Why journalists need to do better in reporting on domestic violence

Image part of One Thousand Words Project by Scottish Women’s Aid and Zero Tolerance; copyright Laura Dodsworth 2017

By Hannah Storm

There is no excuse for the front page of today’s The Sun newspaper, which amplifies the voice of a perpetrator of domestic violence. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost one in three women in England and Wales aged 16-59, will experience domestic violence at some stage in her life. [1] Each week, two women are murdered by their partner or former partner. Many more live in silence and shame carrying the trauma of abuse.

What The Sun newspaper has done today not only undermines the experiences of anyone who has been subjected to sexual abuse, but it also glorifies domestic violence, risks copy-cat behaviour, reinforces the pain for countless survivors and effectively shows that perpetrators can get away with this behaviour without facing justice.

What The Sun has done is disgraceful, but it’s not just The Sun that perpetuates this damaging climate in which women continue to face horrific misogyny in the media and wider society.

Journalists must do all they can to ensure they recognise the risks of this type of reporting. They must ensure they do not reinforce damaging stereotypes, nor perpetuate narratives that blame the person who was abused, and they must give context to the situation, and offer those at risk and facing the reality of domestic violence, the resources they need to be able to access help and support safely.

And yet, we so often see headlines that shift the blame for abuse away from the perpetrator. We see labels and language used to describe the act which deflects from the fact it is a form of abuse and a crime. How often do we see news media using terms such as ‘thwarted husband’, ‘cheating wife’, ‘crime of passion’, or euphemistic references to sex that imply consent rather than non-consensual rape or sexual assault? How often do we see references to what the woman was wearing, or if she had been drinking, or something else that implies she was somehow to blame for what happened to her? The answer is far too often. Journalists need to recognise that they have a responsibility in their reporting of domestic violence.

We see terms used to portray the abuser which either show him – because it usually is a him – as a monster, or animal – as if no human being might be capable of such horrors, or we hear descriptions of how otherwise perfect the relationship appeared to the outside world from those who do not know the reality, as if to question and undermine the experience of the abused person.

And beyond the specific use of labelling and language, we also see journalists defaulting to the use of the passive voice – ‘she was raped’, for instance – rather than ‘he raped her’, which again deflects the blame from the perpetrator, implying the behaviour was not a result of a choice made.

Domestic violence is not just a man hitting a woman, though of course this can be one example. Domestic violence takes many forms – and where physical abuse exists, it often follows a pattern of behaviour – or coercive control – that may begin with name-calling, gaslighting, emotional manipulation, that can extend to the abuser isolating the abused from friends and family, controlling their finances, their communications.

Physical violence may or may not be present and, where it is, it may be one of the latter stages of this pattern of abusive behaviour. Journalists need to know and recognise that such physical violence is rarely isolated. Those who experience domestic violence do not necessarily carry the physical scars, but they may carry heavy emotional burdens for a long time, especially if one of the tactics of the abuser has been to undermine the mental health of their partner.

This means that those who experience abuse often find it very difficult to talk about their experiences and it may take them many years to do so. In turn, this means that although coercive control is a crime now recognised by UK law, it can be difficult to prosecute offenders and for those who experience to ever see justice. Many women live in shame, fear and silence for a long time. As journalists, it is not up to us to question why a survivor might have taken so long to break her silence. It is up to us to see this as a valid response to violent abuse. By extension, journalists must understand the need to minimise harm for survivors and for others who have found themselves impacted by the legacy of domestic abuse.

Ethical journalism needs to be rooted in accountability, humanity and accuracy. We have a responsibility to be accountable to our audiences and to ourselves, and where others within our industry fall foul of these principles we need to call them out.

Although The Sun’s actions today are some of the most egregious in recent times, it’s not just this newspaper that needs to change its behaviour. The media has a responsibility to recognise the impact its reporting has. The media has a responsibility to be better at covering issues that continually undermine women, that reinforce misogyny, that give rise to gendered violence. That responsibility covers the content we create and the structures in place in our industry that underpin a systemic inequity. That responsibility means we need to dismantle those dangerous structures that give oxygen to this unacceptable sexist behaviour that can have such devastating consequences.

If you are in the UK, and at risk of domestic violence or fear for the safety of someone you know, free advice is available here:

https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/ 0808 2000 247

We Level Up has created the following guidelines to help journalists cover fatal domestic violence

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5741ba638a65e2e0809f8d25/t/5c8f7f1015fcc04d1f249d84/1552908055603/Guidelines-Report.pdf

[1] https://www.refuge.org.uk/our-work/forms-of-violence-and-abuse/domestic-violence/domestic-violence-the-facts/