How to write about rape
10 tips from a Canadian guide to reporting on sexual violence
Meghna Anand is a student of journalism who is completing Docfort’s Certificate Course in MedicoSocial Journalism. She wrote this article as part of her internship with Newstracker which published it at https://bit.ly/2C5OorE.
As NewsTracker continues to map the news coverage and journalistic challenges of reporting on rape and sexual violence across India, we looked at similar projects across the world and came upon Femifesto, a Toronto-based organisation that created a free guide for Canadian journalists reporting on sexual violence.
Femifesto founders Shannon Giannitsopoulou and Sasha Elford wrote Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada in 2015, informed by “survivors, journalists, anti gender-based violence advocates, lawyers and community members from across Canada”. We believe some of their dos and don’ts could be helpful for journalists in India as well.
Here are 10 broad guidelines that we parsed from Femifesto’s checklist.
1. Survivor, victim, or…?
There is some debate over whether the term ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ should be used for a person who has experienced sexual assault. Some journalists have told NewsTracker that they use ‘survivor’ for anyone who has lived through sexual assault, and ‘victim’ for those who have lost their lives. In the event that the survivor is being interviewed, Femifesto recommends letting them choose how they want to be referred to:
· Use a descriptor the survivor being interviewed prefers, such as “survivor” or “person who experienced sexual assault”.
· Many people may prefer the term “survivor” because it conveys agency and resilience.
· “Complainant” is another option if the survivor has filed legal charges.
· Don’t default to the descriptor “victim” unless this is the wording an interviewee prefers.
2. Consider words other than ‘alleged’ and ‘claimed’
Yes, it is important to use words such as ‘alleges’ or ‘claims’ in cases where there is ambiguity, but there are other ways to frame the words of the survivor too. Some alternatives:
· Use more neutral language like ‘shares’, ‘tells’ or ‘says’ to describe a survivor telling the story.
· Avoid using terms like ‘the survivor claims’. Use ‘alleged’ in cases that lack certainty to avoid legal implications [for the survivor].
· Don’t use phrases like ‘the survivor admits/ confesses’ to describe a report of sexual assault since this language implies responsibility or shame on behalf of the survivor.
3. Don’t normalise the violence
Euphemisms or language that describes assault as sex downplays the gravity of sexual violence. Femifesto’s no-nos include:
· Gentle language: ‘fondle’ or ‘caress’, ‘private parts’
· Euphemisms: ‘engaging in’ or ‘sex scandal’
· Language that describes sexual violence as sex: ‘oral sex’, ‘sexual activity’, ‘kissing’.
4. Pay attention to grammar
According to Femifesto, it matters how you use your subjects and verbs while reporting on sexual assault.
· Use language that places the accountability for rape or other forms of sexual assault with the perpetrator e.g: ‘He raped her’.
· Make the perpetrator the subject of the sentence and assign the verb to them i.e. ‘The police report that the perpetrator forced the survivor to…’
· Don’t make the survivor the subject of the sentence and assign the verb to them. e.g. ‘The victim performed fellatio against their will.’
· [W]hen reporting after criminal charges have been laid, you can use language such as: “<name>who has been charged with the sexual assault of OR who has been charged in relation to <name>”.
5. Be careful with imagery
It may be time to rethink the standard stock images of women with bruises or graphic illustrations of looming shadows over cowering children. According to Femifesto, here’s what is appropriate and what isn’t:
Use imagery that appropriately illustrates the article. e.g. An exterior shot of a building at the university where the story took place.
· Use imagery that illustrates resilience.
· Don’t use stock imagery that emphasises the actions of the survivor. e.g. Using photos of women drinking to illustrate a story on sexual assault suggests that women invite sexual assault by doing so. Don’t use stock photos that portray violence in a salacious way e.g. A photo of a woman with two black eyes.
6. Keep the story balanced
Importance should be given to the survivor’s side of the story. Femifesto says the story should not rest on police, legal, and perpetrators’ voices. And, “Where there is no access to the survivor’s side of the story, journalists can speak to experts on violence against women, and rely on police and court documents.”
7. Be judicious with details about the assault
Every detail you include about the assault needs to serve “to honour the survivor’s story or to contextualise sexual assault in broader culture,” says Femifesto’s guide. If a graphic detail does neither of these, remove it from your story.
8. Don’t let victim-blaming and –shaming sneak into your write-up
The kinds of details your provide about the survivor and perpetrator can subtly imply that the victim was somehow to blame or suggest that the perpetrator is innocent. Femifesto advises:
· Don’t focus the discussion on a survivor’s clothing, addictions, employment, marital status, sexuality, past relationships, or involvement in the sex trade industry. This can imply that responsibility lies with the survivor for making poor decisions or that they were “asking for it.”
· Recognize that sexual assault does not define a survivor’s entire identity. Don’t imply the survivor is tarnished, ruined, or has “lost their innocence.”
· Do include biographical details about the perpetrator. Ensure if you do, they do not feed into suggesting their innocence. [However] don’t exonerate or dismiss the violence of perpetrators by focusing on facts that make them appear to be ‘unlikely’ rapists.
· Don’t suggest that a report of sexual assault between individuals of differing positions of power is an attempt to tarnish a public figure or a stunt of a ‘jilted ex-girlfriend’.
9. Add context, but without bias
All cases of sexual assault are instances of a larger problem of gender-based violence, with some communities facing a greater challenge than others. However, such information has to be relayed in a way that does not ‘taint’ a particular community in any way. Femifesto suggests:
· Contextualise sexual assault as a result of systems, oppression, and attitudes that exists in all communities and cultures.
· Do consider how oppression and inequality make people in marginalised communities more vulnerable to sexual violence and poses challenges to their accessing supports.
· Don’t use a survivor or perpetrator’s social location (i.e. ethnic background, religion) as a rationale for sexual violence.
· Don’t suggest that people in marginalised communities are themselves to blame for experiencing disproportionately high levels of sexual violence.
10. Emphasise the impact of sexual assault
Avoid suggesting that some forms of assault are less serious, with language such as “The survivor was unharmed” or “The survivor was not physically hurt”, says the Toronto-based organisation.