Covering Sensitive Populations: Victims of Abuse & Violence

Sexual abuse, child abuse and domestic violence are some of the hardest topics to tackle as a journalist. Not only is access often hard to come by and the subject grim, but there are also many ethical considerations you need to take into account to protect your subjects and avoid perpetuating stereotypes about abuse and violence.

Here are some tips to help you navigate this complicated landscape.

#1 – Get a thorough background on your subject

First of all, understanding the definitions of abuse is crucial. The Carter Center has a document used for Diversity Training for Classroom Teaching  that touches on the various definitions of abuse and what symptoms might indicate that a person is being or has been abused. You should be familiar with the the various definitions of physical abuse, neglect, and emotional and psychological abuse.

It’s not always possible to interview a victim right away – they may be reluctant; they may be in treatment; they may need some space. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma suggests overcoming that obstacle by interviewing people in the victim’s life and close circles: parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, police officers. They also suggest being willing to talk to sources on background to gain a better understanding of the situation, as in some cases it might be the only way to find out information.

Consider interviewing other survivors, as well: they may have suffered a similar trauma, but may now be able to talk more freely if time has passed since the incident.

Lastly, speak with an expert who can help contextualize the abuse. Explain the rates of the crime, whether they’ve been rising or falling, and how rates in the particular area are faring compared to the state or nation as a whole.

#2 – Interview with care

When interviewing a survivor, it’s a good idea to prepare well, noting down issues or words to avoid as well as carefully phrasing any sensitive questions you’d like to ask.

Begin by expressing your regret for your interviewee’s circumstances and let them know exactly what your intentions are – what type of piece you’re working on, what organization you work for, when the piece will be published. Tell them what you hope to accomplish with the piece, and let them know you want to tell their story. Ask them what they would like to communicate to the readers or viewers of your piece.

 Take into account that it might take a while for the victim to be ready for an interview. Approach them, but be flexible and understanding in setting a date. You will get a better interview and more open communication if the interview takes place when they are in a stable state of mind.

Find a common ground for the interview, a place where the victim will feel comfortable and safe. Consider potential triggers that might bring back memories of an assault, such as a photo of the place where they were assaulted, and be mindful of avoiding them.

Lastly, thank the survivor for their bravery and their testimony. Let them know that by coming forward, they are contributing to the public understanding of the problem in society and hopefully, that it will also encourage others in their situation to come forward and seek help.

#3 – Naming names

It’s important to check with your publication beforehand to get their policy on identifying victims of abuse or juvenile offenders.

Many news organizations have a policy of not publishing the names of victims of rape or sexual violence, especially when they are minors. Media coverage puts subjects under the scrutiny of the public eye, where they are often blamed for the crime and shamed. This leads to a wide underreporting of sexual assault in our society because victims are afraid of coming forward. To prevent this, journalists need to be extremely sensitive to the stigma associated with sexual abuse and rape in particular.

If an individual is willing to be publicly identified, that’s great, but don’t pressure them to do so. Also consider how you will use location details, or names of friends and family, in a way that won’t reveal the identity of the victim. If you need photos or video, think creatively about how you can get images that won’t reveal the identity of a victim.

#4 – Choose your language carefully

As with other special populations we’ve covered, word choice is of particular importance when covering abuse and violence. The connotations of words you choose to use can influence the public’s perception of the victim, the offender, and the crime in general.

Avoid using the term “alleged” when talking about assault, whether physical or sexual, and use the word “reported” instead, which indicates a case is now in the judicial system. “Alleged” connotes disbelief that the crime occurred.

Also avoid labeling the victim as an “accuser;” this also reinforces a negative stereotype. “Victim” is standard in the criminal justice system, but note that some people prefer to be called “survivors.”

In reporting an assault, especially sexual assault, use clinical and specific language. Many euphemisms for sexual acts imply consent and pleasure, diminishing the fact that the act was criminal and harmful.

At the same time, don’t label offenders “monsters” or use other sensational language in your reporting. This encourages a black and white view of abuse, where only “bad” people commit violent acts, and may prevent people from reporting suspicions they have about someone. Whether you’re talking about the victim or the offender, use accurate and respectful language.

#5 – Address and debunk misconceptions

The public often has a distorted view of how often incidents of abuse happen, and what type of people become the perpetrators or victims of these crimes. You can set the record straight by explaining the facts and statistics, and what the aftereffects of abuse are, both for the individual as well as the cost to society.Inform your viewer about warning signs, and include places people can go for help.

Below we highlight some pieces that do a good job of covering victims of abuse.

Sexual Abuse of Native American Women, a Dart Award winner

Rape in the Fields, a collaboration between Frontline, Univision and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Fund for Investigative Journalism’s series on the Abuse of Transgender Detainees.

Photographer Sarah Lewkowicz’s award-winning work on domestic violence, in Time’s Lightbox.

Additional Resources:

The Journalism Center on Children & Families at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland has great resources for covering child sexual abuse.

The Dart Center’s sections on Covering Children & Trauma and Sexual Violence.

The Carter Center’s resources on child abuse & resilience.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ guide to when to name names.

Reporting on Sexual Violence: A guide for journalists by the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women has produced a media toolkit for reporting on rape and sexual violence.

The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s online guide for journalists covering domestic violence.

The Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence’s brief guide for journalists reporting on domestic violence.

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