As a tool, social media offers unprecedented reach. While it can be used effectively for violence prevention work, it can also be used for violence. Some use social media for online sexual harassment, sexual assault threats, sharing intimate material without consent, recording or distributing images of sexual assaults, cyber stalking, digital dating abuse and luring sexual trafficking victims. (1)
Here are some suggestions to help you with your reporting on incidents involving sexual violence and the Internet or social media:
Understand the Broader Context
Consider the standards that will shape your coverage. Think about how you will acknowledge the story’s complexity. In other words, what does sexual violence mean at the individual and broader societal levels? Social attitudes about sexual violence are shaped by double standards that often discriminate based on sex, ethnicity, class, ability, and sexual orientation, among other factors.
Use the Correct Terms
Think beyond cyberbullying. Sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence. Choose the terminology in your story carefully. Think critically about labels. “Cyberbullying” is a broad and ambiguous term that often masks the complexity of abuse and harassment. It fails to capture the misogyny, racism, homophobia and/or transphobia that is often present. Be as specific as possible in choosing your labels to convey the nature of the abuse. Some examples of specific words you can use to explain the type of harassment include:
- Sexual harassment
Treat Victims/Survivors with Respect
Ask the victim/survivor how they wish to be identified in your story: name, pseudonym or remain anonymous, and if they identify as a victim or survivor. Find out what pronouns to use (she/he/they)
See 9 Essential Tips for Interviewing Survivors in Femifesto’s Guide to Reporting Sexual Assault (2)
Avoid Victim-Suspicious Language such as “Alleged”.
By law, you will be required to use words such as “alleged” prior to a perpetrator being convicted of a sexual crime. However, the word “alleged” is often overused or used unnecessarily in news reports or articles. Learn more about these instances in Femifesto’s Checklist When Reporting On Sexual Assault (3).
For more guidance read OCTEVAW’s Trial Coverage.
Seek out a diversity of sources. Include news sources who can speak to how the community can or should respond to the situation. Speak to experts who can shed light on what communities, schools, and other institutions can do to prevent sexual violence. Potential expert interviewees include
- Sexual violence prevention advocates
- Sexual violence researchers
- Psychologists who counsel sexual violence victims/survivors
Choose your Words Carefully
Use the active voice rather than passive voice. The passive voice does not identify the ‘actor’ in the story. It is ambiguous and tends to make a crime sound clinical, rather than personal. Instead of making statements such as, “Pictures of the woman’s assault were circulated,” we suggest “The woman said that people at school, teenagers in the community and members of the hockey team shared pictures of the assault.”
Avoid Victim Blaming. Focus on the offence rather than the survivor’s actions. Do not make statements that somehow cast blame on the victim for what happened to her/him.
- For example, in cases involving the non-consensual distribution of intimate material, ask why the photo was shared without consent, or whether coercion was used to obtain the photo.
- For example, implying that an openly queer or trans victim shares responsibility for being attacked, or that an attack was justified because of an unwanted romantic or sexual advance, promotes discrimination and may bias criminal or legal investigations. (4)
Treat youth and young people fairly.
Avoid using incidents of sexual violence involving social media as an opportunity to stereotype youth and youth cultures. Youth are a diverse demographic with vastly different life experiences. They use social media in a variety of ways. Many young people are leading the way in sexual violence prevention in society.
Seek to Educate
Use the story as an opportunity to inform. Instead of suggesting that an individual did not experience harm because the violence did not involve physical contact, emphasize that violence and abuse is emotional, psychological and verbal, as well as physical. Seek out expert opinions on the damaging effects of these forms of abuse.
- Offer follow-up. At the end of the story, including a local support line and/or website for a local support agency. Let your audience know where to seek support if they, or someone they know, are experiencing violence.
- Emphasize that the Internet/social media is a tool and not a cause of sexual violence. Sexual violence and abuse using social media are still violence and abuse. Avoid putting the technology at the centre of your story by using language such as “sexting-related suicide” or “social media caused the harassment.” Instead, put the violence and abuse at the centre of your story.
- For example, instead of using terms such as “Twitter harassment,” say: “A number of individuals used Twitter to repeatedly threaten to sexually assault the woman.”
- Try not to get stuck in generalizations about technology and social media (e.g. good/bad or black/white). Instead, try to speak to specific social media features that may increase the harm to those experiencing violence. These include:
- Speed of distribution
- Scope of distribution
Remember that it is these same features (e.g. easily accessible; anonymity) that make it possible for survivors and victims to seek support and services.
- 1) Bluett Boyd, N., et al. (2013); Fairbairn, J., et al. (2013).
- 2) Femifesto (2013a), p. 13.
- 3) Femifesto (2013b), p. 11.
- 4) GLAAD. (2010).
Works Cited & Consulted
- Bluett Boyd, N., Fileborn, B., Quadara, A., & Moore, S. (2013). The role of emerging communications technologies in experiences of sexual violence: A new legal frontier? Australian Institute of Family Studies, Research Report No. 23. Retrieved from http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/pubs/resreport23/rr23.pdf.
- Fairbairn, J., Bivens, R., & Dawson, M. (2013). Sexual violence and social media: Building a framework for prevention. Ottawa: Crime Prevention Ottawa/Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women. Retrieved from http://www.octevaw-cocvff.ca.
- Femifesto. (2013a). 9 essential tips on interviewing survivors. Retrieved from http://femifesto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/FemifestoToolkitFinal.13-...
- Femifesto. (2013b). Checklist when reporting on sexual assault. Retrieved from http://femifesto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/FemifestoToolkitFinal.11-...
- GLAAD. (2010). Media reference guide (8th ed). Retrieved from http://www.glaad.org/files/MediaReferenceGuide2010.pdf