How can journalists do a better job at covering sexual violence against women? A recent panel, involving five journalists from Italy and the United Kingdom, attempted to tackle this question during the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy.
While the conversation was limited to cases in Italy and the UK, the problems discussed by the panelists are applicable to many countries around the world – I have personally seen the same in Russia and Germany.
According to UK government estimates, some 75 percent of British women who suffer a sexual offense do not report it to the police. And when stories of assault are picked up by the media, they are often reported in a very sensationalist way, which often does more harm than good, the panelists said.
According to the panelists, the main problem with how media outlets cover sexual violence is the failure to provide context. Such events are always shown as something out of the ordinary, and the narrative is focused on the victim – her personality, how she was dressed, whether she could have somehow avoided this situation. One particularly alarming trend in Italy is how sexual assault stories are often published alongside photos of the victim’s face of body, said Stefania Prandi, an Italian photojournalist.
Focusing coverage on the victim’s behavior proliferates the harmful idea that sexual violence can be justified, and that those to whom it happens have somehow brought it upon themselves. Badly written stories often romanticize the crime by saying the victim was “too beautiful” and the attacker “could not control himself.”
Another serious problem is that the perpetrators are mostly portrayed as monsters, people without any self-control. And in cases when such an angle is impossible, readers are given a more sympathetic view — such as reporting how a criminal investigation will put the attacker’s future at risk.
The problem with sensationalizing stories of sexual violence is that such writing ignores the systemic nature of sexual abuse that women face. Gender-based crimes are part of the systemic oppression women suffer, and journalists have a responsibility to show this wider context, the panelists said. It’s no coincidence that in many cases, women who reported stalking were later killed or raped by their stalkers. According to one U.S. study, in 50 percent of such cases, the stalker was known to them.
When it comes to reporting on violence – sexual or otherwise – journalists may be tempted to water the story down out of fear of scaring or desensitizing the audience. I have, in response to some of my work, received comments such as “This story left me feeling sick.” It made me wonder if I had overdone it and deterred some readers from seriously considering the problems I raised. When I told the panelists this, they agreed that certain details could, on some occasions, be left out – but the facts have to be kept in place, as this is necessary to serve the public interest.
With today’s shifting media landscape, survivors of violence will likely gain more opportunities to tell their stories without using the media as an intermediary, the panelists said. However, even as those who’ve suffered sexual assault grow more empowered to tell their stories on their own terms, that doesn’t remove the burden of responsibility from journalists who must report on these issues.
Watch the full panel discussion below:
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Esther Vargas.