Alumna Rachel de Leon, an award-winning investigative journalist, isn’t afraid to ask hard questions in an effort to shine a light on the cracks in American society, whether that be asking why there are such high death rates among oil field workers or why victims of assault are charged by police with filing false reports.
Her latest project, “Victim/Suspect,” tackles that last question. The documentary explores the phenomenon of people who report sexual assaults, but are then charged with filing false reports by police who didn’t thoroughly investigate. De Leon spent about four years of hard work putting together the piece that is now hosted on Netflix. The film will also be screened at 6 p.m. on Dec. 7, at the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication‘s Armer Theater in Manzanita Hall, with a Q&A session with de Leon after the film. The screening is free and open to the public. A reception will be held at 5 p.m. before the film begins.
De Leon ’11 (Journalism), now based in the Bay Area, started her journalistic journey while in high school, but it was at CSUN that her passion for investigative filmmaking was born.
“I was in broadcast (Journalism) but then, I don’t know why, I took Professor Linda Bowen’s class. It was an introduction to investigative journalism,” de Leon said. “It was very intimidating. At first, I didn’t know what made anything investigative, to be honest, and she taught me so much. I did my first investigative piece for that class about potholes on Plummer Street that hadn’t been paved in God knows how long.”
After graduating from CSUN in 2011, she went on to earn her master’s degree in journalism from University of California, Berkeley in 2014. Within a year, de Leon joined the team at Reveal from the Center of Investigative Reporting. She began as a member of the team for two Emmy Award-winning projects, “The Dead Unknown,” an examination of the number of dead and missing in America, and “Deadly Oil Fields,” an investigation into the high rate of death among oil field workers.
“I was always helping other people with their stories. Those were stories that they deserved the Emmys for and I felt that I was there to be supportive,” said de Leon. “I was really happy to be in (a supportive) role because I learned a lot in the process. I remember when we won the Emmy for ‘The Dead Unknown,’ it was just my coworker and I in the office, we were so excited.”
As exciting as those projects were, however, de Leon felt she was ready to head her own investigative piece.
Born out of discussions during the “#MeToo” movement, the documentary “Victim/Suspect” is the result of de Leon’s first solo investigation. The film, directed by Nancy Schwartzman, focuses on de Leon’s investigation of the cases of Emma Manion and Dyanie Bermeo, two women who reported their assaults to local police but soon found themselves facing charges for false reporting, as they attempt to get their charges dropped. The cases represent a pattern nationwide, de Leon found.
De Leon said the project required painstaking work to ensure facts were accurately reported while being respectful of the trauma the subjects went through. She accompanied Manion and Bermeo to the scenes where their assaults took place and followed up on police investigations, discovering in both cases that police had not thoroughly investigated their assault claims before charging them with false reporting.
“There were moments that were really overwhelming because it’s an extremely difficult topic,” de Leon said. “The fact-checking process was rigorous and stressful. The stakes were high and I didn’t want to get anything wrong. Having the responsibility rest mostly on me was a lot.”
To ensure more voices are heard, de Leon believes investigative journalism needs to become more diverse. A few years ago, she served as the coordinating producer for Glassbreaker Films, an initiative from The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation supporting female filmmakers.
De Leon has some advice for CSUN students interested in following in her footsteps.
“Anything can be investigative journalism,” she said. “There’s no one way to be an investigative reporter. If you think that there’s something that’s really important that no one has covered and you wanna do it, I encourage everyone to do so. I wish there were more investigative journalists out there.
“I want people to not be discouraged or feel like they are not good enough to be an investigative reporter.”