A steep learning curve: reporting on violence against women

By Jane McNaughton
Tue 1 November 10:00 AEDT
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This article contains references to violence against women.

Experienced journalists say that covering stories about violence against women can cause them to become vicariously traumatised.

“It does become quite traumatic after a time – it wears down on you,” journalist and researcher Loni Cooper told this year’s New News conference.

“I felt like I knew a lot about the issue earlier in my career,” Cooper said. “But I realised I had no idea how much I had to learn until I started interviewing survivors and researching the issue.”

According to Our Watch , “intimate partner violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 than any other preventable risk factor”.

Writer and academic Margaret Simons said journalists had a responsibility to try to understand the complexity of the many issues that surround domestic violence.

“That is not to say that it isn’t sometimes difficult ethically but it is a journalist’s job to describe society to itself,” said Simons.

They were speaking during a discussion about reporting on the issue of violence against women at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Joining Cooper and Simons on stage were Miki Perkins of The Age and Denise Ryan-Costello, a journalist and media lecturer at Swinburne University .

Margaret Simons, Loni Cooper, Denise Ryan-Costello and Miki Perkins at the New News panel.
Margaret Simons, Loni Cooper, Denise Ryan-Costello and Miki Perkins at the New News panel. SOURCE: The Wheeler Centre.

The panellists agreed that although more comprehensive reporting of violence against women was changing community attitudes for the better, there was still more the media could do to raise public awareness.

Perkins said that she would like to see more coverage about the impact family violence has on children, or women with physical or intellectual disabilities.

“These victims are less visible and their stories just seem to fall into a hole and are never heard,” she said.

Ryan-Costello agreed and said she would like to see more reporting on issues such as financial abuse.

“We all know someone whose partner doesn’t hurt them physically but financially they keep a very tight control on things to the point of abuse,” she said.

“These are the stories that need to be told; it isn’t always physical violence facing women.”

The panel agreed that one of the most important issues was the prevalence of victim blaming in media reports about violence against women.

“We see publications far too often that either blame the victim for their abuse, or excuse the perpetrator’s actions – who are overwhelmingly male,” Simons said.

Cooper agreed: “I even saw an opinion piece not too long ago that suggested violence against women was a feminist conspiracy designed to get money,” she said. “We still have a long way to go when talking about gender-based violence.”

Ryan-Costello said her students learnt a lot when Simons recently presented Our Watch’s pilot program on responsible reporting of the issue to her class, confronting students with the stereotypes and biases found in many media reports. The program is part of efforts to give reporters and budding journalists appropriate tools for more informed reporting.

“Since [the] presentation, the students will now call out media reports on social media, such as the recent stories about Tinder date violence,” she said.

Ryan-Costello said her students had also been unaware of the legal constraints that reporters faced when covering violence against women.

“We train our students to write balanced reports and then they are outraged by what they see as the lack of balance in the reporting,” she said.

Ryan-Costello said she was aware that many of her students were deeply affected by learning about violence against women.

“I often tell students that [in domestic violence reporting] feelings and emotions can sneak up on you,” she said.

“As the issue of domestic violence affects so many people, in a class of 50 students, someone is going to have experienced this and some students became stressed because they were triggered by our discussions.”

Ryan-Costello said she had experienced first-hand the impact of reporting on domestic violence.

“I went to the doctor for asthma medication and mentioned that I didn’t know why my eye was twitching but after the doctor asked me what story I’d been working on he told me I had a stress-related tic.”

Cooper, who edits the website Uncovered , which looks at best practice reporting of the issue, said she had also been deeply affected by realising that a story she wrote had inadvertently upset a victim of domestic violence.

“[The woman] found my use of a particular word very upsetting and, although I tried to make amends, I had to face the fact that I could have made things worse for her, not better, and I really struggled with that.” She later reflected on the mishap in a follow-up report .

Perkins agreed that a victim’s wellbeing must always be paramount to the reporter.

“I make sure I let them read all of their quotes [in a proposed story] and also let them know when the article will be published so they can be prepared.”

But Ryan-Costello said that when done right, telling a domestic violence survivor’s story can be healing for the victim.

“One of my second year students, after she had heard [Simons’] talk on Violence Against Women, wrote a story about a woman who’d experienced domestic violence and it was published,” she said.

“When the woman read it she cried and said she had been more frank and open with that student than she had with anyone else, and she said that was because the reporter was so sensitive and understanding.”

This article was originally published on The Citizen .

A recording of the New News panel 'Changing the Story: Reporting on violence against women' is available as a podcast on the Wheeler Centre's website.