Ochberg Fellowship Program
Reporting on sexual violence demands special care and increased ethical sensitivity. It requires specialised interviewing skills, understanding of the law, and basic awareness about the psychological impact of trauma.
Sexual violence could be physical or psychological and perpetrated against men, women or children of any age. It includes rape, which is known to be one of the most deeply traumatic experiences any human being can undergo. Talking about such an event is usually associated with very high levels of distress – during re-telling survivors may even re-experience some of the same emotions they felt at the time of being attacked. Consequently, journalists need to take special care, if they are to avoid compounding their interviewees’ distress. Sexual violence has broader effects too: the impact can ripple out to those involved tangentially, such as family members and loved ones or even witnesses to the act. When used as a weapon of war, how a whole community relates to itself or neighbouring groups can be profoundly altered.
Brief yourself thoroughly on the likely impacts and causes of sexual violence. Research local conditions and circumstances. But once you have done your research, leave it at the door. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have on the topic, you can never predict how a particular individual experienced the events that happened to them.
Get the language right. Rape or assault is not “sex.” A pattern of abuse is not an “affair”. Rape or sexual assault is in no way associated with normal sexual activity; trafficking in women is not to be confused with prostitution. People who have suffered sexual violence may not wish to be described as a “victim” unless they choose the word themselves. Many prefer the word “survivor”.
Respect a potential interviewee’s right to say no. Nobody should ever be forced to talk in detail about an event as traumatic as rape. Not everybody is in the right place to speak.
Ask yourself whether approaching someone risks compromising his or her safety and privacy. In some societies, just being suspected of having been raped, can lead to humiliation, being ostracised, and even to further violence. Tread carefully and think about how and where you meet a potential source.
Set good ground rules. Violent and abusive acts take control and power away from people, and so it is important to create a sense of safety during the interview. Try involving the interviewee in the decision-making: ask them if they can recommend a safe location and time.
The secret to good interviewing is active, non-judgmental listening. That sounds simple, but it is a skill that requires time and effort to develop.
Don’t underestimate how your own reactions to traumatic detail can influence the conversation. If you are finding the material challenging, acknowledge that silently to yourself, and bring your focus back to what is being said. Usually just trying to listen a little harder, and observing the other’s facial expressions, body language, etc, helps. (The time to process the personal impact on the journalist is after the interview.)
Sexual violence is associated with high degrees of self-blame, guilt and shame. For this reason, avoid any language that might imply the interviewee is responsible in some way. Be careful of asking “why” questions - they are favoured by interrogators.
Don’t be surprised if accounts only make partial sense. Frequently survivors of sexual violence ‘shut down’ emotionally: their recall may become fragmentary, and in some cases they may even block out an event entirely. Incomplete and contradictory accounts are not prima facie evidence of deception, but rather of the struggle interviewees may experience in making sense of what happened to them.
Never say you know how they feel – you don’t. Instead, you could say, “I appreciate how difficult this is for you”.
End the interview well. After you have addressed the issues you need for your report, ask them if they would like to add anything else. And most importantly, make sure you bring the conversation back into the here and now and to the discussion of things that the interviewee finds safe.
Make yourself available for contact after your report is published or broadcast. If you say you’ll let them have a copy or a recording of what you write/broadcast, keep that promise.
Again, think about the language. Sexual violence is both deeply personal and something that has wider public policy implications.
Anticipate the impact of publication. Journalists have a responsibility to do everything they can to avoid exposing the interviewee to further abuse or undermining their standing in the community.
Re-check whether you risk compromising a source’s anonymity. In the final report, have you left clues that might inadvertently identify the individual? Job, age and location may allow for jigsaw identification. Faces or clothes may need to be obscured in photographs or film.
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.