Thanks to the rise of the internet and the rapid proliferation of an ever-growing range of communication channels and platforms over the past half-century, the human rights issue of Violence Against Women (VAW) which was previously surrounded by a wall of silence is now being increasingly brought to the attention of the wider public through the media, including newspapers, television, films and online and social media. This means that there is great potential for media to play a role in reinforcing or transforming not just public opinion of, but also public policy on VAW. And with this great potential comes great responsibility to report ethically and ensure negative and dangerous stereotypes and narratives are not perpetuated.
In many societies, it is inevitable that media reporting is done within a gendered landscape where culture and tradition dictate patriarchal norms of perspective and even language. Even journalists who strive to report on VAW from a neutral or feminist perspective may be influenced by unconscious gender biases or be unsure of how to approach the subject.
Here, we have compiled some tips for journalists working in this area to help you create more balanced articles. This is by no means a comprehensive resource but it is a good starting point for any journalist whose beat includes reporting about VAW cases.
For more resources on starter guidelines and ethics for reporting about VAW, visit The Ethical Journalism Initiative.
Written by Anushia Kandasivam. Additional content by Regina Yau.
Tip #1: Treat the Survivor with Respect
First and foremost: treat survivors with respect and compassion. If you are granted an interview with the survivor (or survivors), here are a few best practices to keep in mind: Prior to starting the interview, provide them with complete information about the topics that you will be covering with them, and how the interview will be reported. Survivors have the right to refuse to answer any questions or not to divulge more than they are comfortable with because interviews are stressful and it can be triggering for them to talk about what happened. Don’t pressure them even if you may not be able to cover everything in one sitting. Instead, make sure they know that you are available for subsequent contact so that they can reach you to continue the conversation if they need or wish to do so.
Tip #2: Remember Duty of Care
Ethical reporting of VAW means taking measures to avoid further compromising the safety and security of survivors or witnesses. This may include: selecting an interview venue that is private and secure; and protecting the identity of the survivor and/or witness by not publishing or broadcasting names or any other piece of information that may out them to the public. This is particularly important if the (alleged) perpetrator(s) wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence in the community and culture. For example: agents of law enforcement, celebrities with a fan base with a history of victim-blaming, political power players, or people connected with powerful organisations including multinational corporations or organised crime.
Tip #3: Use the Correct Term
The person whom the crime was perpetrated against is the ‘survivor’ and not a ‘victim’. Using ‘victim’ diminishes the woman’s agency and implies that she is now (and perhaps forever will be) only identifiable by what has happened to her.
Tip #4: Avoid Victim-Blaming
Stick to factual, ethical reporting and avoid victim blaming. This is related to the way you frame your article, the language you use and the details you put into it. Detailing what the survivor wore at the time of the crime or writing that she usually ‘dresses provocatively’, adding that she was out late at night, had been drinking or bar hopping, or was consistently seen out and about with men, all imply that the woman was ‘asking for it’ and also tells the reader that the perpetrator of the crime was not really at fault for what he did. Focus on the perpetrator’s behaviour instead.
Tip #5: Avoid ‘Othering’
‘Othering’ is blaming the survivor and suggesting the perpetrator was ‘abnormal’. This gives the impression that people involved in domestic violence, for example, are ‘not like us’ or that ‘this kind of thing does not happen in our society’. The fact is that VAW happens everywhere in the world all the time. As a journalist, part of your job is to shed light on what is happening in your society so that members of that society and the authorities have the opportunity to work to solve the problem.
Tip #6: Quote with Tact
When getting the perspective of witnesses, the authorities, friends and family, be discerning about what you end up quoting in your article. Unsubstantiated comments about the survivor can be harmful, especially those that are intended to assassinate her character. A neighbour’s anecdote about how the survivor comes home late every day is not only unrelated to the crime but also smacks of misogynistic victim-blaming.
