Editor’s Note: Webster University Alumna Brittany Burke sent this letter to School of Communications Dean Eric Rothenbuhler, several members of Webster’s administration and The Journal.
Dear Dr. Rothenbuhler:
As an alum of the Webster University School of Communications journalism program and former member of the media, the enduring principles of ethical journalism continue to guide my everyday business. I value and respect this code. Consequently, I’m outraged that Christopher Ave would be hired or even a considered prospect to teach a course.
Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity. Seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, be accountable and transparent. These are the guiding principles the Society of Professional Journalists declares as the foundation of ethical journalism.
Based on recent history, the choice of St. Louis Post-Dispatch Political and National Editor Christopher Ave to teach a course on how social media has impacted “political and journalistic worlds forever” and “how the consequences are often surprising (and sometimes disastrous),” contradicts those ethical and guiding principles.
On the morning of April 9, I contacted police seeking help. A few hours earlier, I was found covered in blood, mud and missing an article of clothing. Detectives took me to a hospital for a sexual assault exam. After enduring the exam, I provided detectives more information hoping it would lead to finding out what happened to me. Desperate for answers and peace of mind, I was forthcoming and told them about a past relationship I had with a high-ranking state legislator while working for the governor. A detail that was unrelated to the investigation.
Less than three months later and with approval from her editor, Christopher Ave, former St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter, Virginia Young, reported that the paper had obtained a police report from my sexual assault investigation and that it revealed an affair I had with a former Republican House speaker while working as what she referred to as a “lobbyist” for the Democrat governor.
I knew Young would soon be filing a story. She had contacted me twice about it. When we spoke on the phone, Young informed me she would only speak to me on the record. I declined, advising that I did not want to participate and requested my name not be a part of the story.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics also says:
- Balance the public’s need for information against harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
Because of the code and principles surrounding how journalists cover sexual assaults and from what I learned as journalism student at Webster University, I presumed, as a victim, I would not be named.
I was wrong. The evening of June 18, Young filed her story and it was published online. The next day it was on the front-page St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Accompanying my story was my name, picture, alcohol I consumed the night I was assaulted, how much I spent at the restaurants I went to, details about a previous sexual relationship and details about my career.
I heard from people all over the state and country who were not used to seeing the names of rape victims in new stories and horrified by the Post-Dispatch. So were Ave’s colleagues. The Riverfront Times was the first local outlet to report on how the newspaper shamed a victim. A few days later, a Poynter writer published a story listing the 10 things journalists should consider before naming a possible sexual assault victim and Young’s article pandered, “dangerous master narratives of sexual assault.”
A writer for the Columbia Journalism Review Deron Lee and New York based free lancer Andy Kopsa who has covered victims of sexual assault extensively would later report on Young, Ave and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lapse in judgment, on why reporters should let potential sexual assault victims speak off the record and the reasoning behind the decision to name me as a victim.
During a radio interview with KMOX (1120 AM), Ave defended the paper’s decision to name me as a possible sexual-assault victim. After hours of thoughtful deliberation with the veteran reporter, senior editors and his bosses, he said it was determined outing a private citizen who may have been raped served the public interest. After all, it proved that the former house speaker had a sexual relationship with someone who at one point had been a staffer for the governor.
Ave also said, “ Not only was there no evidence of a sexual assault, no one was alleging a sexual [assault], the woman was not alleging a sexual assault. She still may be a victim. We don’t know, that is the truth. I don’t know, you don’t know, we weren’t there. We don’t know what happened. All we have is the police report.”
When pressed on this issue, Ave softened the possibility that I had been assaulted and went onto say, “What assault? Which assault are you talking about? I mean if she had called a rape-crisis line or something.”
My rape investigation was used as an excuse and attempt to smear a former elected official, generate website traffic and clicks. My life would be very different if Ave and other editors involved in this decision-making process had made sure I had the opportunity to speak off the record and here are a few of the reasons why:
I’m not a lobbyist, never have been a lobbyist and would have corrected that during an off the record conversation. In my role working for the governor, I engaged with stakeholder and advocacy groups, both public and private, but interfacing with legislators or elected officials was never requested of me or part of my job description.
Ave claims one of the reasons the paper chose to print my name was a result of me not contacting a rape crisis line. A rape crisis center was contacted; a victim advocate was present before and during my sexual assault exam and continues to provide support. I would like to think Ave would have wanted that confirmed during an off the record conversation.
Also during an off the record conversation, I would have disclosed that the results of my exam indicated signs of rape, that I suffered abrasions to my vagina and that suspected semen was present. Young’s original story — including the print version — erroneously claims that the exam returned no signs of rape. Subsequent updates online have deleted such blatant inaccuracies.
However, after the original story was posted online, blasted across social media networks and spread like wildfire with text messages, the facts or whether the story was on the front page or buried somewhere no longer mattered.
The story was out there and I was being publicly shamed as a rape victim. Radio and TV personalities were debating my reliability, morality and whether or not I was victim enough. The same thing happened on Twitter. I began receiving degrading and harassing messages on Facebook. Follow up stories ensued calling me a “professional train wreck” and an “irresponsible sorority girl” that “played the rape card”. A graphic of what my personal rape card would look like was designed and shared with the world on Twitter.
Victimized a second time and now publicly shamed through the uncontainable medium that social media is. The trauma I endured is unforgettable. The Post-Dispatch decision to name me as a victim and the reasoning Ave provided when defending that decision should not set a precedent for how journalists cover sensitive issues like rape and sexual assault
Webster University brands itself as “a worldwide institution” that “ensures high-quality learning experiences.” The course Christopher Ave will be teaching should be cancelled immediately or preferably taught by someone better situated to ensure the quality learning continues. Per the University’s request, I can make recommendations for competent news editors and journalists competent to teach this course, I am also more than willing to speak to students about how haste, hopes of selling a few more newspapers and the complete disregard for media ethics led to my online public shaming as a rape victim.
Thanks for your time and consideration. I look forward to future correspondence.
Webster University School of Communications Journalism Program Alum
Advocate for Ethical Journalism, Victims of Rape, Sexual Assault and Public Shaming
Brittany H. Burke