ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – Was Friday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl and a past affair with a Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon staffer newsworthy, and should it have included the name of a possible victim of sexual assault?
Riverfront Times Editor-in-Chief Sarah Fenske on Monday published a blog about the Dispatch’s story, titled “How the Post-Dispatch Shamed a Possible Rape Victim — and Embarrassed Itself.”
In the blog, she says, “You could call this story slut-shaming. You could call it prurience. Just don’t call it good journalism.”
She goes on to say, “It’s common practice in journalism to withhold the names of sexual assault victims. In fact, in all my years working at both daily and weekly newspapers, I can only recall two exceptions to this practice: one, if the victim is found to have completely fabricated an assault for personal gain, and two, if the victims themselves decides that they want to have their story told.
“Neither was true in this case.”
KMOX’s Mark Reardon invited Christopher Ave, political and national editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on his show Monday afternoon for comment.
Reardon begins by asking the editor, why was the story newsworthy?
Ave responds, “One, you have some very powerful people involved here,” saying Diehl was either the No. 1 or No. 2 Republican in the Legislature, and the woman was the Director of External Legislative and Policy Affairs for Nixon.
Nixon is a Democrat, and Diehl is a Republican, and the woman and Diehl were having a relationship, he says.
“Her job was to lobby the legislature on behalf of Nixon. His job … was to oppose Nixon’s agenda, and yet they were having this relationship,” Ave says. “So I think right there, you have an extremely newsworthy situation, and one that we felt we had an obligation to our readers to report on.”
Reardon then asks why name the woman in the story – someone who thought they had been sexually assaulted, if not raped.
“It’s a question that we spent hours and hours considering,” Ave responds.
According to the police report, a woman called police because didn’t know what happened to her the night before, Ave says. The woman was asked if she was sexually assaulted, to which she responded with “I don’t know.”
When the full investigation ended, “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,” Ave says. “The very last interview she gave to police, according to the police report, she said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if anything happened.'”
Ave says it would have been a “much different situation if she had reported a rape, if she had called a rape-crisis line. That would be a very, very different situation. ”
Listen to the entire interview below:
— Riverfront Times (@RiverfrontTimes) June 22, 2015
Fenske on Tuesday told KMOX’s Jane Dueker that she was shocked when she read the story, calling it an “in-depth look” at a woman’s wild night.
And the only reason the Post-Dispatch had information detailing the evening is because the woman contacted police, thinking it was possible she had been sexually assaulted, Fenske says.
“As a veteran journalist, I’m looking at this going, wait a minute,” Fenske says. “The professional standard has always been that if somebody is a victim of sexual assault, or a possible victim of sexual assault, that’s not somebody that we name, much less gleefully get into all the details of what might have led up to them filing a police report.”
The key to deciding whether a story is newsworthy is when you connect the dots, she says, and “this story didn’t do that, it did not even come close to doing that. What it instead did is focus on this one wild night.”
She says the story was a “sort of a weird amount of name dropping and glee in terms of the details, for what they’re now trying to claim as sort of a sober-minded story about policy. I just, I don’t see it.”
“I feel like mistakes were made,” Fenske says. “… I think the reaction they’re getting should indicate to them it didn’t hit the target the way that they were hoping it would.”
Listen to the entire interview below:
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