Tip #7: Back Up Your Article with Real Facts
This may be an obvious tip – every journalist knows to use solid facts to back up their points. But a surprising amount of articles about VAW use only anecdotal evidence or no data at all. Use a range of resources, including interviews, data and opinion from relevant NGOs, public statistics and expert opinion. Try as much as possible to use official data and statistics. Or, if these are unavailable, keep asking for them and asking why they are unavailable. In other words: do your homework.
Tip #8: Describe the Crime Using Factual Language
When writing about any form of VAW, you are writing an article or a report of a crime that has been committed, so describe it as such. If you wouldn’t describe a robbery as ‘the jewels were procured by the gang…’ then approach any case of VAW with the same direct and factual reporting. For example: write ‘a man was arrested under domestic violence charges…’ instead of ‘a lover’s spat got out of hand…’ and rape is not a ‘sex scandal’ or a ‘misunderstanding’.
Tip #9: Framing is Crucial
Do not inadvertently shift the blame from the perpetrator to the survivor through inaccurate framing of your story. One of the ways avoiding this is by paying attention to the language you use to report on the case. For example: The sentence “Helen was allegedly raped by John” uses the passive voice and attaches the label of “victim” on Helen by implication instead of acknowledging that John is the perpetrator. The active sentence “John allegedly raped Helen” would be a more accurate one – Helen is still acknowledged, but John, the perpetrator of the rape, is now in the spotlight, as he should be because he committed the crime. Another reason to avoid passive sentences is that they run the risk of implying that the survivor contributed in some way to the crime. Also avoid writing ‘the victim admits’ or ‘the victim confesses’ as this implicates the survivor as a responsible party.
Tip #10: Ask Yourself – What is “The Big Picture”?
Journalists are able to shape public conversation with their articles. Think about the bigger picture – sometimes VAW is part of a long-standing social problem or part of a community’s history. Bear this in mind when reporting on individual incidences, as it will help contextualise your article, identify which facts are newsworthy, and add salient points that may engender a discussion on the long-term causes and effects of gendered violence.
Tip #11: Avoid Irrelevant Details
When writing about the survivor, be careful about adding in details that are irrelevant to the crime you are reporting on. For example, the hometown of the survivor or what her parents do for a living may not actually be related to the crime but can unfairly colour the reader’s perception of her.
Tip #12: Avoid Perpetuating Myths and Misogyny
As a journalist, you are perfectly positioned to break down myths about rape, societal perceptions about ‘appropriate’ female sexuality and start the discussion about toxic masculinity. When writing about VAW, avoid language and framing that buys into tired and misogynistic stereotypes about women, men and sexual assault. Research has shown that newspaper coverage of sexual assault has a direct influence on readers’ attitudes to rape, domestic violence, and other forms of VAW. For example, perpetuating the myth that husbands cannot rape wives or that women lie about being raped.
Tip #13: Avoid Sensationalist Reporting
A sensational article with a click-bait headline may get more views but it not only perpetuates negative stereotypes and a misogynistic culture, it is harmful to the survivor and those working to bring justice. Avoid graphic details of the crime. Again, stick to factual and ethical reporting. This tip extends to the visuals used when the article is published. A crime has been committed and eroticising or sensationalising it is not the way to go.
Tip #14: Avoid Creating Your Own Scale of Justice
Avoid writing that endorses the idea that different forms of sexual violence have a hierarchy. Calling for a death sentence for the attackers in a gang-rape but opining that it is not a big deal if a perpetrator of domestic violence is not brought to justice is unbalanced and dangerous reporting. All forms of VAW are equally reprehensible and deserve justice.
Tip #15: Be Aware of the Legalities
The usual applies – do not name an underage survivor or an underage perpetrator. Also remember that the crime you are reporting on will probably be part of an ongoing court case. Be aware of what details you are legally able to publish, and be careful of how you frame the article to avoid accusations of defamation. More importantly, avoid doxxing anyone involved in the case.
Tip #16: Provide Resources
VAW affects communities and cultures across the world. Anyone reading your article could be a survivor or know one, or have been a witness to a crime. Leave a link to resources that offer advice and support for survivors, families and anyone else who wants to learn or help.
All pictures used are Creative Commons images (from top to bottom):