Audience members watch the first panel at the #MediaToo conference.
Audience members watch the first panel at the #MediaToo conference.
Audience members watch the first panel at the #MediaToo conference.
Audience members watch the first panel at the RRJ‘s #MediaToo conference on reporting on sexual violence.

The #MeToo movement has acted as a catalyst for people coming out to report their own stories on sexual violence. The media has a significant role to play on how these stories are received by the public. Incorrect language and unrepresentative story angles can portray sexual violence and the #MeToo movement in ways that reinforce damaging narratives and stereotypes.

Here, the Ryerson Review of Journalism explores how journalists can cover sexual violence better:

1. Use an intersectional lens

“Sexual violence doesn’t affect everyone in the same way,” says Shannon Giannitsopoulo, a co-founder of Femifesto, a guide that helps journalists report on sexual violence. “It’s shaped by forms of oppression that exist in our society, including racism, classism, colonialism, ableism, transphobia, sexism, etc.”

These forms of oppression impact how people access the legal system, ways of healing, and who’s excluded from conversations about sexual violence, she adds.

In 2008, a study was conducted that indicated missing and murdered Indigenous women from Saskatchewan received three and a half times less media coverage than missing and murdered white women from Ontario. The study found that stories about Indigenous women were shorter and appeared less on the front page.

“What that does is effectively push Indigenous women and Indigenous folks that are survivors of sexual violence to the corners of the reader’s mind as if they’re not worthy of safety and healing and concern,” Giannitsopolou says.

“Make sure you’re getting representative voices and are listening to them,” says Shaheen Pasha, a freelance journalist and journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The way the #MeToo movement or any story like this affects a person of colour, an Indigenous person, or different communities, that’s very different from other communities.”

Pasha adds that journalists should make sure they’re not stuck in their perceptions of what stories are that they’re not listening to other voices that are screaming.

2. Use the right words and don’t victim-blame

“It seems like there’s a reluctance to use words that frame sexual violence as what it is,” Giannitsopolou says.

In one example, Giannitsopolou says, the headline on a Calgary Herald story read, “A judge sentenced a Calgary cabbie to four years in prison for raping a drunken fare.”

“That’s extremely dehumanizing,” she adds. “Why is it important that the survivor was drunk?”

In most cases, headlines are what victimize people who have the courage to come forward with their stories, says Toula Drimonis, a freelance writer and editor based in Montreal.

Journalists should be mindful not to use the words sexting or scandal when describing sexual violence, Giannitsopolou adds. “Scandal is something that really frames it as something to leer at and it’s like a dirty little secret that came out,” she says, citing the Jian Ghomeshi case as an example where journalists frequently used the word scandal.

“Unless you’re planning on writing about non-consensual death when you’re referring to murder, do not come to me with a non-consensual sex when you’re talking about rape,” Drimonis says. “It’s rape, it’s ugly. It’s an ugly act and we should use the right words.”

Some people don’t like the word survivor, Giannitsopolou says, but the word victim can be problematic too because it doesn’t highlight peoples’ agency or resiliency. Biographical details about the survivor that don’t add to the story should also be omitted, she adds, including a person’s employment, clothing, addictions, or past relationships.

3. Get sources’ consent to tell their stories

“I think the most important thing to do is approach it with consent in mind, so ask in advance what the survivor is comfortable talking about,” Giannitsopolou says, adding that journalists should respect survivors’ boundaries. “Think about safety concerns—it may not be safe for somebody to show their face or have their full name published.”

Pasha adds, “Ask the person who the story’s about how do they see themselves. How do they want to be presented?”

Journalists should also ask where sources feel safe and comfortable meeting, Giannitsopolous says, adding, “Remember it’s okay for them to say no.”

No one owes you a story, Drimonis says, “Someone can come to you, tell you something and then decide they want to back out, and then they’ll come back to you later or they won’t come back to you at all.”

4. Be sensitive to your sources, but remember you’re not a counsellor

“Healing is not necessarily linear, and the way trauma impacts memory can cause people to have gaps and remember situations in a different way,” Giannitsopolou says. “People have a flight or fight response, and sometimes people freeze. Survivors shouldn’t be blamed for that.”

“In any type of traumatic story, you need to understand the mental toll that has [been] taken on [a] person reliving a moment that’s really hard for them,” Pasha says, adding that journalists need to take a step back when sources talking about sexual violence are uncomfortable.

If we understand the nature of trauma, we can communicate stories in a more accurate way, Giannitsopolou says.

But while journalists need to be sensitive, Pasha says it is also important to keep the story in mind.

“We have a job to do—we’re reporters,” Pasha says. “I want to be empathetic, I want to be sympathetic, and I am, but I think we have to be careful we don’t fall into crisis counsellors because that’s not our job.”

5. Check your assumptions and biases

“A lot of times media outlets like to pretend that they are very fair and they are very unbiased,” Drimonis says. “I have a hard time with that sometimes because there’s no real objectivity out there. At the end of the day, we’re subjective beings.”

It’s important to understand your biases and where you’re coming from, she adds, saying most people working at major media outlets are male, white, urban, and affluent. “There are still people that are not aware of a lot of issues or are not affected by these issues.”

No two survivors are the same, so journalists can’t expect they will have the same response, Giannitsopolou says.

“By being conscious of your biases, you will write a better story by seeking out other experts and voices,” Drimonis says.

6. Be honest with the details

People in the media need to be educated on how to write stories about sexual violence in an accurate and clear way, Drimonis says, adding that journalists should ask people who have experienced sexual violence how they want to be referred to.

Oftentimes, journalists try to be descriptive in their reporting, Pasha says, but sometimes certain details are unnecessary and misrepresent what happened.

“Allowing the person to be the one kind of carrying the voice in that story, being able to talk about [that] is really just going to avoid those pitfalls that we kind of see with adjectives that either make somebody seem like superwoman or superman and/or somebody that just looks like a tragic victim,” Pasha adds.

Relaying sources’ stories on sexual violence in honest and accurate ways is what journalists owe them, Drimonis says.

Watch the full panel discussion from Day of the Ryerson Review’s MediaToo conference here.

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1 comment
  1. Under Point number 2, final paragraph, about not including biographical details of the sexual assault survivor, the word should be “omitted”, not “emitted”.

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