EJN launches six-point guide for journalists reporting on domestic violence

By Mina Tumay and Hannah Storm

Journalists have a responsibility to ethically report on domestic violence, bringing accuracy and context to their stories. They can also play an important role by ensuring their coverage focuses fairly on victims, survivors, and families impacted by the abuse, which may in turn make it easier for those at risk of violence to seek support.

These were the overriding messages from an online discussion hosted by the Ethical Journalism Network to coincide with the International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women last month.

Now the EJN is launching a new six point guide to the ethical reporting of domestic violence, in the form of an infographic. It provides easy to read and practical suggestions framed by ethical considerations to promote the responsible reporting of domestic violence.

With the global pandemic of Covid-19, cases of domestic violence have increased, and so too has the media’s coverage of this issue. But it has not always been reported on within the correct context. Domestic violence remains a crime, an issue of control and not Covid-19, something which we underscored earlier this year in an article written for the EJN by Janey Starling, one of the panellists for the November event.

Fellow panellist Oisika Chakrabarti, the Acting Chief of Communications at UN Women, said that with lockdown restrictions, the cases of violence against women had risen, creating a ‘shadow pandemic’, alongside the medical one.

Shaista Aziz, head of media and communications at Solace Women’s Aid, said for women subjected to domestic abuse, lockdown never ended because their homes were the places where they were least safe.

Journalists regularly lack sufficient understanding of domestic violence, failing to see it exists frequently as a pattern of behaviour, and can include emotional, economic, sexual and physical abuse. Oisika Chakrabarti says that UN Women estimates more than one in three women around the world have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner or sexual violence by a non- partner, with 137 women killed by a family member every day.

Given these figures, it’s clear that domestic, or intimate partner violence as it is also known, is not a rare phenomenon, nor should it be treated as such by journalists.

When reporting on cases, Janey Starling says it is important to be accurate, stick to the facts, and not speculate, and for journalists to avoid the use of sensational words such as ‘horror’, ‘tragedy’ or ‘bloodbath’, or words that cast blame on the victim or appear to offer an excuse for the choices and behaviour of the perpetrator.

Janey Starling says it is important for journalists to hold perpetrators accountable and name the crime for what it is. They should also include resources for people who might be recognising similar patterns and need guidelines on what to do. She is the Campaign Director for Level Up, which produced guidelines for journalists reporting on fatal domestic violence and whose work has been instrumental in helping the EJN develop our infographic.

The panellists agreed there was insufficient or inappropriate focus in reporting on victims, survivors and family members of those affected by domestic violence. Instead, stories, and particular coverage of court cases, tended to highlight the voices or behaviours of the perpetrators. All panellists recognised journalists should be better schooled in reporting in a survivor-centred and sensitive way, and particularly noting the egregious impact of clickbait headlines and the fact that articles remained a ‘living memorial’, in the words of Janey Starling, to those killed by domestic violence, or as David Challen reminded us a potentially traumatic reminder for survivors and family members.

Panellist David Challen successfully campaigned to free his mother Sally Challen in a landmark appeal recognising the lifetime of coercive control she suffered. He described how some of the ways in which his family’s case was reported caused distress and trauma to them, particularly in reference to the inappropriate and sensationalist headlines used by some media organisations. He says he often feared news desks or editors might twist and change the story even after he had spoken with journalists, and he called for the reporting of domestic abuse cases to pay real attention to the sensitivities of those affected by the crimes because stories live online in perpetuity.

David Challen advocated a collaborative relationship between journalists and survivors for reporting on cases. He says when approaching a survivor, it is important for the journalist to know their story, to avoid preconceptions, and be ready to really listen to the survivor’s story, as well as acknowledging the survivor’s trauma. As well as being sensitive while interviewing, before publishing an article, he suggested journalists give the interviewee a full scope of how the final story would look.

Shaista Aziz said when women of colour or Muslim women were killed, their deaths became normalised as an issue of culture, explaining the additional issues of misogyny and racism they faced as the media frequently focussed on their perceived ‘otherness’. Instead, she said, journalists should tell the domestic abuse story factually, and from an intersectional point of view. She said those who are at risk of domestic violence may feel less able to come forward, because they do not know if they will be believed, based on the way journalists report.

Journalists need to follow certain rules and guidelines when reporting on cases of violence and domestic abuse. However, even before that, they need to recognise that domestic violence stems from a power struggle and coercive control. Janey Starling argued the code of conduct put forward by IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) for journalists to follow should reflect that fatal domestic abuse is also a public health concern.

The panellists called for a specific code for journalists, which would hold media accountable for their reporting of domestic violence, but also noted the need for more resources for survivors and those affected by it, so they had a better sense of what to expect from their interactions with journalists.

The coverage of domestic violence exists within an environment where the voices of women are already marginalised Oisika Chakrabarti said, referencing the Global Media Monitoring Project which shows quite how small the percentage of women as sources, expert voices, as stories and as story writers is still in the news media. The reporting of domestic violence cannot really be seen as separate from the systems in place that reinforce gender inequity in reporting and in newsrooms, and in society at large.

Janey Starling highlighted the fact that journalists have the power to influence public discourse and raise awareness of domestic violence as a crime and put it within its societal context, but she said the most important thing was how journalists choose to use that power. If journalists report on cases of domestic violence correctly, they can prevent more women from dying, and help those suffering recognise similar patterns of abuse in their lives.

[Countries have different resources to help those at risk of or affected by Domestic Violence. In the UK, there is a national, free phone anonymous helpline which is linked to here Home (nationaldahelpline.org.uk)