Telling the right story

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Domestic violence reporting is important for public awareness, yet complex survivor stories, scant resources and audience backlash can discourage journalists from covering the issue.

PHOTO: Hayley Gleeson (provided by Hayley Gleeson)

ABC journalist Hayley Gleeson said the biggest challenge when reporting these stories was conveying the full complexity of the issue, which required sufficient time and resources.

“I think we have to tread very carefully when we report the causes and contributing factors particularly about domestic violence because it is so complex, and there are lots of different factors involved,” she said.

“I’m in a really rare and privileged position in the ABC in that I have a lot of time and resource to dig into these issues, and that’s rare in the media industry today as resources are tight.”

Ms Gleeson said that overlooking the complex nature of these stories, or choosing sensationalist or victim-blaming language, could prevent people from seeking help.

“We still see egregious examples, simple things like choice of headlines that blame victims for the violence and abuse that is perpetrated against them,” she said.

“Getting it wrong can see women not seek help.”

Ms Gleeson said another barrier to reportage was the “vitriolic” backlash journalists received for reporting these stories, which had discouraged some from investigating these issues further.

“Inevitably, every time I publish a story I can sit at my desk and watch my email inbox and just wait for attacks, and criticism, usually from male readers who see an inherent sense of bias in the way that I’ve approached stories, simply because I report the facts.”

“I know of colleagues in the industry that refrain from commenting in a public way, or refrain from delving into these issues because they’re wary of the backlash.”

University of Melbourne PhD candidate Annie Blatchford said stranger violence was disproportionally over-represented in the media compared with domestic violence stories, which lessened public concern for the issue.

“I think the media do have a role to play in making sure the prevalence of domestic and family violence is known in comparison to these horrible attacks that occur much more rarely,” she said.

She said media reporting on domestic violence has increased in recent years due to advocacy efforts, but media organisations have only recently treated these stories as “newsworthy”.

“One of the common anecdotes I’ve been told by senior journalists is back in the day about domestic violence stories was the attitude of the newsroom was “it’s just another domestic”,” she said.

“The reality is that you are much more likely to be physically or sexually attacked or even murdered by someone you know.”

The Australian Institute of Criminology found one Australian woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Researchers from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) found news reports were “murder centric”, and rarely considered other types of violence, such as emotional abuse or sexual harassment.

Orange Door Heidelberg intake and assessment officer Emma Slater said media coverage that acknowledged the complexity and prevalence of domestic and family violence helped normalise the issue and encouraged women to seek assistance.

“If there are no narratives of family violence victims within the media, you might just think it’s your individual fault.”

“Being able to locate yourself within a family violence struggle allows you a sense of community, allows you to recognise their situation is not normal, and encourages you to seek help.”

Ms Slater said advisory and research bodies on violence against women, such as Our Watch and ANROWS, have provided the media with comprehensive resources to ethically report these issues. 

While these peak bodies have contributed to some improvement in reporting, there was evidence many news organisations were not following the reporting guidelines, University of Melbourne and University of Canberra researchers found.

The Morrison government pledged $328 million in a three-year funding plan to domestic violence services in March, with $62 million directed towards the 1800RESPECT counselling hotline.

If you, a child, or another person is in immediate danger, call 000. For sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service call 1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732. 24/7 phone and online services.

Featuring ABC reporter Hayley Gleeson and University of Melbourne PhD Candidate Annie Blatchford.
News report excerpt from 7:30 ABC on 14th February 2014.
Music by Madi Chwasta.