St. Louis Post-Dispatch Political and National Editor Christopher Ave withdrew from teaching a social media and politics course at Webster University. His decision to resign came after Webster alumna Brittany Burke wrote to members of Webster’s administration challenging the hiring of Ave.
Burke said Ave was responsible for her public shaming by running a story in June about her sexual assault. The story, which was written by now retired Post-Dispatch writer Virginia Young, named Burke as a sexual assault victim, Burke said.
Burke said Ave and Young did a disservice to all sexual assault victims by using Burke’s name. She said reporting names makes it harder for victims to come forward for help.
On the morning of April 9, 2015, Burke contacted police after she woke up in a hotel room in downtown Jefferson City. She said she was covered in blood, mud and missing some clothing. She contacted police, who then conducted an investigation and a rape kit.
“My rape investigation was used as an excuse and attempt to smear a former elected official, generate website traffic and clicks,” Burke wrote in her letter.
Post-Dispatch ran an article June 19 about former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl’s relationship with Burke. Burke said the article named her as a sexual assault victim and used a photo of her — things she said ethical journalists avoid doing.
Ave withdrew from teaching the social media and politics course after Burke sent her letter to Webster’s administration.
In an email to The Journal, Ave said he withdrew from Webster to spare the university any further negative publicity.
“It is disappointing that anyone would express anger at a news organization by depriving college students access to a useful class,” Ave said. “Still, I withdrew from my Webster assignment to spare the university any more negative publicity.”
Ave wrote in a statement to Riverfront Times (RFT) that he believes students would have greatly benefited from the course. He said it was disappointing that academic freedom would be harmed.
“I find it unfortunate that any person — well intentioned or otherwise — would seek to limit academic freedom at an institution of higher learning,” Ave wrote in his statement to RFT.
Burke said it was clear in Ave’s statement to RFT that he still did not understand the issue.
“Christopher Ave can take shots at me all day long. His response in trying to insinuate that my letter is an attempt to inhibit academic freedom is a great example of how tone-deaf and out-of-touch he is,” Burke said.
Burke’s letter to administration became a controversy after it was shared on social media, Dean of the School of Communications Eric Rothenbuhler said.
“[Ave] wanted to spare us the pain and difficulty and distraction of him teaching a class for us when he was attracting this kind of controversy and these kinds of claims and debates about his fitness as a professional,” Rothenbuhler said.
Rothenbuhler said he was concerned after receiving Burke’s letter. He emailed her back and promised the university would look into the matter. Within the next few days, Ave withdrew.
Burke’s letter to administration inspired fellow alumna Elizabeth Eisele to write her own letter to Webster administration. While Ave withdrew from teaching before it could be sent, more than 30 alumni signed Eisele’s letter backing Burke’s call for Ave’s dismissal.
“At college campuses where, in general, sexual assault is a problem, this is a really big deal,” Eisele said. “I took media ethics at Webster, and I think it’s pretty obvious that it was incorrect [of Post-Dispatch to name Burke]. When you name a victim, you’re making sure no other victims come forward for fear they are named, too.”
Eisele said she worked alongside Burke at an internship and also knew her from her time at Webster. Eisele said the Post-Dispatch article publicly shamed Burke by including her name, photo and the amount of drinks she had the night she said she was sexually assaulted.
RFT ran a story titled “How the Post-Dispatch shamed a possible rape victim — and embarrassed itself.” Along with RFT, several other publications including Poynter Journalism Institute and Columbia Journalism Review also criticized Post-Dispatch’s coverage. Burke said she is not only standing up for sexual assault victims, but also attempting to protect journalistic ethics.
“I truly believe Christopher Ave, Virginia Young and Post-Dispatch have done a great disservice to the public by possibly deterring rape victims from coming forward to seek support and have access to the resources they deserve,” Burke said.
Burke said she spoke out against Post-Dispatch because victims of sexual assault should not be publicly shamed. Burke said Ave’s resignation is a major victory.
Rothenbuhler said the social media and politics course is still being offered by the university and a new instructor has been found. He said School of Communications Department Chair Gary Ford is confident in the new instructor.
The class will coincide with several political campaigns, including the U.S. presidential campaign. He said the class will cover how social media changed political journalism and campaigning.
“We pride ourselves in providing our students access to successful professionals and try whenever possible to bring them into classrooms,” Rothenbuhler said.
**Clarification: Brittany Burke said she felt the Post Dispatch named her as a sexual assault victim.