How to do no harm: Resources to help journalists avoid re-traumatizing survivors of sexual violence

A study of Yazidi survivors found that some were negatively affected by their experiences with journalists, expert Sherizaan Minwalla said. © UNFPA/Khetam Malkawi
  • 20 December 2019

UNITED NATIONS, New York/AMMAN, Jordan – Sexual and gender-based violence terrorizes women and girls around the world, affecting as many as one in three women. Reporters play an essential role in bringing these cases to light so that authorities can take action and prevent further abuses. Yet reporting on gender-based violence comes with serious risks to survivors.

When journalists tell these stories carelessly, or without proper training, they can leave survivors feeling exploited or exposed to stigma and retaliation.

When members of the Yazidi community faced targeted sexual violence and enslavement by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS or Da’esh), news reports sparked urgent action by the international community. Some women hoped sharing their stories would help bring justice

But others felt the reporting itself caused harm, said Sherizaan Minwalla and Johanna Foster, legal experts who have studied the issue. 

Dr. Nagham Nawzat specializes in providing care to Yazidi survivors in Iraq. Interviews with health professionals, counsellors and the community can help reporters show the wider impact of sexual and gender-based violence. © UNFPAIraq/Turchenkova

“We explored how Yazidi women themselves felt about the ways in which journalists gathered and reported on their stories," they explained in a summary of their research.

"Overall, a majority of our respondents described experiences with, or perceptions about, reporters that suggested a patterned breach in ethics among journalists, who appeared to disregard the extent to which the reporting of the story might negatively impact highly traumatized survivors, with further harm to women’s individual and collective well-being.” 

But new initiatives are aiming to help journalists navigate the dangers of this important reporting. UNFPA and the Rutgers University Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) are partnering to help provide resources and guidance to reporters, among other efforts.

Opening eyes

“Journalism constitutes one of the few available avenues for [survivors’] stories to be heard,” said Jafar Irshaidat, a UNFPA communications specialist in Jordan. “Unfortunately, journalists can inadvertently become part of the problem.” 

Mr. Irshaidat has led trainings for journalists that both encourage the coverage of gender-based violence and caution reporters about the potential to cause harm. These seminars use videos and guided discussions to explore issues of consent, protection, re-traumatization and myths about victims of violence.

“This training was truly eye-opening. I was never really exposed to information on gender-based violence and the sensitivities of reporting on it,” said Bushra Nairoukh, a reporter in Jordan. “I feel more responsible as a journalist now that I have been introduced to this important subject."

UNFPA has also worked with humanitarian partners to create media guidelines and a Syria-specific handbook for journalists. UNFPA offices in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere have also conducted media workshops on these issues. 

Krishanti Dharmaraj, the Executive Director of CWGL, and Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA, at the partnership signing. © UNFPA/Malene Arboe-Rasmussen

These efforts are already making a difference. Since 2014, more than 500 journalists have attended the UNFPA trainings held in Jordan, and some 1,500 have been reached through related messages.

"I learned a lot about the potential consequences of reporting and how to carefully phrase my writing to ensure that I am not harming those I’m trying to help, particularly vulnerable women and girls," said Fatma Ramadan, from Egypt. 

Listening to reporters

CWGL, the founder of the global 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign, has been working in parallel to create a handbook, website and app to help journalists address these issues. In 2018, CWGL and UNFPA jointly held consultations with dozens of journalists in Amman to understand their challenges and needs. The information gathered will help inform CWGL’s handbook and other resources under development.

Many journalists have indicated that trainings should reach further into the newsroom, as well. “Journalists complain that, in many cases, their stories are dropped at the editor’s table, stressing the need to target editors in any awareness efforts,” Mr. Irshaidat said. 

At the same time, he added, journalism offers opportunities for creative thinking and problem solving. Reporters can be encouraged to find novel ways to report on gender-based violence without relying on invasive personal interviews, such as “more explorative features that examine the wider social ramifications of gender-based violence and male dominance,” he said.

On 19 December, UNFPA and CWGL officially partnered together to work towards eliminated gender-based violence. The partnership will include efforts to reach, inform and empower journalists – who can then help change global perceptions about violence and gender norms.

“We are looking at our work around the journalist initiative and shifting the discourse on how [gender-based violence] is reported in the media,” said Krishanti Dharmaraj, the Executive Director of CWGL, at the partnership signing in New York.

“This alliance is going to pick up the pace,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. “It is going to accelerate action.”

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