Written by: Farrah Khan
Mainstream media has the power to shape conversations about gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual violence (SV) in our communities. It can shift society’s understanding of violence as well as be a spark for concrete change from policymakers and politicians. The news can also impose a hierarchy that frames certain kinds of gender-based violence and sexual violence — or certain kinds of survivors — as less legitimate than others.
Recognizing the media’s influence, femifesto, a Tkaronto-based, grassroots feminist organization, was formed by myself, Shannon Giannitsopoulou, and Sasha Elford in 2011 to evaluate how Canadian media was reporting on sexual violence. We worked with feminists, survivors, lawyers, frontline workers, and journalists to create Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada, released in 2015. Since its release, the Use the Right Words guide has been used in journalism schools across the country, by academic institutions’ communication professionals, in high school curricula, and in training Crowns. The guide has been translated into French and Turkish, and has inspired similar guides in other countries including India. It has also become an advocacy tool on social media, with the hashtag #UseTheRightWords often used by advocates, academics and survivors to call-in media outlets and challenge reporting on sexual and gender-based violence.
In the last 7 years since the release, there has been a shift in how sexual violence is discussed, reported, and understood. High profile North American cases like Jacob Hoggard, Peter Nygard, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell received unprecedented media coverage. And thanks to continued grassroots activism, widespread campaigns, and long-standing movements like #MeToo, we’re seeing a wider understanding that survivors of sexual violence should not be blamed or shamed when they come forward to disclose or report.
We’ve heard from many journalists over the years that Use the Right Words has been a vital tool in navigating the difficult task of reporting on this topic; however, there is still work to be done. Now more than ever, it is necessary to acknowledge the power mainstream media holds in shaping narratives about violence. We are thrilled to share that for the past three years, femifesto has partnered with Possibility Seeds to create an updated and expanded suite of guides as a part of the Courage to Act Project, funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada.
Use the Right Words: Guidelines for Media Reporting on Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Violence will be released in Fall 2022. They will not only include guidelines for reporting on sexual violence, but 14 additional resources which broadly cover intersectional violence and trauma-informed reporting practices on topics including (but not limited to) intimate partner violence, stalking, financial abuse, technology-assisted violence, coercion control, and FGM/C. These groundbreaking tools were co-created with community partners including feminist organizations, survivors, journalists, frontline workers, policymakers, legal experts and academics.
The release of the guides will be accompanied by training materials and opportunities for collaboration with media outlets and community groups. If you would like to book a training or invite us to speak to your media outlet or journalism school, please reach out! You can contact our coordinator Aubrianna Snow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note: the outline and format of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women: “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence: A Media Toolkit for Local and National Journalists to Better Media Coverage” toolkit served as one of the foundational resources for femifesto’s 2013 draft guide, Reporting on Sexual Assault: A Toolkit for Canadian Media.
In addition, there are many unique projects and resources that address media reporting on sexual and gender-based violence that informed our initial work. They have built the foundation on which Use the Right Words was created:
Canadian Judicial Council: “The Canadian Justice System and the Media”
Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women: “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence: A Media Toolkit for Local and National Journalists to Better Media Coverage”
Klinic Community Health Centre: “Trauma-informed: The Trauma Toolkit”
Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault: Media Resources
Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women: The Media Hub: Women, Action, and the Media
TransPride Canada: Style Guide
Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses: “Femicide Report”
The Journalism Initiative on Gender-Based Violence (JiG) of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership: Silence and Omissions: A Media Guide for Covering Gender-Based Violence.
Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 2021: #CallItFemicide: Understanding sex/gender-related killings of women and girls in Canada, 2020
Canadian Women’s Foundation: The Facts about Gender-Based Violence
Informed Opinions: Toxic Hush Action Kit
Know Your IX: “A Guide for Journalists”
National Network to End Domestic Violence: “Resources for Reporters, Editors, and Media Professionals”
National Sexual Violence Resource Center resource list: “Reporting on Sexual Violence.”
Ethical Journalism Network: 6-point guide to ethical reporting on domestic violence
Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence: “Reporting Sexual Assault: A Guide for Journalists”
Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence: “Covering Domestic Violence: A Guide for Media Professionals”
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC): “Sharing Your Story: A guide for survivors of sexual violence”
Suggested Citation: Khan, Farrah. (2022, June). Use the Right Words: Guidelines for Media Reporting on Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Violence. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/use-the-right-words.