St. Louis Paper Uses Political Affair to Slut-Shame, Out Possible Rape Victim

Here’s a primer on how to use “journalism” to perpetuate rape culture: write a salacious story about a night of drinking that ended in a halted sexual assault investigation, name the accuser — and then connect her to a political sex scandal in order to claim that publishing her bar tab was “newsworthy.” Then pat your back, safe in the knowledge that many other rape victims will probably see your article and be too intimidated to come forward.

This is what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did this week. Naming the accuser in particular — a breach of common journalistic ethical protocol — is getting the paper quite a bit of heat from fellow journalists. What happened is this: local papers had been covering the downfall of local politician John Diehl, whose affair with an intern was widely known. But the intern’s names wasn’t known, until she filed sexual assault charges that were later dropped. The paper used those charges to not only name her publicly, but to go into detail about the night of “partying” that led up to the accusation — and they included photographs.

Writer Andy Kopa Dolal described it thus: “online the story is posted with a picture of Diehl and the woman with the subhead ‘Raucous Jefferson City Nightlife.’”  And rival paper The Riverfront Times ran a scathing piece, accusing the Post-Dispatch of shoddy journalism bordering on slut-shaming:

Two months later, on June 19, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran her photo on its front page. The accompanying story listed all the alcohol she’d consumed the night before — with details including the size of various bar tabs and the specific drinks (wine, vodka Red Bull, Jagerbombs) she’d paid for. It also named the man she’d previously been in a sexual relationship with, even though he was not suspected of any wrongdoing and wasn’t even present for the night’s festivities.

It published her name and her job (a lobbyist at the time she filed the police report, she’s now in public relations) and said she’d declined to be interviewed.

Again, it’s common practice not to name sexual assault victims, but that comes from a serious ethical consideration (actually, this really is about ethics in journalism).  The DART Center for Journalism and Trauma explains this in its guide for reporters covering sexual assault:

Anticipate the impact of publication. Journalists have a responsibility to do everything they can to avoid exposing the interviewee to further abuse or undermining their standing in the community.

Sexual assault reporting is difficult, and there are ethical dilemmas inherent to the undertaking that are legitimately worth discussing and debating. We’re at a tipping point in the media; many writers, editors, and producers understand rape culture as they previously didn’t, but clearly many people are still confused or buying in to it. And this kind of nonsense makes it very clear that “the media” hasn’t been taken over by rabid man-hating feminists. Quite the contrary, as Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote: ” this is an exemplary tale of what happens when a person comes forward to ask for help — especially a person who doesn’t fit into the tidy narrative of the knife-wielding stranger and the morally spotless female.” We may not know all the details of this particular case, but we do know that there’s a very real, chilling effect to the way it was reported.