Ethical Journalism and Gender-based Violence



Jan Leach
Image (c) Jan Leach / Kent University
Jan Leach is the Director of the Media Law Center for Ethics and Access and Associate Professor at the Kent State University in the United States of America. With plenty of experience as a journalist, Jan teaches media ethics, graduate media ethics, news-writing, copy editing and other news courses and is director of Kent’s Media Law Center for Ethics and Access.  Besides being a coordinator and host of the annual Poynter KSU Media Ethics Workshop, Jan is an Ethics Fellow at the Poynter Institute for Journalism Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she works with other media professionals to define and address ethics issues.

As editor, Jan and her staff coordinated coverage of the 9/11 attacks, including publishing an “Extra” edition, explaining the war in Afghanistan and launching and promoting the “Fire Truck Fund” that raised more than $1.3 million for new safety equipment in New York City. She has been published in Nieman Reports, Poynter Online, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Journalism and Mass Communication Educator and elsewhere. 

Jan spoke with us on Media Reporting, Ethical considerations in journalism and gender-based violence. Excerpts of the interview follow:


The way women are portrayed in media sometimes becomes the precursor to the way in which women are treated – oftentimes, involving violence. Could you weigh in with your thoughts on this?
It is unfortunate that sometimes, women are portrayed as helpless, dependent on men, sex symbols – irrespective of they are celebrities or even if they are ordinary women. There are a whole bunch of examples for instance, yesterday, a teacher was raped and the perpetrator filmed it. I was shocked about it, and when I pulled up the story for research, I was shocked to find that the story is just four paragraphs long! All the stories I then dug up to find out more were no longer than that. I found myself wondering what the whole story was, and how we actually should be telling that whole story. Who was filming this? How did it all happen? What’s going to happen next? The fact is that it is not just about the victim, but rather about the people involved, the families of those involved, the courtroom issues and what happens afterwards. I am very concerned about that. I am also concerned about the way we tell these stories – because when we tell them, we have to make sure to tell them ethically.

If you had a way to address these issues, what would it be if you could put it down into words?
I think we have to be concerned about truth. We have to be accurate. That is a big concern with social media now, especially because everything travels fast, but it is not necessary that it is authentic. We have to be very careful about the way we authenticate our stories. In addition to truth, it is important to see who we are being loyal to. We as journalists cannot be loyal to the victim. We have to be loyal to the audience. We need to ask the right questions: What does the audience want to hear? How does it want this information presented? With that, I go into other issues such as the question of sensationalism: how much detail does the piece need, how graphic should it be? With that in tow, I go into the issues of privacy and dignity, and study how the community receiving the information would like that story to be portrayed. It then becomes about how the community will receive and react to that story. Then, I go over each of the areas and approach the ethical dimension of all of those. And then, I finally see what the effect of reporting it ultimately is.

In the light of so many instances where women who have been subjected to sexual violence and rape being denied their dignity and privacy, how do we deal with media houses that do away with such ethical considerations that bind them?
Such kinds of things happen elsewhere. While doing my part of the research that was required to prepare for my sessions here, I did a lot of work finding out about gender-based violence across the world. I found that these ethical breaches are issues worldwide. We as journalists and media have to be aware of the fact that how we tell the story has an effect on the people’s understanding of the issue you are reporting. I am very concerned about the stories that are reported. No more than only three paragraphs short, many a time, I find that you don’t hear what happens after. You don’t hear about the facts in entirety, you don’t hear about the context. Context is very important and relevant. What is happening there? What are the cultural and community related issues? What level of education and understanding of their rights prevails among the people in the region? What is their understanding about what they are entitled to? Education, religion, community factors, politics and economics all come into play and it is important to take them all into account.
What causes gender-based violence? Is the media responsible somewhere?
There are direct and indirect causes: you have a mix of tangible and intangible causes. There are things like patriarchy, mindsets, the caste system and ingrained ideas of what gender is. You have to report it all, and bring out the reality of it all as it prevails. It is important to keep objectivity while doing just that. The basis of gender-based violence is entitlement: some people feel entitled to treat women as less than men. In many ways, the media reflects that sense of entitlement. There are also many cases of gender-based violence that men face. I couldn’t find very many, maybe because men don’t come forward to speak out. But, that said, it is our duty to bring these stories out. If we have the information, we verify it and give them facts, and people can form their own decisions. There are times when people have asked me why I am not reporting a given story, and I don’t report those stories because I don’t have the information that I need to report. I can’t make it up!

Can the media change attitudes of this kind? What if the media could be the instrument of change that we all want to see?
Yes, but I don’t think that one story alone could do that. Long time journalists who make it a cause, who are credible – meaning, people read it and believe them – there’s a guarantee that the piece is credible, has the context and is continually being reported, to follow up all the way until all the information is brought forth. Context is very, very important. If you have the data, believability and credibility and you keep at it, it can be possible. Giving people a voice with dignity, maybe, will encourage other people to come forward. There is, though, a fact that a lot of people do tend to worry about coming out with their story. Sometimes, it’s just the procedure that makes a survivor feel re-victimised all over again. If you know talking about something is hard, you don’t ask them hard questions – and even as a journalist – it is hard to report.

What do you think about sensationalism?
I think that sensationalism is unethical. But, you have to walk a very fine line. While reporting gender-based violence, if you don’t report the violence, people are not likely to believe you. Once, I read this statistic that said “Two rapes occur per hour in India”. I don’t understand anymore than what a basic statistic it is. There are so many questions unanswered: What is the nature of the violence? Is this statistic inclusive of other forms of rape or actual intercourse? If you don’t tell me, it is hard to wrap my head around what form of violence it is. To me, there is a difference between a graphic description and a description that is credible but not too graphic. Nothing shocks me anymore in my field – but I can’t keep that thinking in mind if I want to deliver to the media consumer on the other end. I often have to think about what the audience will think of the information, and accordingly make the necessary efforts to report it.

What needs to change if the media needs to change?
It’s all in the language – rape is not sex, it is assault; dowry is not tradition, it is payment that says you can marry with payment, human trafficking is not prostitution. Language has to be precise, and you have to be clear with it. The issue with language may come from the lack of knowledge of journalism and language usage. It ultimately comes down to who a journalist is – it’s not about what the journalist thinks of or assumes about himself but rather about whether they understand journalism. We are all media consumers and that puts us on an equal footing, but not everyone is a journalist – and they won’t understand the impact of telling a story.

What’s the right way to tell a story?
I tell my students that it is important to get all sides of the story. They think that it only has two sides, but the reality is that it could even have fifteen sides to it! But if you are narrowing down your focus and say that this is the only side to your story, that’s the only part you send out. There are three letters to think of: H, C and J: Harm or Help, Consequences and Journalistic opportunities. Try looking at these questions: Who needs to know this story? How much information do they need? What is the Harm or Help that this story is capable of? What are the consequences of telling a iven story? What are the journalistic choices I need to make with a given story? You can make an ethical decision that way, or, you can justify your decision accordingly – but either way, you will have arrived at an ethical and well-considered reality.



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