How should journalists report gender-based violence?
Gender-based violence is often in the news. Its prevalence in society makes it a ‘hot topic’ for reporters and its complex nature makes it an interesting issue for feature writers. However, the fact that gender-based violence is so complex can mean that even journalists with the best of intentions can misrepresent some of the issues and perpetuate myths that are harmful to those who experience it, and also to women more generally.
In 2012 in a submission to the Levenson Inquiry into the role of the press, the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), alongside other women’s rights organisations, argued that “much current newspaper reporting about crimes of violence against women promotes and reinforces myths and stereotypes about abuse (such as ‘real’ and ‘deserving’ victims, ‘provoked’ or ‘tragic’ perpetrators etc.); is often inaccurate; and does not give context about the true scale of violence against women and girls, or the culture in which it occurs. Such reporting can tend towards the normalisation, eroticisation and even condoning of violence against women and girls. It sends a message to survivors of abuse that they will not be believed or that what happened to them will not be taken seriously, and it tells potential perpetrators that their actions will not be sanctioned. As the Crown Prosecution Service stated shortly after they gave evidence to the Inquiry, this prejudicial reporting may seriously undermine the justice system by having an impact on jurors’ decision-making.”
On the other hand, good reporting can play a vital role in increasing understanding of gender-based violence and challenging its place in our society and many journalists and bloggers do produce high quality work which confronts violence and gender inequality.
Top tips for journalists reporting on gender-based violence:
- Frame gender-based violence as a gender equality and human rights abuse
- Use of language is key e.g. use survivor not victim unless it is a murder or self-identification
- Do not sensationalise or minimise the crime
- Do not reinforce negative gender stereotypes e.g. walking alone, drinking, sexual history
- Include information on helplines and support services and reporting crimes – local and national if possible
- Include a trigger warning for material where geder-based violence is depicted or described in detail
- Gender-based violence is cross-cultural and can happen to anyone, anywhere
- Take time to research and understand the issues, consult with experts and survivors, use up to date statistics – try to contextualise the incident within wider patterns and prevalence of gender-based violence, and include expert commentary from academics or organisations working on the issues
- Ensure the safety of survivors at all times e.g. if interviewing, do not print name etc. and all details of crime
- Do not identify survivors fully by age and job, described their injuries and attempt to re-construct the abuse in question, without their consent or publish a photo of them
- Try to report more fully on successful prosecutions and successful recovery of survivors
- ‘Jealousy’ is not an excuse for violence/abuse/murder – do not reinforce stereotypes and attitudes which condone or excuse gender-based violence
- Do not conflate ‘sex’ with rape e.g. with a girl/teenage girl – there is no such thing as ‘forced sex’ this is rape
- If a girl is underage it is statutory rape – there is no such thing as an ‘underage woman’ she is a girl or teenage girl
- ‘Honour’ violence should be in quotes ideally with so-called in front of it e.g. so-called ‘honour’-based violence
- Do not describe murder as a ‘crime of passion’
- Name violence/abuse as gender-based violence if it is e.g. not a ‘volatile relationship’
- Say female genital mutilation (FGM) not ‘circumcision’
- Say sex worker or woman/man working in prostitution
- Say woman/man involved in pornography or the sex industry not ‘porn actress/starlet’ etc.
- A domestic violence homicide is not an inexplicable tragedy even if the factors which led to it are unknown – it is an act of gender-based violence
- There is never any excuse for gender-based violence – the fault is with the perpetrator and never the fault of the survivor/victim
- Stranger rape is rarer than attacks involving someone known to the survivor – do not sensationalise these cases
- A ‘murdered prostitute’ is a murdered woman and her name should be used if appropriate
- Gender-based violence should not come across as sexual and titillating – this perpetuates ‘rape culture’ because this reporting of gender-based violence not only trivialises the abuse, but it further contributes to an increasingly conducive context for rape and sexual abuse to take place with impunity
- Do not explicitly sexualise women’s lack of consent e.g. ‘upskirt’ photos, revenge porn, sex tapes
- Do not focus on empathy with the perpetrator by eulogising their achievements, and highlighting their careers, their celebrity and their supposed respectability – feature their crimes and the survivors/victims equally.
Positive reporting about gender-based violence is possible. For example, a story in the Bristol Post in May 2016 – ‘Bristol man jailed after sexually assaulting woman as she slept beside partner in her own home’ – was a positive headline and story and the article included information on local services. There are more examples of good media coverage on Everyday Victim Blaming. Bristol Zero Tolerance are working with partners Trinity Mirror plc, who own Bristol Post, to ensure that their publications are reporting gender-based violence appropriately and that they respond to any complaints.
There are also awards for those who report gender-based violence appropriately such as the Write to End Violence Against Women Awards in Scotland and the Ending Violence Against Women Media Awards run by EVAW.
Useful resources for journalists:
Zero Tolerance Scotland ‘Handle With Care’ offering advice on various issues from interviewing survivors to providing relevant context and ensuring that violence is neither trivialised nor sensationalised. They also have other resources for the media.
National Union of Journalists ‘Guidelines for Journalists’
Film on victim blaming language
Media Ethics information on how to report child abuse
Information on the impact that reporting may have on a survivor e.g. printing name etc. and details of crime