Over the past 10 or so years, I have reported on dozens of stories about violence against women. Stories such as Jill Meagher’s brutal murder, the Skaf brothers, gang rape in India, White Ribbon Day. I have interviewed domestic violence sector workers and spoken to researchers about their findings.
But it wasn’t until I started working on this project and began interviewing survivors of violence in large numbers that I realised my experience had still not taught me enough about how to tell their stories. It was not, as the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson has said, something that you could readily learn on the job.
I truly learned that lesson when I met Anni Gethin.
Dr Gethin is a survivor of domestic violence. She spoke to Uncovered after her former partner pleaded guilty to assaulting her. He had been given an extremely light sentence, with no jail time or conviction recorded – only a short-term good behaviour bond, which he was appealing on mental health grounds. The hearing was fast approaching.
I had a number of phone calls with Dr Gethin over several days. She told me of the abuse she had endured at the hands of her former partner, and her experiences dealing with police after the serious physical assault, involving repeated attacks, to which he had pleaded guilty. She felt justice hadn’t been served by the court process, and believed it likely that the perpetrator would win his appeal.
I went to report on the appeal hearing. As Dr Gethin had predicted, the good behaviour bond was lifted. Although her former partner admitted committing the assault, legally it was almost as though it had never happened.
The case seemed to me to be an excellent example of how the legal system can fail survivors of violence who seek justice. This was an important story that needed to be told.
Dr Gethin offered Uncovered a statement in response to the court decision, but this would need to be edited so as not to run foul of the law, which seemed somewhat ironic given the circumstances. We included the edited version in the story and posted it online, letting Dr Gethin know that we had done so.
She suggested a few adjustments, and we made some minor changes as a result. Dr Gethin seemed pleased overall that we were publishing her story. I went to sleep that night hoping the piece might raise awareness.
But the next morning I woke to an email. Dr Gethin was unhappy with some of the language I had used in the report, believing it had underplayed what had happened to her. She wanted to retract her statement, which she felt had been watered down through editing. Indeed, she wanted to have nothing more to do with the story.
But without her statement, which managed to pierce the legalese that had come to envelop her very personal experience of violence, the article was impersonal and almost perfunctory – a perpetrator set free, a victim unseen.
The story was pulled.
I’d had the best of intentions in interviewing Anni Gethin. She deserved to have her story told. So, how did I get it so wrong?
Findings from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and the prevention body Our Watch reveal that less than eight per cent of stories in the Australian media about violence against women include comment from survivors. Journalists rarely speak to survivors, and when they do – as my experience with Dr Gethin demonstrates – they don’t always get it right.
So, Uncovered decided to ask three survivors of violence about their experiences with the media. What were some of the common mistakes made by journalists when telling their stories? And what could they be doing better?
Kristy McKellar endured years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a former partner. Over the last three years, she has given numerous interviews to journalists in a bid to raise the community’s understanding of domestic violence.
She said her experiences overall had been positive, but there were a few things journalists needed to be more aware of when telling the stories of survivors.
Firstly, they needed to take greater care with their choice of language when describing violence.
Ms McKellar recounted a disheartening experience with the media, in which a journalist inappropriately categorised the physical violence she’d experienced.
“Something that I would have said in my description of the abuse suffered was that ‘I was assaulted; I was attacked’.
“But the reporter had instead used the word ‘bashed’. That terminology would not have been intended to be offensive to me, but that’s how it felt after surviving such horrific assaults for many years, and facing the possibility of death.
“Using this terminology felt quite distasteful when knowing how degrading these acts are to a victim, and that they’re illegal and a crime,” she said.
Language was something Dr Gethin also raised concerns about, particularly the use of the term ‘altercation’, saying that it is important for journalists to remember domestic violence isn’t a fight but one person exerting control over another.
Ms McKellar also had problems with sensationalism and inaccuracy.
“I’d actually been really clear in communicating [in an interview] that he [the perpetrator] was very calculated in his attacks, so therefore I was never struck to the face in almost four years – until the last assault,” she continued. “No one would see any physical injuries to my face. But she [the journalist] had actually written something to the effect of ‘Kristy wore heavy makeup to cover the injuries to her face’ – when I had clearly informed her that the perpetrator never struck me to the face during assaults. I was physically assaulted in areas on my body that I could cover with clothing.
