A series creating change for journalism and justice.
It’s a thick and muggy evening on December 2, 2010. A concierge of a luxury apartment building in Melbourne opens the door to the refuse room. She is looking for a broom, but instead finds the body of a young woman slumped on the ground among fallen rubbish bins, in a pool of her own blood.
That woman was 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjuk.
Sometime in the previous six hours, Phoebe had plunged 40 metres, feet first, down a small garbage chute from the twelfth storey apartment she shared with boyfriend Antony Hampel. She survived the fall. But the garbage compactor left Phoebe with injuries that would cause her to bleed out in the dark, alone.
After a wait of more two years, coroner Peter White declared Phoebe’s death was misadventure, believing Phoebe inadvertently climbed into the garbage chute while under the influence of alcohol and sleeping medication Stilnox.
Phoebe’s family – along with legal, forensic and police experts – were expecting an open finding and believe many issues remain unresolved.
Why were there no fingerprints on the chute opening? Why were her jeans around her knees? Why wasn’t all the blood found in the apartment DNA tested?
Under current Victorian law, Phoebe’s family had six months to appeal the findings of Coroner White. They chose not to after being advised that findings cannot be appealed on the ground of how a coroner has interpreted or given weight to evidence. This restriction meant their chance of success was low and the risk of costly court fees was too high.
How to tell Phoebe’s story
With many questions remaining unanswered and a family out of options, Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard – investigative journalists with Fairfax Media’s The Age – knew Phoebe’s tragic story was one worth telling in greater detail than a newspaper feature would allow.
They wanted to peruse the intricacies of the case and give people an insight into Phoebe’s complex personality, while telling her story in a thoughtful and a respectful way.
To achieve this, Fairfax Media, in collaboration with the University of Wollongong, turned to the art of audio storytelling and produced Phoebe’s Fall – a six-part podcast series that documents the short life and brutal death of Phoebe Handsjuk.
While both Richard and Michael had extensive experience in print media, neither had much understanding of the audio realm. They turned to Digital Editorial Capability Lead at Fairfax Media and UOW Research Fellow Julie Posetti, who assembled a team that included Tom McKendrick and Tim Young as producers and UOW Senior Lecturer in Journalism Dr Siobhan McHugh as a consulting producer.
“It’s my job to essentially identify innovative projects that need an investment in terms of skills development,” Julie says. “Phoebe’s story revealed itself at the outset as a perfect opportunity.”
Always the student
Rather than bringing in an experienced or well-known presenter to narrate the story, Richard and Michael – knowing the story better than most – stepped out of their comfort zone and took on the role themselves.
“These are very new skills for a print journalist,” Julie says. “However, I decided to invest some of my budget in the project as a way of building skills and knowledge through a production process.”
Siobhan – Founding Editor of RadioDoc Review and researcher into the power of audio storytelling – says there is a unique grammar and choreography to mixing audio and that learning these skills will prove invaluable for two journalists adapting to an industry facing major change.
“It was daunting because they would be the first to admit they didn’t know a lot about audio,” she says. “As Consulting Producers, Julie and myself would advise on the placement of the elements, music choices, pacing, script improvements and voice coaching.
“One of the biggest aspects these journalists learnt about was timing. Time becomes one of the most potent weapons you have.
“At one point we had two very powerful, emotional clips together and the impact of the second one was greatly lessened because you were still trying to process the first one.”
This understanding of timing is something Julie says the seasoned journalists picked up very quickly.
“As time went along, Richard and Michael developed ever-increasing skills around the structure and production of audio. It was wonderful to see that evolve,” Julie says.
The new journalist
The veteran journalist weren’t the only ones for whom the podcast was a learning experience. Graduating from UOW with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2015, Jake Evans, a Digital Content Producer at Fairfax Media, was brought into the team as a production assistant.
“One of the best things about my degree is that it was very hands-on,” Jake says. “You actually work in a newsroom, you produce video, audio and podcasts. So when it came to do Phoebe’s Fall, even though I’m pretty fresh from uni, I was well prepared. I’ve used the software, I know how to edit and I understand particular techniques.”
While the journalism landscape is changing at a rapid pace, Jake is optimistic about the future it holds for those about to enter the industry. He says social media and the internet can provide more scope to tell stories in innovative and unusual ways if you’re willing to give it a go.
“No one has an idea what this industry is going to look like in five years,” he says. “But the things I’ll always be interested in are good stories that make a difference and finding new ways to tell stories that excite me and excite the people who experience them.”
