The media is pretty bad at talking about sexual violence

Theres a well-known childrens rhyme that goes, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me..


Theres a well-known childrens rhyme that goes, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me. As good-natured as that adage may sound, its wildly untrue. Words hurt, and were not always good at choosing the right ones, especially those of us who work in media.

An event held at Ryerson University on December 2 examined this problem. Presented by Ryersons Centre for Women and Trans People, YWCA Canada, CESAR, femifesto and several other Ryerson groups, Use the Right Words! Media Reporting on Sexual Violence was attended by journalists, community activists as well as Ryerson students and faculty. The event included a film screening, spoken word performance and panel presentation, which all drew the same conclusion: mainstream media plays a huge role in shaping conversations about sexual assault, rape and other forms of violence. So far, we havent been doing a great job.

The event kicked off with a screening of Allegedly, a documentary made by Toronto teens Tessa Hill and Lia Valente. The film (embedded below) looks at the medias role in perpetuating rape culture, which is defined as normalizing sexual violence against women and victim blaming. Its often reinforced by the media in terms of what stories are told and how they are reported. In the film, several experts take issue with the word allegedly, stating its over-use diminishes the validity of a survivors story. They look at several cases reported by the media those related to former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi, Steubenville High School football players and Canadian high school students Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons and how perpetrators and survivors in each case have been portrayed.

During the panel portion, five presenters gave 10-minute talks about an issue related to reporting sexual assault and rape. There was a discussion on the disproportionate number of times Indigenous women appear in media. According to femifesto, a study that compared press coverage of missing or murdered Indigenous women in Saskatchewan versus missing or murdered white women in Ontario found that non-Aboriginal women received three and a half times more coverage and were more likely to be front-page news.

Another speaker talked about how sex trade workers are typically portrayed in the media (as high-risk, non-relatable and unworthy of empathy when attacked). Black women, too, are often stereotyped: hypersexualized and reduced to a false narrative that theyre always asking for it.

Toronto journalist Lauren Strapagiel stressed a need for overall change in newsrooms. She talked about how even if a writer is using the right words, a story can become distorted after moving through several editors and headline writers. The only way to stop this from happening is for everyone in a media organization from reporters to publishers to understand the impact of publishing stories and be more aware of how our use of language about sexual assault and rape survivors can be damaging.

Over the past decade, the number of reports on sexual assault and rape stories continues to grow. Its multiplied by the accessibility of online publishing, digital photography, video and social media to anyone with a computer, smartphone or tablet. When violent acts occur, we go online and mine tens of articles to form our own narratives about what happened. Mainstream media directly forms how we as a community think and talk about violence against women.

So where do we go from here? A local grassroots feminist organization, femifesto, offers a starting point. They have developed a 50-page guide, which they presented at the event, titled, Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada [PDF]. Written in consultation with a 27-person advisory committee and over two dozen collaborators, it offers a list of dos and donts for reporting on sexual assault and rape, interview tips (such as respecting boundaries) and what journalists can do if theyre a survivor of gender-based violence at work. Femifesto is also encouraging social media users to share examples of good and bad media reporting of sexual violence on Twitter using the hashtag #UseTheRightWords.

Allegedly filmmakers Hill and Valente have also launched a campaign to help shift rape culture to consent culture. We Give Consent is a student-driven movement to get teens thinking about how they talk about sex and what consent means beyond no means no. Hill and Valente recently convinced the province to include the topic of consent and a discussion on the emotional aspects of sex into the sex ed curriculum taught in highschools.

For those of us in the media, we can do better. We must do better. We can start by reading the Use the Right Words guide. We can also convince our newsrooms to provide training and workshops on interviewing and reporting on sexual violence. We can learn to check our assumptions and privilege. We can choose better images to go with our articles (lets retire those stock photos of short skirts and high heels to depict sexual assault, shall we?). Lets be allies to survivors in and out of the newsroom.

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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