Petition calls on newspaper to apologize for naming possible sexual assault victim

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Back in June, Brittany Burke’s name was the buzz of Missouri. But should people have even known her name in the first place?

Burke, 31, is the owner of a public relations firm and a former aide to democratic Governor Jay Nixon. On April 9, she reported to police that she believed she’d been assaulted the night before by an unknown assailant. In the course of giving her report, Burke revealed to Jefferson City Police that she’d had an affair with now-former Republican Missouri House Speaker John Diehl—although that detail is unrelated to the circumstances of her alleged sexual assault. Diehl is a noteworthy figure in Missouri because he stepped down in May after his sexually-charged texts with a 19-year-old intern in the Missouri Capitol Intern Program were released by the Kansas City Star.

With the elements of crime and power, it was a juicy story for sure, and one that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was intent on reporting. But in a front-page piece about this new scandal—Burke’s admission of their affair—the newspaper failed to get Burke’s consent to identify her as a potential victim of sexual assault. According to the story the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published June 19, the police report revealed: 

“… when [Burke] woke up, she discovered that her wrist hurt, her clothes were muddy and had blood on them and she couldn’t remember most of the evening. When police asked if she thought she had been sexually assaulted, she said: ‘Maybe.'”

Now, freelance journalist Andy Kopsa and an activist group called Women, Action & Media (WAM!) have started a petition calling on the newspaper to publicly apologize to Burke, along with a short list of other demands.

WAM!

In addition to the petition, they’ve also launched the hashtag #coveragewithconsent to drive home the point about the ethical issues that come along reporting on sexual assault victims and possible sexual assault victims like Burke. 

Burke was contacted by Post-Dispatch reporter Virginia Young several months ago to talk about what happened on April 8. This week, she publicly opened up about how she was first approached by Young via Twitter.

According to the Post-Dispatch, Burke declined to speak with Young about her experience on the record, simply commenting, “It’s a very personal, humiliating and embarrassing thing I went through.”

But instead of giving Burke the opportunity to speak off the record, Young (who’s Twitter bio now reads “recovering newspaper reporter”) proceeded without on the record comments from Burke, and chose to name her without consent, with approval from her editor, Christopher Ave. Using the information from the police report as their source, the paper reported on the number of drinks Burke consumed during her night out in Missouri’s state capital and the amount of money she paid for them. 

Young, her editor Ave (who is still at the Post-Dispatch), and the paper’s PR rep did not return the Daily Dot’s request for comment.

After the Post-Dispatch shared Burke’s name, many were up in arms. Andy Kopsa published a piece on July 8 for the Riverfront Times expressing her disgust with decisions made by both the Jefferson City police and the newspaper:

“But the newspaper’s victimization of Burke, troubling though it is, was only possible because of the way Jefferson City police handled her report in the first place. [Jefferson City police] Detective [Curtis] Finke failed to follow best practices in dealing with reports of sexual assault — and even, in some cases, the most minimum of standards. And then police closed the case without even informing the woman at its center, as Burke’s attorney confirmed to Riverfront Times last week.”

Two months after the case was closed, police released Burke’s report. That’s when the Post-Dispatch went ahead with its widely-criticized story.

“I tried to get both Virginia Young (reporter) and Christopher Ave (her editor) to speak to me for my article. Neither would comment on or off the record,” Kopsa told the Daily Dot via email. She continued in the Riverfront Times:

“I also was asked to write an op-ed for the St. Louis Post Dispatch challenging its decision to run a rape victim’s name.  One former editorial board member fought for it, but it was killed because the op-ed page couldn’t find a ‘pro’ as to my ‘con.’ I am not sure who they thought would be ‘pro’ naming a rape victim, but to answer your question, yes, I did indeed try to contact them on many occasions.”

So why are activists drudging this all back up now, months after Burke’s name was released? For one thing, Kopsa and WAM! wanted to have Burke’s consent before moving forward—and as one of the 2,000 signees of the petition, she is fully on board. 

Additionally, Ave was recently up for a teaching position at Webster University’s School of Communications, which happens to be Burke’s alma mater. Burke had a letter to the editor published on Nov. 19 in The Webster Journaladdressed the school’s dean, Dr. Eric Rothenbuhler, regarding her concerns about hiring Ave:

“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.”

Burke continued to detail the questionable ethical tactics Ave permitted his reporter Young to use. Burke also referenced direct quotes Ave gave in an interview with the radio station KMOX regarding her story, in particular his comments ‘We weren’t there. We don’t know what happened.’:

“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.'”

In another unfortunate development, which appears to be a coincidence, Jefferson City Police are now offering a course called Rape Aggression Defense (RAD)—or as the Riverfront Times calls it, a “class on how to not get raped.” Throughout the 15-hour course, attendees will “learn such valuable lessons as where to stand in an elevator (close to the control panel, back against the wall) and how to trim your shrubbery (with “consistent shape,” so it’ll be easier to see if rapists lurking near it).”

Riverfront Times

It should be noted that the RAD course is taught nationwide. But Kopsa, Burke and WAM! take issue with the fact it is being offered in a city which has other problems dealing with sexual assault and rape culture.

Burke, for her part, just wants the Post-Dispatch to admit its wrongdoing, and to put standards in place so that future victims or possible victims don’t end up in the same position.

In a subsequent tweet on the subject, Burke asks the Post-Dispatch editors, “What’s the price tag on your mental health?”

Photo via Jon S./Flickr

Marisa Kabas

Marisa Kabas

Marisa Kabas is a lifestyle reporter and activist. Her work has been published by Fusion, Fast Company, and Today. She’s also served as an editorial campaigns director for Purpose PBC, a social movement incubator.