“[Reporters] don’t realise at times that there can be violent reprisals from your perpetrator due to printing inaccurate information. They don’t realise they’re creating a situation where you could be in serious danger if they’re not reporting factually.”
Kerryn Robertson’s daughter Rekiah O’Donnell was shot and killed by her partner, Nelson Lai, in 2013. He was subsequently convicted of manslaughter. Mrs Robertson also expressed concerns about sensationalism.
Lai was an ice user and Mrs Robertson believes some journalists she spoke to were only interested in that element of the story.
“They came at it looking at the drug aspect of it – straightaway that was the angle they wanted to take. It felt disempowering for a television crew to walk in and tell you what they wanted you to say, rather than let you tell your story,” she said.
She added: “The media do pick and choose – not everything would be always taken in context.”
Kristy McKellar suggested journalists could offer to show survivors a draft of their story to check for accuracy, and to ensure they are prepared for and comfortable with what will be printed. While not common journalistic practice, it is recommended in some guidelines for reporting on violence against women.
However, other survivors felt differently about this.
As a child, Di Elderton was sexually abused for years by her father. Three decades later, she took him to court and he was sentenced to a minimum of seven-and-a-half-years in prison.
Earlier this year, after the case had ended, she decided to speak to the media about her experiences. An interview she gave The Age was featured on the front page in March.
She said the journalist who wrote the story, Chloe Booker, checked facts with her multiple times after she was interviewed, but didn’t show her a draft. For Ms Elderton, this was a good thing.
“I’ve only read the story once,” she said. “I don’t even know if I could read it again – it was quite confronting at the beginning. I didn’t realise she would go into as much detail. She actually went through what had happened.
“And I think if I’d had the chance to read it first, I might have been tempted to say, ‘Oh, can we just say that in not such a detailed way?’ But the response that we got was nothing but positive.
“I think if I’d read it beforehand I might not have wanted it to have been so graphic, but I think not knowing was a better thing in a way.”
Ms Elderton also stressed that it was important for her to know when her story was being published, so she could prepare emotionally, and let others know.
Kerryn Robertson said it was difficult not knowing exactly what would be included in stories. She said her daughter, Rekiah’s sister, was interviewed by a current affairs program but then dropped from their story without notice.
“She’s 17 now but would have been only 15 then. They interviewed her but then cut her out of the whole thing,” she explained.
“That was her one and only experience with the media. She was brave enough to open up to the media once, but since then, she’s had nothing to do with it at all. It obviously had an impact that they didn’t think it important to include her story.”
Out of all this, though, what seemed to be most important to survivors was that journalists were sensitive and empathetic to their experience.
And when reporters got it right, all three women said telling their story had a positive impact on their own lives – and, they believed, the lives of others.
“Going public with my story and people becoming emotional about it was cathartic because no one had ever cried for me before,” said Ms Elderton. “People were shocked or angry or sickened when I told them, but never talked about it again . . .
“Somehow, being in the media made the gravity of the situation real to people and they wanted to openly discuss it with me. Exposing horror publicly forces everyone to face it, I suppose, and removes some of the shame of secrecy from the victim.”
Mrs Robertson added: “It’s making something good come out of something that’s so terrible. It keeps you going, I think. Knowing that [Rekiah’s] death wasn’t totally in vain. It’s not only helping others, it’s helping yourself.”
Kristy McKellar encouraged journalists to keep telling the stories of survivors – despite the challenges they might face along the way.
“Victims’ violent experiences need to be validated, recognised, respected and reported as accurately as possible,” she said.
“Having women who’ve experienced violence and sexual assault speaking out to the media is a powerful mechanism for the prevention of violence.”
And Anni Gethin, months after I initially interviewed her, also had some advice. "I think women would like truthful, factual reporting that clearly explains the situation, and does not omit important facts. Also, I think journalists have to be very aware of a mindset within the population which is ’she made it up/she’s lying’ - because the reality, that all these apparently ‘good blokes’ are actually abusing their partners, is too confronting," she said.
Clearly, there’s a lot here for journalists to reflect upon. We may not agree with everything that’s been suggested, but we should seek out the stories of survivors, and we should strive to tell them accurately and respectfully. The fact that the nation is talking more and more about violence against women is a good thing, but it is the survivors who should be at the centre of the conversation.