Last year, a former communications staffer for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon found the details of her rape case made public in a piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The piece, written by then-staffer Virginia Young, used the woman’s police report, filed after her assault and filled with errors and inconsistencies, in an attempt to smear a former politician.
The paper named the subject, Brittany Burke, without her consent. It gave her no chance to talk off the record and ran her photo side-by-side with that of the politician in question. That was almost a year ago. And yet in March, the Post-Dispatch ran an editorial that doubled down on its actions. The paper’s editorial board renamed Burke, denying the Post-Dispatch‘s piece was an assault story but rather one about the “party atmosphere” in the state capitol. The editors have claimed naming Burke in the first place was vital to the public interest. It wasn’t.
I use Burke’s name because she gave me consent to use her name and to tell her side of this story—something the Post-Dispatch didn’t do.
Burke’s outing inspired a wave of backlash and critique. Using her name and her assault report wasn’t just yellow journalism; it appeared to be a calculated and craven act to sell papers and drive clicks. Last month, partially inspired by Burke’s situation, the Missouri house held hearings on a bill that would require documents like police reports to redact the personal information of trauma victims prior to the document being released to the public. Missouri law currently restricts release of records if there is a danger posed to the subject by doing so. While concerns over restricting access to public records is valid—transparency in the world of journalism is paramount—it is clear that in certain cases, like those of rape and other traumas, further rules need to be established.
The Post-Dispatch’s editorial was in response to this bill, which passed out of committee and is currently awaiting full floor debate; Burke testified in its favor.
But Burke’s story stretches beyond Missouri—it can act as a lesson for reporters and members of the media in how to approach stories about victims of trauma.
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With that in mind, I stepped out of my reporter role briefly last year and launched an online petition demanding the Post-Dispatch issue an apology to Burke. Beyond the apology, the petition called on the paper to immediately implement transparent standards of dealing with potential victims of sexual assault and to adopt simple training that would create a trauma-informed newsroom. The petition was launched with the support of Women, Action, and the Media! (WAM!) under the hashtag #CoverWithConsent, referencing the broader need for reporters to obtain consent from possible victims before naming them, and to, whenever feasible and appropriate, contact them to get their sides of the story.
Newspapers aren’t legally bound to withhold the name of a possible rape victim, though it is common practice to do so. But it wasn’t just Burke’s name that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed. The story included details that suggested Burke was an unreliable witness to her own assault and that effectively put Burke’s personal and professional life in danger.
At the time of Burke’s assault, she had started her own public relations and communications company and many of her clients were in government-adjacent support fields, so she spent a lot of time in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. The night of the incident, Burke went out for dinner and drinks with some friends. She ended up at a bar frequented by government officials, politicians, and lobbyists. She bought rounds of drinks. The next thing she remembers is showing up at a former fling’s apartment matted with blood and confused. Not able to recall what happened, she decided she needed to go to the hospital. “I feel like I had sex,” she says she told the nurse, along with the fact that she was a woman in politics and required discretion in the case.
She filed a police report. “I don’t know if I was raped,” she told the officer, meaning that she truly did not remember what happened to her that night. According to the report, the officer asked Burke, who was crying, that if the lab test from the hospital came back with a lead, what she would like to have happen to someone who assaulted her. Burke replied, the report said, “I want him to burn in hell.”
Young, now retired from the Post-Dispatch, based much of her story on the police report without giving Burke the opportunity to talk off the record about them or correct anything about the details. For example, police initially investigated Burke’s complaint under the outdated statute of “forcible rape.” Under current law, however, if a person is unable to consent to sex for any reason, that is rape in Missouri. Young did not note this inconsistency, simply writing that the case had been dropped.
Young also detailed Burke’s bar tab, careful to catalog what Burke drank and bought right down to the last “Jagerbomb.” But the real push of the story was that Burke had had an affair with a married, former speaker of the Missouri house. That was revealed in the police report: His apartment is where she ended up the morning after the assault. He was otherwise not connected with the incident.
As reporters, it is our job to relay facts of a story that arm readers with information to come to their own conclusions. Compassion is not something typically associated with reporters, and in most cases we must be dispassionate to remain as unbiased as possible. But as a reporter who works with victims of trauma, the way I relay a person’s story is just as critical as making sure the facts are correct. In fact, the first often leads to the second.
