Pulitzer-winning Alaska journalist discusses covering sexual violence during Wrangell visit

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Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins in Wrangell on Friday, May 3, 2024. (Colette Czarnecki/KSTK)

Award-winning Alaska journalist Kyle Hopkins knew early on that journalism was his thing. Moreso, he knew he had an affinity with journalists and wanted to surround himself with them.

“I like being around them and talking to them,” he said. “They’re just funny and smart, and like feisty.”

After producing daily stories for close to 15 years at the Anchorage Daily News, Hopkins shifted his focus towards why things happen and why they don’t get fixed. He found that this was relevant with sexual violence issues.

Rates of sexual violence in Alaska run high. Close to half of all women in the state have experienced it. Additionally, one in three Alaska Native adults are survivors of intimate partner violence. Alaska also has the fourth highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous cases in the country.

Hopkins visited Wrangell over the weekend to mark Sunday’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Awareness Day, in collaboration with the Wrangell Cooperative Association. He also talked with Wrangell High School students Friday about the value of storytelling.

In a conversation with KSTK, Hopkins discussed his experience as a journalist and reporting on sexual violence.

Public safety and criminal justice failures

Hopkins said that a lot of public safety and criminal justice failures allow people to get away with sexual assault in Alaska, including murder. 

“That, in my opinion, could be solved if we had better systems in place, if we had better priorities,” he said.

His early reporting in 2018 turned into the “Lawless” series published by ProPublica and the ADN, for which Hopkins won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize. The series also became the basis of the fictional ABC drama series “Alaska Daily,” which was partially penned by Alaska Native writers but canceled after one season.

He said the focus of “Lawless” was not necessarily the devastating stories on individuals who experienced sexual assault, but more so accountability. 

“How can it be in this day and age that someone goes missing and (is) not found?” Hopkins asked. “Or how can it be in 2024 that an Alaskan is murdered in a small community and that no one is held accountable?”

Hopkins was born in Sitka and spent his childhood in Southeast Alaska. He said when he was a kid it was easy to assume adults would fix these types of problems. But now, as an adult, the severe problems still exist. He said journalism can help with that by putting spotlights on the failure of systems, like criminal justice.

He said one of the challenges he faces is that when he puts spotlights on institutions, the doors start to close, like getting interviews and public records. 

“I did a story recently in November, about a cold case in Kotzebue,” Hopkins said. “I was following up on questions that I first asked two years prior.”  

Hopkins hopes to encourage young people to explore journalism

Although he extensively covered sexual assault issues and Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in Alaska, he said it’s not his role to tell their stories.

“Sometimes it feels a little uncomfortable for me to be like a spokesperson for this type of work,” Hopkins said. “I don’t feel like that’s an appropriate role for me.”

That’s where his other ADN-ProPublica collaboration, “Unheard,” comes in.

Hopkins said he and his team worked with people to tell their own stories in their own words about being sexual assault survivors.

His discomfort in telling other people’s stories is one reason why he speaks with school-aged students about journalism.

“The older I get, the less comfortable I feel telling other people’s stories,” he said. “One way that I’m trying to deal with that feeling is that I’m really interested in talking to schools about it. Like middle school, high school kids about like, ‘Hey, you have a story to tell.’”

He hopes to encourage young people to tell their stories and get into journalism as a career.

Indigenous women have up to 10 times a higher murder rate nationwide, though this might be underestimated since little data exists on MMIP in urban areas.

Hopkins spoke Sunday afternoon at Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell, during a free event open to the public. The event was followed by a ceremony to remember Indigenous people who remain missing, as well as those who have been murdered.

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