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Content Warning: sexual violence, rape

A beautiful woman was killed.” “This is how the man declared his love before beating her.” Other ways in which the media sensationalizes the pervasive and devastating violence against women are too upsetting to even mention.

According to an EU study, one in three women over the age of 15 has experienced physical or sexual assault, while 43% have experienced psychological abuse. The media has a responsibility to accurately and sensitively report on these issues, rather than perpetuating harmful stereotypes and the structural sexism that allows this violence to continue.

It’s time for the media to use its power for good and help bring about real change for women.

At the All that she wants feminist festival, journalists from top Hungarian publications discussed the challenges of reporting on violence against women and the media’s responsibility on a panel titled “He loved her so much that he suffocated her,” referencing language that downplays the severity of such violence. Their reflections on their outlets’ coverage were insightful and thoughtful and confirmed that there is still much work to be done in improving media representation of gender-based violence.

Words Matter

The media’s representation of violence against women doesn’t always start with the medium itself. One of the panellists, for example, pointed out the work that the media has to do to not repeat harmful language used by the police or prosecutors in their reports on violence against women. Phrases like “crimes of passion” or “love-sickness” can end up in headlines if reporters are careless or too tired to rewrite the description of the violence. Another panellist noted that magazine reporters may not always be involved in primary reporting on cases of violence against women, in which case existing material from other news outlets is used as a source, and often the reporters are overly reliant on other outlets to filter out biases and one-sidedness in their reporting. The way that information flows and stories build on top of each other makes reporting on sexist violence complex.

At a popular Hungarian women’s magazine, where one of the panellists works, a tactic to capture viewers’ attention is to use sensationalist (and often problematic) headlines and blurbs on the website or on social media. When a viewer clicks on one of these headlines, they’re taken to an article with its real title. According to the panellist, there are debates within the magazine about this practice. Some argue that if the article itself is of great importance and the clickbait title helps bring in more readers, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, many of the panellists strongly condemned this practice. In their view, sexism is already so strongly present in the world that sensationalism can normalize harmful behaviour and further perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This practice is even more harmful in today’s information-saturated environment where shortened attention spans and headline-only reading are prevalent. Unfortunately, the business models of some non-reader-funded outlets still depend on click-driven sensationalism to stay afloat.

Balancing Accuracy and Sensitivity

The panel really drove home the complexity of reporting on violence against women. As a journalist, it is not easy to balance the need for accurate reporting with the importance of not retraumatizing victims. One of the panellists shared that even asking victims questions to establish the course of events made her feel uncomfortable. As a result, she stopped writing about these kinds of cases and instead focuses on stories that have already made it to the courts, where she didn’t have to be the one to establish the facts and risk further traumatizing the victim. However, most of the panellists disagreed with this approach. They pointed out that most cases of violence against women never make it to the authorities or the justice system, so journalists have a heightened social responsibility to do primary reporting, even if it’s difficult. When reporting, some of the most important guiding principles include protecting the safety of the victim, respecting their personal rights, and minimizing the risk of harassment and legal action against them.

Responsible language and reporting are important for readers as well, so as not to cause trauma for those who have experienced gender-based violence. Most panel participants’ newsrooms also consider it important to direct potential victims to organizations that help victims of violence against women at the end of articles on the subject. It is also important to moderate sexist and victim-blaming comments appearing under online media articles on social media. One panellist highlighted the vast resources her magazine dedicates to this now that its content is published online and not just available in print.

Navigating Safety, Polarization, and Emotional Labor 

In light of the above, it’s understandable why some journalists might be hesitant to tackle these kinds of stories. Not only do they have a responsibility to be careful about how they engage with victims, but they also have to worry about their own safety. In a 2019 survey of Hungarian journalists conducted by Mertek Media Monitor, 56% of respondents reported experiencing verbal abuse, 72% had been threatened with legal action, and 41% had been sued for their journalism. Beyond that, the panellists discussed the challenges of getting people on the record in Hungary due to the extreme polarization of the media. People in government-allied positions are not always willing to speak to independent media, which can result in incomplete accounts of some issues.

Some of the panellists also expressed frustration about the fact that in their newsrooms, stories about violence against women are often assigned to women because it’s assumed that they’re “closer to the topic.” But as one panellist pointed out, these are issues that affect all members of Hungarian society. Given the gruesome nature of gender-based violence cases, this can be seen as another form of emotional labour women have to do in the workplace. 

Contextualizing Violence

Violence against women is a structural, systemic issue, and the media has a role to play in bringing this to light and not treating these stories as isolated incidents. As one panellist pointed out, it can be tiring work to contextualize and repeat information about these issues. However, she also saw great power in doing so, especially since tabloid and state-aligned media often repeat problematic words, phrases, and victim-blaming. It’s a balancing act, though. You don’t want to focus so much on the bigger picture that you overshadow the story of an individual victim. Famous cases, according to one panellist, can be especially effective tools for introducing messaging that highlights the structural nature of violence against women, as they don’t carry the same risk of overshadowing an individual victim.

Newsroom Support

Journalists reporting on violence against women also rely on help from their employers, who provide many levels of support. Mérce, for example, created its own best practices to help guide its reporting on violence against women and has made it readily available for other journalists to use. Some of the panellists noted that their newsrooms offered sensitivity training and have codes of ethics that guide the work of their journalists. Outlets also have processes in place to ensure articles are fact-checked and reviewed before they are published, such as having multiple editors review an article (up to five, at one of the panellist’s publications) or having a public editor monitor articles. 

However, it can still be challenging for journalists to understand the importance of using appropriate language when reporting on gender-based violence, particularly for those who may be critical of the increasing emphasis on what is commonly dismissed as “overzealous political correctness.” In these cases, the possibility of public embarrassment in front of peers or readers may serve as a motivator to adopt more sensitive language, suggested a panellist. To further improve their reporting on violence against women, journalists can also learn from high-profile cases such as those of Zsanett in Hungary and Gabby Petito in the US.

This panel conversation was organized by Auróra during the All that she wants Feminist Festival held between December 12 – 18 and included representatives from Mérce, Telex, 444, Marie Claire, NLC, and Partizán.

The festival was organized by: Auróra Közösségi Ház, Lazy Women, Marom Egyesület, NEM! – Nők egymásért mozgalom, Polémia Intézet, Szájensz Szeánsz, Szikra Mozgalom and sponsored by: Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

This article was written by Melinda Szekeres.