Recently more and more journalists have been writing and reporting on domestic violence. I know for myself I am writing at least 2-3 articles a month and have taken on work as a media consultant with NGOs in the sector.
As a journalist, and when working with journalists, I find there are still some grey areas when it comes to talking about domestic violence. Often there are simple questions like whether to use the term victim or survivor, domestic or family violence, or even how to write editorials.
For those who are writing about this subject there are some resources out there to help. The Women’s Centre for Health Matters in the ACT has guides while Our Watch has written something a bit more comprehensive. Then there is the US organization Jane Doe that has also put a paper together on it.
Collectively they can really guide accurate reporting and below are some key features that I’ve often reflected on when writing about domestic violence.
Domestic violence and family violence
When do you name it as domestic violence or family violence? Some believe there is no difference but I have found there is. Family violence relates more to extended kinship and family relationships in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Domestic violence is a term used more for partner, family member or carer violence. It is also called Intimate Partner Violence or IPV however I have seen this term mainly used by academics and researchers.
Victims or survivors
I often struggle with people being victims or survivors of domestic violence. From the guidelines I have read it really depends on the context. Writing about a current event whether that is a homicide, assault or abuse the term victim is used. For those who have left the violence and are rebuilding their lives it is survivor. Where ever possible I always try and ask the subject how they would like to be referred to.
Without fail whenever I look at comments that run after an online story on domestic violence there are readers who are at pains to say it is not just women who are victims. And they are right. Males and females perpetrate domestic and family violence, but let’s not lose sight of some important facts here. Statistically women suffer violence by family members and intimate partners at a greater rate than men. The data is there to prove it, this is not a feminist conspiracy – this is gendered violence.
Putting a face to a name
For so long women have been quiet about abuse and when there is a serious crime they turn in to just another statistic. One in three women. Yet when we see a face of a woman who reminds us of someone we know or could know it changes our perspective. We are constantly reminded that domestic violence does not discriminate by age, class or ethnicity. Seeing the faces of women who have been murdered makes it a home truth. But as this news editor points out, that’s not always possible.
Why doesn’t she just leave? What does she see in him? How could she put up with that? She, she, she. When we try and examine all the reasons behind domestic violence we often put the focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Never do we ask, why didn’t he just leave? Why can’t he control his behavior? Why didn’t he get help? If we started to put more focus on perpetrator’s behavior we may understand more about domestic violence than we currently do.
Talk to the experts
As writers and bloggers it is so easy to dish out advice but when it comes to a complex issue such as this we should in no way assume we have the answers. I have learnt so much by talking to social workers, academics, spending time in crisis call centres and shelters. Every time I do that I learn something new, which informs how I report and write about domestic violence.
Stats, stats and stats
People can water down the idea that domestic violence is an epidemic. It is one of our most under reported, yet most prolific crimes in our society. The statistics about violence against women are alarming, and that is just what we know. I shudder to think about what we don’t know. Research in this field has been going on for decades and it is growing. By not only reporting the data but understanding it we are able to as a society get a more rounded view of the seriousness of the situation.
Keep victims safe
When women leave a violent relationship they are at their most vulnerable and at most risk. It is important that when writing a personal story a woman’s safety is kept in mind at all times. Do not reveal details that could identify her, her perpetrator, where she lives or what she does for a living. If an editor can’t help you with anonymity it may be worth educating them more about stalking and homicide than asking your subject to compromise.
We never write about suicide without the number of Lifeline appearing at the end of the piece so why not do the same for domestic violence. Australia has a national hotline it is called 1800 RESPECT and we should use it. You may not realise it but what you are writing can either be a trigger for someone’s trauma or conversely inspire them to get help. It is our responsibility to make sure we don’t leave them hanging or without support.