, ‘Am I even making a difference? Is it even going to change in my lifetime?’” Fischer says of her work. “It can eat away at your soul sometimes — but the last thing you want to do is stop.”

How the story starts

Fischer has ground rules when it comes to reporting on sexual-assault victims and survivors. She never cold-calls or knocks on a survivor’s door without an invitation, and she always starts by believing the victim.

“Think about any victim of a crime,” Fischer says. “You start by believing them. If someone’s house was robbed, you wouldn’t walk in and say, ‘I don’t think your computer was actually stolen.’”

Together, reporter and subject control what’s shared in the interview, and their story starts immediately after the abuse — Fischer has actually never used the explicit details of an assault in a story, referring to such as “salacious crap.”

In her life, too, in many ways, her story starts immediately after the abuse — simply because everything during and before it she has blotted out, along with her other childhood memories. She was just a toddler when the abuse started, and it continued for roughly three years. Fischer’s parents were divorced and she split her time with her mother and father. When she stayed with her mother, it meant also sharing a roof with her predatory uncle. While Fischer complained early on, she says her mother responded to her protests by chastising her: “Good little girls don’t talk like that.”

Finally, at age 5, Fischer had a nervous breakdown when her father was preparing to drop her off at the apartment her mother shared with the uncle and told her father everything. She found out later that her uncle was given probation for the abuse. Years later, he would manage to not only clear his probation but also get a job at a YMCA, where he would eventually be convicted of sexually abusing several other small children.

Growing up, Fischer learned to bury the trauma. To this day she still deals with it through counseling, only accepting later in life that surviving abuse is an ongoing struggle, years and decades after the fact.

‘Awfully inquisitive’

As a 10-year-old, she wanted to be a veterinarian — until she found that actually meant sometimes cutting into animals. But she remembers later being complimented for asking lots of questions.

“My grandma said, ‘You’re awfully inquisitive’ and I said, ‘What does that mean?’ and she said, ‘Go look it up.’ And I looked it up and she said, ‘You know you could be a good reporter one day.’

“It was an aha moment,” Fischer recalls. “I was 10 and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it!’”

In junior high school, she did a class project on “The Odyssey” by shooting it like a broadcast spot and interviewing her brother’s friends who dressed up like Greek gods (one redheaded friend who was supposed to be Prometheus, the god of fire, stole the show by doing his best “Beavis and Butt-Head” impression while flicking a lighter on and off and chanting “fire! fire!”).

The more she learned about journalism and being able to tell people about what was going on in their community, the more she fell in love with it.

“I had a lot of bad stuff happen to me when I was a kid, and I had this nature of wanting to figure out why people do what they do,” Fischer says. To that end, she not only got her journalism degree from the University of North Texas, but she also graduated just six credits shy of a second degree in psychology with an emphasis in human sexuality.

Social media survival

She landed her first job in Abilene, covering her first assignment days in by heading to a massive apartment fire in the middle of the night. She had her first anchor shift at the same station, a morning newscast in which she remembers leaving an early mark — technically it was a sweat stain from her palms clamped onto the top of the desk during the entire broadcast. She also sweat through a shirt and a blazer but kept smiling and got through her first anchor shift. It was the first of many.

Fischer also learned fairly quickly what a female reporter has to put up with. Early in her career in Texas, she happened to be goofing off with a female friend who worked at another station and had kicked her leg out in a silly pose, captured in a photograph that was posted on Facebook. This prompted a blogger in Dallas to take the picture and edit it to make it look as if Fischer had been pole dancing. It was a disturbing distortion for Fischer.

“It literally changed how I responded to people,” she says. “Because I was such an open book, I loved goofing off with viewers, and at that point, I was like ‘I can’t trust anybody.’”

Tracy Everbach is a professor of journalism at the University of North Texas and is co-writing the upcoming book “Mediating Misogyny: Gender Technology and Harassment.” She says the harassment female reporters face, especially from stalkers and threats of rape and violence, is invisible to the viewing public and usually misunderstood by newsroom bosses in the competitive media industry.

