Media Tips for Responsible Reporting on Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence
COMMON ERRORS WHEN REPORTING ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Accurate and responsible reporting about domestic violence (also called intimate partner violence) means avoiding these common mistakes.
Avoid the phrase “domestic dispute.”
A dispute is akin to a disagreement or argument; it implies equal power. Intimate partner violence, on the other hand, is a serious, cyclical pattern of abuse and unhealthy behavior meant to control an individual. Referring to such incidents as “domestic disputes” takes away from its seriousness. It also implies an isolated incident, rather than a pattern of abuse. Call it domestic violence or intimate partner violence.
Avoid the term “unharmed.”
For example, “The children were upstairs and unharmed.” Children are harmed when they see or hear domestic violence. Even if they escape physical harm, they are not unharmed.
Use “strangulate” instead of “choke.“
A person chokes when something is stuck in one’s throat. Strangulation is intentional and is intended to suffocate. Strangulation can kill in a matter of minutes and can have long-lasting damage for survivors. Choking is inaccurate use of terminology; strangulation is more accountable language.
Use active language when referring to perpetration of a crime.
Passive language, such as a “a woman was raped” takes the responsibility away from rapists. It does not make explicit that the victim is not at fault for what happened.
Remember that domestic violence is not an “anger management” problem.
Perpetrators of domestic violence are actually quite adept at managing their anger; they are able to avoid directing it at people who wield power over them (such as their boss or a traffic cop who stops them for speeding), and direct it instead at those who hold less power (such as their partner or children). In addition, stress and poverty do not cause domestic violence. They may play a role but pinning down a single cause undercuts the complexity and breadth of the problem.
Give context by covering how often domestic violence happens in your community.
Domestic violence is not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it is all too common. Interview local experts to provide context.
Include a sentence or two about help and support in your area.
Include at least a brief description of local services that are available for help and support. Include local hotline numbers and the Virginia Statewide Hotline (1-800-838-8238). Always.
(In the case of a homicide), describe who the victim was.
Many stories of domestic homicide include stories of friends and neighbors recounting “what a nice person” the perpetrator seemed to be and how shocked they are by the homicide. Interview friends and family and/or co-workers who can describe the victim, what kind of person s/he was, the role s/he played in the community.
COMMON ERRORS WHEN REPORTING ON SEXUAL VIOLENCE
Avoid the following terms and phrases that promote victim-blaming, minimize violence, and/or imply consent:
“Sex”, “oral sex”, “anal intercourse”, “intercourse”, etc.
Problem: The phrases “oral sex,” “anal sex” and “intercourse” are similarly problematic in that they literally define actions that involve mutual pleasure and enjoyable stimulation of sex organs. These erotic terms bring criminal behavior discursively into the range of everyday, often pleasurable, human activity. Alternative language: For example, rather than “anal sex,” a reporter could say, “the offender penetrated the child’s anus with his penis.” Instead of “the child performed oral sex,” a reporter could say, “the offender pushed his penis into the child’s mouth.”
“Perform” or “engage in” (particularly in the case of a child victim)
Problem: Words that imply any active responsibility on the part of a child obscure the offender’s exclusive moral and legal culpability. In addition, describing rape in terms typically used for pleasurable and consensual acts minimizes and hides the true violence of an assault, makes it difficult for the reader to comprehend the acts as unwanted violations, and allows society to rationalize, justify and excuse sexual violence. Alternative: Recognize the use of force used by perpetrators, and the lack of consent given by survivors.
Problem: Sexual violence is not a scandal, and should not be treated as titillating, (What other crimes are characterized as “scandals? No one would call an armed robbery a ‘shopping scandal’) Rape and abuse are not sexy. Alternative: Use language that accurately describes the nature of the violence and places responsibility for the violence on the perpetrator.
“Admits” or “confesses” (when referring to victim)
Example: “Naomi Judd Admits She Was A Victim of Child Abuse At Age 3″. Problem: both “admits” and “confesses” imply responsibility and shame, removing the victim’s agency in their recovery and implicating the victim in the violence. Alternative: use, “reports”, “shares”, “reveals”.
Example: “Police say the attendant…was released unharmed in less than an hour”… Often when reporting about domestic or sexual violence, journalists describe those who have no obvious physical injuries as “unharmed”.
Problem: such usage dismisses both the physical nature of the violence (even if there were no physical injuries) and the deep, traumatic harm caused by such violence. Alternative: Accurately portray the emotional, spiritual, and physical harm that rape causes its immediate and peripheral victims. Rape is a physical violation that always leaves scars, even if others can’t see them.
Avoid superfluous details of victims/survivors that lead to victim-blaming.
Example: “Residents said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s…”
Providing subjective examples like this do not contribute at all to the story, perpetuate the idea that the victim/survivor somehow asked for it or brought it on herself, and unintentionally discredit the violence against her. There is simply no need to include such details. Nobody asks to be raped, no matter their previous experience, way of dressing, or personal choices.
The media toolkit “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence” by the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women is an excellent resource.