Jake was joined as a production assistant by final year UOW journalism student Lucy Dean. For her, it was an incredible opportunity as a student to work on a podcast of this size.
“Watching how these professionals work together and share ideas taught me so much about working in a team,” Lucy says. “I transcribed some very intense interviews and also offered feedback on the episodes, which they took on board. I gained a lot of contacts and a lot of experience in how to be more professional and bolder with my opinion in that kind of environment.”
Lucy is studying journalism because, like a lot of her fellow students, she places a high value on the truth. “In a world where post-truth is Oxford Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ you know good journalism is more important than ever,” she says. “We’ve seen the results of ignorance and we have to stamp it out.
“What’s exciting about podcasts is that you have that ability to use really beautiful writing and do some in-depth and interesting storytelling, because some stories deserve more than just a news article.”
A two-way street
The podcast proved to be a valuable experience for all involved. As Julie points out, the team and the series benefited greatly from having Jake and Lucy involved at the cutting-edge of the storytelling process.
“They provided fresh eyes and fresh ears to make a valuable and meaningful contribution to one of Fairfax’s most successful journalism adventures,” she says.
Keen to ensure the podcast would appeal to a younger demographic who may be disengaged with investigative journalism, Siobhan integrated the project into her lectures. She was able to provide students with insights into how the podcast was made, while getting critical feedback in return.
“While we were producing the podcast I was teaching a subject that looked at different ways of presenting complex stories and we would discuss how Phoebe’s Fall was being put together,” she says. “I was able to show them an episode and relay what they were most interested in hearing about in the next episode to the producers. It was great for the students, but also great for us, because these students were our demographic.”
It shows the very raw power of audio as a storytelling deviceJulie Posetti – Digital Editorial Capability Lead at Fairfax Media and UOW Research Fellow
Why it worked
From the release of its first episode in September 2016, Phoebe’s Fall went to number one on iTunes Australian podcast charts above the award-winning true crime podcast Serial. In April 2017 it won the Best Documentary / Storytelling Podcast at the inaugural Australian Podcasting Awards.
“We can’t call Phoebe’s Fall a true crime podcast because, to this date, there is no reopening of an investigation, no assignment of guilt of any part,” Julie says. “What it is, though, is a cracking mystery and enormously tragic conclusion in terms of Phoebe’s loss of life.”
Siobhan says this mystery and possible miscarriage of justice are reasons why Phoebe’s Fall struck such a strong chord with the general population, who otherwise may never have come across the story.
“The story wasn’t black or white, it’s not an open-and-shut case,” she says. “It raised questions and allowed the audience to engage with the story.”
In an interview with Siobhan, Julie Snyder, executive producer and co-creator of Serial, says audio can helps us engage in a less judgmental way when compared to mediums like television.
“I feel like with audio you’re right in that perfect sweet spot of where you’re getting a voice inside your head, you hear emotion and you’re connecting with it, but you don’t have all the information that we’re normally judge-y about,” she says.
Julie Posetti says Phoebe’s Fall delivers an extraordinary layered and complex story that is told in a very human way.
“It shows the very raw power of audio as a storytelling device,” she says.
The slow wheels of justice
Podcasts are proving themselves to be more than just a medium for telling compelling stories.
In June of 2016 Adnan Syed – who was convicted of the murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore – was granted a new trial, something that may not have occurred without the intense spotlight created by the first season of Serial.
In the case of Phoebe’s Fall, Julie has heard from many in the general public who have expressed their concerns about the coroner’s findings.
“We’ve never had such a reaction to anything we’ve worked on previously,” she says. “People talk to us like they were addicted and were actively talking about the case, which, as an example of people’s consumption of journalism, is great. It has enabled us to raise questions about the justice system.”
Those questions are slowly being answered.
With the podcast bringing issues of Phoebe’s case to the attention of a larger audience, the Victorian Government recently announced a review of the Coroners Act to determine whether changes made in 2008 to limit appeal rights have gone too far.
Talking to Fairfax Media, Phoebe’s mother, Natalie Handsjuk, welcomed the review.
“It’s clear from the overwhelming support we have received that the general public are outraged by what has occurred in this case and many say they have lost trust in the judicial system,” she said. “I hope that trust can be restored and that a fairer appeal process is made available.”
For Julie, the review is justification of her faith in the team to deliver what they set out to achieve.
“We are seeing developments and while the wheels turn slowly, I think this is a series that will continue to produce outcomes for journalism and hopefully for justice,” she says.
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