After the story broke in the Post-Dispatch, I dug further into the story and filed my own account of what happened to Burke with the Riverfront Times, a regional independent weekly based in St. Louis. I did this in collaboration with Burke, meaning: I talked with her. I listened. She shared information with me on background that led me to seek further sources and lines of inquiry. Talking with Burke off the record led to a robust accounting of what happened to her that night. Listening to her and acknowledging trauma built trust. And trust led to Burke sharing the jarring findings from medical records that included a sexual assault nurse examiner finding suspected semen and vaginal abrasions “consistent with assault.”
The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) also took issue with the Post-Dispatch’s handling of the story. In an article that was published after the Riverfront Times piece, Deron Lee argued that if the Post-Dispatch had allowed Burke to speak off the record instead of asking for an on-the-record comment, it may have convinced the paper to not run the article as it was published. “Insisting that sources and subjects be on the record is a way to hold accountable people who wield power. Talking to someone who is a possible sexual-assault victim presents a different set of considerations,” Lee wrote.
Reaching out to Burke—or any possible victim of rape—for consent to cover their story leads to better, more accurate storytelling. Moreover, getting consent prior to telling an apparent victim’s story could go a long way in punching back at the pervasive rape culture perpetuated all too often by the media. For example, in response to backlash to the story, Christopher Ave, Young’s editor on the piece, erroneously said in an interview, “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.”
Rather than allowing Burke to tell her own story, Ave, Young, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board were her judge and jury—deciding she had not been assaulted based on an incomplete police report, no background from the victim, and no mention of physical evidence.
This, said Soraya Chemaly, feminist media critic, author, and director of the Women’s Media Center’s Speech Project, who coined the #CoverWithConsent hashtag, is an example of how the media puts rape victims on trial—something we seldom do with any other crime.
“Consent is such a vital issue,” said Chemaly in a phone interview. She pointed me to a recent study, released in December 2015 by the Women’s Media Center, which examined coverage of campus rape and sexualized violence at 12 major print outlets. Over the course of a year, it revealed that 55 percent of stories about sexual assault were covered by men and only 31 percent were covered by women. The gender divide goes deeper: Within those stories, 48 percent contained quotes from men while women made only 32 percent of quotes used.
#CoverWithConsent is an effort to hold the establishment we are a part of accountable. The petition itself is less about getting an apology for Burke—she knows that will likely never happen. Rather, it is about how newsrooms should have reporters who are trained in dealing with possible victims of trauma, including sexual assault. Editorial standards should take victims’ needs into consideration, such as the option to speak on background. According to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, for a reporter working with a survivor of sexual assault, it is essential to treat their experience with compassion and sensitivity, to tell a subject’s whole story, and “to take special care, if they are to avoid compounding their interviewees’ distress.”
“The #CoverWithConsent campaign holds media accountable for victim-blaming, shaming, and outing sexual assault survivors. The campaign condemns acts of insensitive and irresponsible journalism that results in shaming crime victims. It also illuminates the reality that this kind of unethical reporting perpetuates rape culture by re-victimizing survivors in the court of public opinion,” said Jamia Wilson, executive director of WAM!, in an interview.
The original story nearly destroyed Burke. Her livelihood as a consultant was over—some clients terminated contracts or didn’t renew contracts, she said, specifically because of the Post-Dispatch story. Her personal information and address was posted online, and she faced an onslaught of harassing tweets and Facebook messages. When I approached Burke about signing onto the petition officially, she said yes. Looking back, she told me, she had nothing left to lose.
With her anonymity gone, Burke was thrust into a role she never would have imagined: that of a women’s and victim’s right advocate. The last year has been incredibly difficult for her and she still struggles. She has been asked to speak at a local university about her experience as a woman in public relations and politics and about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story and its aftermath. She told me she never thought she would be speaking to college classes about the shaming of a rape victim, let alone that the victim would be her.
But, she said, she doesn’t have a choice. “I have to make sure I do whatever I can to make sure this never happens to any woman again.”