June 30, 2015

Last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story that uses a woman’s police report of a possible sexual assault as a trampoline to jump into the wanton ways of Jefferson City, Missouri, politicos. The Riverfront Times was among the first to accuse the newspaper of crafting a story that disrespected and shamed someone who may have been the victim of sexual assault.

The Post-Dispatch’s political and national editor, Christopher Ave, told a local radio station that his paper’s journalistic goal was to hold powerful policy-makers accountable for their behavior. In this story, the woman who reported the possible assault had worked for the Democratic governor in the past, though she was no longer working for him. The police report includes details of an affair she had with the Missouri House Speaker, who resigned in May amid a sexting scandal involving an intern.

On one hand, this story is complicated. It involves a number of political actors, lobbyists and officials. But on the other hand, it is also fairly simple. It involves a woman who filed a police report and went through the process of evidence collection for a rape kit. In weighing the journalistic merits of writing about a story like this, there are a number of things to consider. Some good places to start: Keeping in mind your journalistic purpose, asking who could be affected by the story and thinking of story alternatives.

Why not report about the affair without disclosing the woman’s status as a possible victim of sexual assault? Why not treat the police report as a tip and then investigate further? Why not grant her anonymity and find another way to expose corruption or improper contracts? Poynter’s Kelly McBride says that most newsrooms have a policy of granting anonymity for survivors of sexual assault and that “the threshold for identifying someone as a sexual assault survivor against his or her wishes should be exceedingly high.” Did this meet that threshold?

Journalists grant anonymity and are cautious when they report about victims of sexual assault because so many women don’t file police reports, don’t get examined, don’t get help at all. They’re afraid of being shamed publicly. They’re afraid of not being believed. The woman involved in this story declined to be interviewed by Poynter but wanted to be on the record as saying this: “I do have a comment about how the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and her editor handled the reporting of it by naming me, uninvolved friends, and strangers, and by adding uncorroborated details about the worst evening of my life. I think their reporting and the editor’s subsequent comments will discourage people who are thinking to report an assault and seek the help they need.”

If a news organization usually grants victims of sexual assault anonymity but makes an exception, it is saying that either the story is big enough to warrant stripping her anonymity, or that it doubts her status as a victim in the first place? Ave’s radio interview makes it clear that the decision was based on the latter.

In that interview, Ave said that the staff of the paper decided that the woman wasn’t really reporting an assault. “Much different situation than if she had reported a rape, if she had called a rape hotline,” he said in the radio interview.

Ave went on to say, “She may still be a victim. I don’t know you, don’t know, all we have is a police report…Very different than doing a story where a woman says ‘I was assaulted.’”

This seems a bit disingenuous considering the paper’s third sentence of the story reads that the woman “made her statement to police April 9 of this year, when she asked detectives to investigate whether she had been sexually assaulted the night before.”

Making her name a part of this story implies that she was not a victim of sexual assault. The story not only lists the woman’s bar tab dollar amounts, but also describes the exact drinks she ordered. For example, it says that at one bar, she “ordered a vodka and sugar-free Red Bull in a plastic cup.” Why is this essential for the audience to know? Does knowing it wasn’t a glass help you understand Missouri politics? Does the fact that it was sugar-free Red Bull give you a clear picture of the night, the affair, the hedonistic culture of lobbyists and officials? Or was it included as part of a master narrative about the trouble women get into when they party hard? It’s impossible to say whether the woman in this story was sexually assaulted. Sexual assault claims are often hard to prove, but it’s not the job of the media to judge whether someone was or was not sexually assaulted.

What we can say is that to narratively couple her possible sexual assault with an exacting account of the drinks she had is to fall into two dangerous master narratives of sexual assault: the story of the woman who was assaulted because she was careless; or the story of the woman who had a crazy night and then cried wolf. Neither of these narratives does justice to this woman’s story because we’re not shown enough to fully understand it. In this case, avoiding as many details about her assault or possible assault is probably the safest editorial decision. When you’re faced with a story that involves so many actors and dimensions, it’s tempting to prioritize what you see as the most important of the dimensions and to neglect the others. But complexity is common, and it’s no excuse for lax decision making. Working through ethical decisions should be complicated, too. If you’re faced with a complex ethical decision, here are 10 questions to get you started:

  1. What do we know? What do we need to know?
  2. What is our journalistic purpose?

  3. What are our ethical concerns?

  4. What organizational policies, professional guidelines, standards and practices should we consider?

  5. How can we include other people, with different perspectives and diverse ideas, in the decision-making process?

  6. Who are the stakeholders — those affected by our decision? What are their motivations? Which are legitimate?

  7. What if the roles were reversed? How would we feel if we were in the shoes of one of the stakeholders?

  8. What are the possible consequences of our actions? Short-term? Long-term?

  9. What are our alternatives to maximize our truth-telling responsibility and minimize harm?

  10. Can we clearly and fully justify our thinking and our decisions? To our colleagues? To the stakeholders? To the public? How should we do that?

To work with the full 20 questions, here’s a link to Poynter’s “20 Questions for Ethical Decision-Making.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the dates of the woman’s contract work for the governor of Missouri. 

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