The Malta Independent 14 October 2019, Monday

Journalism fail – how not to report on domestic violence and abuse

Alice Taylor Sunday, 10 June 2018, 09:46 Last update: about 2 years ago

Domestic violence, sexual assault and gender-based violence are still huge taboos in our society. Shrouded by a veil of shame and blame, many victims don't come forward due to fear, lack of faith in the justice system, or because they mistakenly believe that they are at fault. Unfortunately, in Malta this is a particularly pertinent issue. A recent survey requested by the European Commission, Directorate General for Justice and Consumers, and co-ordinated by the Directorate General for Communication found that 47 per cent of Maltese believe that women make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape, 40 per cent believe violence is provoked by the victim, and a heart-breaking 36 per cent believe there can be at least one, valid justification for rape.


This quite clearly shows that there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of education and brain engaging and it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Local NGOs are doing tireless work- education, information sharing, supporting those in abusive situations, campaigning, activism - the list goes on, but notwithstanding all of these incredible efforts, we are still being let down by our media. Despite more column inches being dedicated to cases of abuse, the quality and style of writing and the language used is falling unacceptably short of the mark.

A recent study by the University of Melbourne has established clear and undeniable links between media reporting and how the receiving community views the issue at hand. In other words, the use of dismissive language, incorrect information, misleading headlines, and misogynistic, victim-blaming narratives directly contributes to the fact that almost half of Maltese society believe that survivors of abuse did something to deserve it.

Times of Malta, I am looking at you. I am not just pointing fingers here because I write for a competing newspaper; rather I am using my platform here to draw attention to an issue that is causing widespread shock and anger among women in Malta. Over the last few months I, and many other have noticed an issue with the way that one particular reporter has been writing about cases involving domestic abuse and sexual assault. She is a female reporter, and one can assume she is a rookie as she seems to just report on court cases; however, this is no excuse for the way she is wording her report - that is what an editor is for.

In the last three months alone, I have found a staggering 10 articles by the same reporter that contain language that constitutes a misrepresentation of the facts, victim blaming, makes a joke out of a serious assault, or is misogynistic in its tone. This is just not acceptable in a national newspaper in an EU country in 2018. Let me give you some examples and I will explain why they are problematic; in case it is not blatantly obvious to you the moment you read it.

"Misunderstanding lands woman in hospital and man behind bars". There was absolutely no misunderstanding that led to this woman's critical injuries; what led to the vicious assault that she suffered was the violent and illegal tendencies of one man. Misunderstandings are resolved, violence is not a resolution.

"Man denies having sex with his partner's young daughter". No, this man did not have sex with an underage child; he raped a child and sexually abused her. Sex is consensual between two adults, anything else is rape.

'Landlord makes a move on young tenant, ends up in court." You see the thing is he didn't make a move on her; he turned up at her house with wine, tried to force himself on her and then sexually assaulted her. Not only is this headline very dismissive of the real facts of the case, but it was accompanied by a photo of a romantic table setting complete with two glasses of wine. The article continues to state that the woman gave the man the impression she liked him and wanted to have sex with him but then suddenly got offended and changed her mind. It is almost as if the writer is suggesting that this poor landlord was merely trying to romantically woo this girl, and she, being the cockteaser that all women are, had the audacity to rebuff him.

"Husband stuffed chocolate wrapper up drunk wife's genitals". It was not so much the title of this story that raised my ire, but the subtitle underneath: "An attempt at seduction quickly melted away". This man viciously inserted a chocolate wrapper into his wife's vagina (this is considered as rape in some jurisdictions) causing her permanent and severe internal lacerations and the writer thinks it is appropriate to make a joke about this? This woman has been seriously assaulted and sexually violated, and yet some seem to think it is a laughing matter - it is not, this is one of the vilest incidents that have occurred recently, and it is no laughing matter.

"A man's niggling suspicion that his partner was cheating upon him has landed him behind bars". No, sorry, stop right there -what landed this particular charmer behind bars was the fact that he harassed, assaulted, and threatened her and her son and was caught in possession of an illegal weapon, not the fact that he was paranoid about her extra-sexual activities.

These are just some of the examples I found during the last three months, and I know that there will be many more should I look back further. I contacted Times of Malta with my concerns regarding their social responsibility and am yet to receive a response, so I decided to make my thoughts public.

Whether this journalist is inexperienced and needs some proper training, or whether she is wilfully ignorant of the damage her words do, the fact of the matter is that her editor should be picking up on things like this.

In a society that calls women whores, bitches, and subordinate entities, we should be extra careful when reporting on gender-based violence to ensure that we are not reinforcing the toxic beliefs of this patriarchal society.

Journalists, lawyers, judges, police, and people in the public eye need to be aware of the impact that their words have. It is clear that there is a huge lack of training for these individuals and that they need significant assistance in understanding these complex issues and learning how to report on these cases in the correct and proper manner. There should be no sensationalism, no jokes, no puns, no 'cute' stock images, and certainly no downgrading of the facts.

What upsets me the most about this is the fact that it is a woman reporting these stories. Surely she sits in the courtroom and hears the stories first hand, she sees the witnesses, hears the evidence, and can see the toll that such incidents have on individuals and families. There really is no excuse for such crass and blasé reporting. Dear journalist, if you are reading this, I invite you to reconsider your tone. There is even an extensive guide on the government website that gives clear guidelines to media institutions on how to report on these matters, and as for Times of Malta - you should know better.

Yours sincerely,

A woman, a writer, and a survivor of domestic violence



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