“Often when a woman goes to her supervisor and says, ‘I’m getting all these threats,’ the superior will say, ‘Just ignore it,’” Everbach says. “That’s easy to say but what about when she goes home that night and she thinks, ‘Some guy said he wants to rape me. What if he knows where I live? What if he comes to my house?’”

For Everbach, it all links back to education and hoping that the media will play their part in better informing the public about the realities of assault.

“One of the problems in the news media, and I can say this having been a reporter myself, is there is so much pressure to get stories on deadline, to cover crime and get every crime that happens into the paper or onto broadcast news,” Everbach says. “But rarely do we as journalists step back and look at the big picture and say, ‘Here are the facts about sexual assault.’”

While Fischer learned that she had to wall herself off in a way from viewers on social media, she also later discovered how to use her reporting to reveal more of herself and her story than ever before — telling the stories of victims and survivors.

Sharing a voice

Once Fischer moved to Utah in late 2011, she began enterprising stories focused on various facets of rape culture.

She’s interviewed rape survivors — including men. She’s done stories on how parents can teach consent to their children. “I don’t mean just sexual consent; I mean any consent,” Fischer says. “It’s about letting your kids know that they are in charge of their bodies and should verbalize when they’re not comfortable.”

She’s profiled an internet troll and delved into sexual-assault cases. It was her story on prosecutions that also helped introduce viewers to an important concept — “tonic immobility.” While everybody remembers from high school chemistry how the brain kicks into “fight-or-flight” mode in an emergency, Fischer explained the science behind a third chemical reaction — freezing up. It was simple science that helped viewers understand that often women being assaulted can simply become paralyzed and not know how to react — but that in no way means they consent to the assault.

Fischer knew about this experience as well, having testified in 2015 at the Utah Legislature in favor of a bill that would clarify that sex with an unconscious person is rape. She shared the story of sleeping over at a friend’s house in college, after having gone through a bad breakup, only to awake to one of her ex-boyfriend’s fraternity brothers on top of her. She was paralyzed and could only think to act as if she was asleep, although repeatedly saying her ex-boyfriend’s name out loud and telling him “no” and that she was tired. The ruse worked and he stopped groping her.

Fischer hopes people will realize that it’s not easy to know how to respond to an attack, especially when the assailant is someone you know.

She, of course, has heard people ask, “Why don’t you fight back?” And indeed in yet another incident she recalls jogging through a park once when a strange man on a bicycle rode up behind her and grabbed her breast. Fischer promptly chased after him screaming and chucked her water bottle at him as he pedaled away. But often women are blindsided by suddenly being assaulted by a friend, a boyfriend or family member — though these constitute the majority of attacks.

Given the roiling and confusing feelings involved in date rapes and assault by family members, Fischer says it’s galling that there is a perception of false allegations by women. She has reported that false reports occur in just 2 percent of cases.

“There’s so much shame and awkwardness around it that most people don’t tell anyone,” Fischer says. “Which is why I get so bothered by the idea that people think there are so many people who false report, when really there are so many people who just don’t report at all.”

This holistic approach to covering such a taboo subject has won Fischer praise from Utah’s advocacy community. Alana Kindness, former head of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, lauds Fischer for reporting on survivors, living as one, and advocating for their understanding.

“She’s working on all levels to make our community stronger,” Kindness says.

Fischer revels in the chance to share the bigger picture with viewers. It’s exactly what she dreamed of doing as a child. It also may help resolve some of those questions she was left asking as a child survivor herself about why people do what they do, and how is it that so many are allowed to be hurt and left unbelieved and unrecognized.

“I feel like I keep telling the same story in different ways,” Fischer says. “But I feel like the more you tell it, the more likely it will be that maybe somebody will see it differently this time around.”

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