Helping journalists get coverage of sexual violence right

22 March 2017 by Alana Avery

Broadchurch, ITV’s crime drama set in a small fictional town on the Dorset coast, returned to our screens last month for a third series. In the first episode, two detectives played by Olivia Colman and David Tennant, deal with with an allegation of rape made against an unknown attacker. It’s a series we’ll be watching with interest as we embark on our project to improve portrayals of sexual violence and domestic abuse in news and drama.

Most people’s understanding of rape comes from the TV they watch and the articles they read. And many are also potential jurors, whose thinking about rape has been shaped by, for example, disproportionate coverage given to false reporting, or the reinforcing of harmful myths such as “all rapists look like monsters” or “women ask for it”.

Scotland’s former director of public prosecutions, Elish Angiolini said in a recent Guardian article: “Since [the 1980s] there has been a sea change in the way people understand child abuse and domestic violence – and a lot of that comes from TV, the media, soaps, The Archers. I think we are on the cusp of that with rape.” She goes on to say about juries that “the obligation is on us to give [jurors] an opportunity to understand better. The debunking of the myths has to be repeated, again and again.”

As far as Broadchurch’s handling of the rape storyline goes, the reaction has been mostly positive so far, mainly because they manage to swerve many of the myths we see so often on television.

The Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates complimented the producers saying it was “very different from what we are used to seeing on screen” as they chose “to focus on survivor Trish Winterman (played by Julie Hesmondhalgh, who also portrayed the beloved transgender character Hayley Cropper in Coronation St) from the outset, foregrounding her experience and making her the centre of the storyline instead of a passive, beautiful corpse for an exciting anti-hero to toy with…encouraging viewers to confront the emotional and psychological impact of the crime rather than objectify her”.

Meeting with the Independent and Evening Standard

Viv Groskop wrote in the Guardian that the introduction to Trish forms part of an “extraordinarily intricate documentary about police procedure, complete with awful proddings and awkward moments. This was brilliantly done.” However Emily Jacob, a coach who supports survivors in their recovery and one of our interaction team, said that whilst Hesmondhalgh’s performance was “so real”, she felt she had to suspend her disbelief when watching the police procedure and the quick turnaround of events, which in reality could take months.

It’s not by accident that the Broadchurch team have handled the issue well so far. Their producers worked closely with Dorset Rape Crisis to shape their storyline, just as Coronation Street’s producers have been working with NSPCC on a new storyline on child grooming.

We hope to play an important role in this progress by creating more opportunities for co-working in this way, so that more media professionals can develop new ideas with the advice and expertise of our “interaction team” (see below), leading to more portrayals of the reality and scale of sexual violence in the UK today.

The truth is that rape and sexual abuse is far more mundane and “every day” than it is portrayed in the media, with its focus on celebrity cases and dramatic depictions of stranger rape and murder, which although very real, are also extremely rare.

According to Rape Crisis, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour. And about 90% of those raped know the perpetrator. On average two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales, according to figures from Women’s Aid. This affects us all, whether directly or through someone we know, and whether we talk about it or not.

Our work

Three years ago, around the time of the launch of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, we began to research the media and public’s understanding of sexual and domestic abuse, exploring how we could improve coverage by bringing media influencers together with people whose voices are rarely heard – professionals and people with personal experience of sexual violence – as we did with our project All About Trans and the trans community.

In that time, we secured funding from Trust for London and the Oak Foundation and began meeting activists and practitioners in the sector, all the while consulting with Dr Nina Burrowes to shape the project and incorporate the right support for our growing network.

Project activities began last month as Alexis Jay, who heads up the CSA Inquiry, welcomed the beginning of public hearings on the 27th of February. As more cases of historic abuse come to light and more victims of abuse gain the courage to come forward, there will inevitably be more coverage in the news and we want to help media professionals to get it right, so we think it is an excellent time to begin this work.

Training and supporting activists – the “interaction team”

We began by training a group of activists with lived experience of these issues and who are eager to engage with the media and inspire better coverage. In February we brought 14 activists together for the first in a series of media training courses, with self care and peer support at the heart of the learning.

Our aims are twofold: 1) To skill up and support a network of activists who want to speak with the media and improve understanding of sexual violence and domestic abuse. 2) To form an “interaction team” made up of activists and practitioners in the sector with first-hand knowledge of the issues, who will take part in our behind-the-scenes work, meeting with senior media professionals and influencing those with decision-making power and budgets to make better and more accurate content about the issues.

Interaction with the Independent and Evening Standard

Our first batch of trainees came from organisations like AVA Project, Survivors’ Collective and Survivors Manchester, but also included individual activists (some of whom were involved in the Clear Lines Festival which we co-organised in 2015).

Trainees came away saying: “I will definitely take on board the gap between academic/activist language and the more everyday speech the media needs to use and try to put ideas more simply.”

One person told us: “Thank you for a great training, I really enjoyed it and felt energised and (yes) empowered by the end of it! It was an amazing group of people to work with too and I’m excited to be part of the next steps.”

The first “interaction” with the Independent and Evening Standard

Following the first course, a handful of trainees took part in our first interaction – a carefully curated and informal meet-up – with senior video reporters from the Independent and the Evening Standard.

Tom Goulding, a video reporter from the Independent told us:

“I took a lot from it, it was very important I feel to simply introduce and motivate a critical grappling with the issue of sexual violence, and be inspired by the first-person accounts of the participants brought along as volunteers. The multiplicity of volunteers was really helpful and illuminating.”

This interaction has since led to a video series idea in progress with which we are supporting the journalists.

And then a few weeks later, two of our interaction team with legal and business mentoring backgrounds had lunch with Metro’s Acting Head of Community Content, Yvette Caster. Inspired by her conversations with the team, Caster has kept in touch to talk to them about producing new blog content for the website.

In our All About Trans project we delivered over 60 of these interactions, meeting with senior media professionals from all corners of the media, from Eastenders to The Sun to Newsnight to regional radio stations. And so we’re looking forward to continuing with this new series of media interactions, with our next media training course for activists taking place in May.

If you would like more information on this project, or would like to take part, or support our work, please contact alana@onroadmedia.org.uk.