For journalists – how to cover sexual and domestic abuse

5 October 2017 by Kate Llewellyn

Journalist meeting Angles participants

Originally blogged on Angles.

We’ve condensed a list of tips for journalists or broadcasters reporting sexual and domestic abuse or violence. These are based on the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma Europe Tip Sheet blogged in 2011. We have included domestic abuse or violence and made minor edits for context related to Angles and for the sake of brevity.

Preparation and approach

  1. Brief yourself thoroughly on the likely impacts and causes of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Research local conditions and circumstances. However, keep in mind it doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have on the topic, you can never predict how a particular individual experienced the events that happened to them.
  2. Get the language right. Rape or assault is not “sex.” People who have suffered sexual or domestic violence may not wish to be described as a “victim” unless they choose the word themselves. Many prefer the word “survivor”.
  3. Respect a potential interviewee’s right to say no.This can happen at any time. Nobody should be forced to talk about an event as traumatic as rape. Consider consulting with a local support organisation to ask whether the media would make things worse.
  4. Explain the type of story you’re planning to write or produce. This is likely to help build trust between you and the interviewee and will result in better work. Ensure as many details as possible are provided in your emails to them.

During the interview

  1. Set good ground rules. Create a sense of safety. Involve the interviewee in deciding a safe location and time. Ask the contributor if they need transport, especially if it’s arranged for an early morning or late night. Let them know from the outset how long the interview will take. You may need to keep crew to minimum. The interviewee, if female, may feel better being interviewed by another woman.
  2. The secret to good interviewing is active, non-judgmental listening. If you are finding the material challenging, acknowledge that silently to yourself, and bring your focus back to what is being said. Usually just trying to listen a little harder, and observing the other’s facial expressions, body language, etc., helps.
  3. Be careful of asking “why” questions – they are favoured by interrogators. Avoid any language that might imply the interviewee is responsible in some way, their experience can be associated with guilt and shame.
  4. End the interview well. After you have addressed the issues you need for your report, ask them if they would like to add anything else. And most importantly, make sure you bring the conversation back into the here and now and to the discussion of things that the interviewee finds safe.

Writing it up

  1. Make yourself available for contact after your report is published or broadcast. If you say you’ll let them have a copy or a recording of what you write/broadcast, keep that promise.
  2. Again, think about the language. These topics can be deeply personal and something that has wider public policy implications.
  3. Anticipate the impact of publication. Journalists have a responsibility to do everything they can to avoid exposing the interviewee to further abuse or undermining their standing in the community.
  4. Consider letting survivors read portions of your story before publication, as it can lessen the impact of public exposure and help catch factual errors. After reading – and seeing evidence of your intentions – they may decide to share more of their story with you. Re-check their decision on anonymity or being identifiable.
  5. Tell the whole story, focus on the aftermath, not just the incident. Sometimes media identify specific incidents and focus on the tragic aspects of it, but reporters do well to understand that abuse might be part of a long-standing social problem, or part of a community history. Finding out how individuals and communities have coped with the trauma of sexual violence or domestic abuse in the longer term may add helpful insight.
  6. Supportive resources. If appropriate, direct the interviewee, viewers or readers to relevant resources and supportive organisations. Your piece may have been seen by someone who has personal experience and needs support. Links to these can be found on our website.

Tips for taking care of yourself 

Original source: Tragedies and journalists

  • Know your limits. If you’ve been given a troublesome assignment or story to cover that you feel you cannot perform, politely express your concerns to your supervisor. Tell the supervisor that you may not be the best person for the assignment. Explain why.
  • Take breaks. A few minutes or a few hours away from the situation may help relieve your stress.
  • Find someone who is a sensitive listener. It can be an editor or a peer, but you must trust that the listener will not pass judgement on you. Perhaps it is someone who has faced a similar experience.
  • Learn how to deal with your stress. Find a hobby, exercise, attend a house of worship or, most important, spend time with your family, a significant other or friends – or all four. Try deep-breathing. The Eastern Connecticut Health Network recommends that you “take a long, slow, deep breath to the count of five, then exhale slowly to the count of five. Imagine breathing out excess tension and breathing in relaxation.” All of these can be effective for your mental and physical well-being.
  • Understand that your problems may become overwhelming. Before he died in April 1945, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote, “I’ve been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great.” If this happens to you, seek counselling from a professional.