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GUIDELINES FOR REPORTING ON SEXUAL VIOLENCE
According to the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, "reporting on sexual violence demands special care and increased ethical sensitivity. It requires specialised interviewing skills, understanding of the law, and basic awareness about the psychological impact of trauma.” On all levels and topics of reporting, a special awareness is required to offer ethical journalism that challenges stereotypes and begins to provide a more balanced and just worldview. However, in the case of reporting on violence against women, including sexual violence, it carries an extra responsibility; as anything short of breaking through the silence that often surrounds these criminal acts of rape, assault and murder supports a status quo that minimises and excuses the impact of violence, and endangers women everywhere.
Language: The inherent dangers in reporting on violence against women are many, and to follow any ethical guidelines requires an awareness of the impact of language, its underlying messages and a willingness to avoid journalistic shorthand in the ever-quickening turn-around speed of modern media. This is not an easy task, many of the stock words and phrases used support an imbalanced status quo and endanger change in societal thinking and treatment of survivors. These can be expressions that mislead (sexual violence should never be related to sex – it is a violent act and an abuse of power), that blame the survivor (“she got herself raped”), that avoid placing the responsibility for the attack on the attacker, or that suggest that attackers do not look like “normal” men. In the worst cases, in terms of sexual violence, the survivor is often judged through use of dramatic language (i.e. “cowering in fear”), which suggests that for women to be proper “victims”, they must express the trauma in a certain way. This goes against most beliefs on the impact of trauma, which acknowledge that each person reacts in their own, individual way. Therefore, it is essential not only to get the facts correct, but to be precise, to offer alternatives to popular myths, and not use euphemism or shorthand. Language use is discussed in the “guidelines” section below.
Context: The issue is not one of using religion, culture or geographic location as an excuse for any form of violence: all violence is inexcusable. Rather, the issue is to recognize the consequences of reporting in a particular way, and the inherent possible dangers posed to interviewees, to others providing support, as well as to the journalist herself. Survivors or witnesses have the right to respect and privacy, but foremost to that of safety. It is essential for a journalist to educate herself in order to safeguard the life and wellbeing of those she interviews and works with. Often violence against women is dismissed or the impact minimised, yet research reveals the severe lifelong effects on the physical and mental health of survivors. An awareness and sensitivity of the risks posed to the survivor by going public and others providing support should form the contextual framework for everything a journalist does. Local and international women’s organisations, non-governmental organisations and, journalist unions and organisations are all good places to obtain information on potential risks, hazards, and threats to survivors, as well as the cultural context.
1. Accurate language: Frame violence and sexual violence using accurate language. Rape is never sex nor is it a volatile ‘relationship’; it is a violent crime with judicial consequences. Sexual violence and violence against women has been defined not only as a human rights abuse but also as a crime against humanity, whether during war or peace. Be aware of the legal framework of the crime and use the terminology to challenge myths that minimise violence.
2. “Survivor” or “victim”?: Use of the word “victim” presumes knowledge of the impact of the survived trauma, and presupposes that the woman is, and was, powerless. The word itself removes the possibilities that a woman can resist, not accept that violence is normal and expected, seek help and survive. Use of the word “survivor” supports life after the attack, does not define her by that one event in her life, and helps to highlight the woman’s agency to take control, and make choices about her future.
3. Privacy and respect issues: Many survivors may feel shame, or guilt, or be distressed by the retelling of events. Identify yourself clearly as a journalist and explain the content of the story, it is important to build trust. It is also important to inform interviewees that they have the right to refuse to answer a question and that they may bring someone to support them. If possible, the interviewer should be female, with some understanding of the impacts of trauma. For example, some survivors of sexual violence remember things in a disjointed way, or may not remember certain events if too severe for them to cope. If you have offered anonymity, respect it, and think about obscuring identifiable elements, such as job or location (see guideline 9 below).
4. Safety concerns: In some cases, speaking to a journalist can further endanger a woman (see guideline 9). Recognize that you may be putting someone in further danger by approaching them. In some cases, to admit rape can lead to exile from the community, retaliation, or even death. Be aware and thoughtful about these risks when choosing the time and location of interviews. Local women’s organisations, non-governmental organisations working in the area, and local press organisations can provide information on the context and dangers posed by “going public”. Further, be aware that sexual violence can have wider impacts on family members, communities and witnesses.
5. Do your research: Misinformation is perpetuated through poor research. For example, Western media often focuses on “stranger danger”, when in fact most sexual violence (outside of war) is often perpetrated by persons known to the survivor, or treating domestic violence as an isolated event. Challenge these myths by doing research to give the story the proper, factual base and context necessary in order to educate the audience about the reality.