As the campaign for 16 days of activism against gender-based violence (GBV) concludes, journalists need to reflect on how they can keep topics surrounding GBV, gender and sexuality on the news agenda throughout the year.
During a webinar hosted by fray college on developing gender-sensitive policies in the newsroom for daily use it was emphasised that there is a need for education and sensitivity training beyond the one-off GBV global campaigns.
Bhekisisa Center for Health Journalism editor-in-chief Mia Malan said an advantage reporters have when reporting on gender and sexuality in South Africa is that the staff reflect the stories they want to tell. This inclusivity strengthens a variety of viewpoints which can inherently change the narrative.
“Just like it’s important to have a staff that reflects race in our country or demographics – it’s as important to have staff who reflect all types of genders and sexualities in order to get balanced reporting,” she said.
Other newsrooms like the Sowetan have developed a set of principles to ensure that reporters don’t slip up when reporting on gender-based violence and sexuality. Sowetan Deputy editor Sibongile Mashaba, listed their main rules:
- Ensure that the stories about women and survivors of GBV are told with dignity and sensitivity
- Ensure that journalists do not invalidate survivors’ experiences
- Be cautious when using gender-specific terms
Mashaba said these measures form part of the daily workflow system, so that biases and insensitivities are excluded. Photographers are also part of the briefings and understand the rules as well. She said her staff triple check content before publishing to ensure accuracy.
Unlike print and online news, radio is invariably different and often requires thinking on the spot. Lungani Mhlongo, presenter at Kasie FM, a community radio station based in Ekurhuleni, believes the best practice is to educate staff as much as possible. This means attending workshops and webinars on topics surrounding gender and sexuality, while working alongside organisations that fight GBV to gain a better understanding of the important narratives, terminologies and wording to use.
“We try by all means to check ourselves and check with people first before we write our stories so that we don’t offend people,” he said.
The attendees agreed that good journalistic practice needs to be rooted in education.
Kellyn Botha from ilga.org, who focuses on legal and media research as well as media monitoring said that journalists need to pay close attention to the laws, policies and stigmas that members of the LGBTI+ community face, and increase awareness without exacerbating harmful stereotypes in the gay, lesbian and transgender community.
One of the issues Botha identified is the over-emphasis on the transgender person’s medical history or their transition into becoming a trans person.
“I would argue that in and of itself is a form of gender-based violence because it may not be promoting violence explicitly. It may not be ignoring the physical violence that women and LGBT people face, but it is sort of making an individual’s differences, their otherness, front and centre to the entire world and when the entire world is already quite hostile to your very existence, that can be a very dangerous thing,” Botha said.
The solution according to many who attended the webinar is to normalise the fact that there are numerous types of sexuality and even gender.
Malan said that her organisation Bhekisisa focuses on the human narrative rather than numbers and statistics to combat the issue of “othering” in the media. She said the use of case studies, people’s stories and numbers creates a more impactful and compelling story, which also contributes to breaking stereotypes and normalising the lived experiences of the LGBTQI+ community.
She adds that journalists should write about members of the LGBTQI+ community like they would a heterosexual person, and also use people of different sexualities to talk about something that has nothing to do with sexuality or gender.
Learning and unlearning
While educating oneself about said topics is important for reporting, journalists also need to understand the importance of having difficult and critical conversations with their audience.
Botha said that if ill-informed audiences discriminate or make offensive comments, the journalists’ job is to have open discussions around these topics, instead of shutting them down.
“When the public is still unsure about these issues and are still learning about these issues, it is important for them to understand why these things are hurtful or why certain language is hurtful,” Botha said.
Ultimately, reporters are not writing about a niche community that people don’t care about – they are writing about GBV and gender discrimination – which Botha says does impact everyone in society.
According to the speakers, going forward here are the top five things to remember when reporting on gender-based violence, gender and sexuality:
- Learn new things so you can teach your audience new things and therefore shape and change society’s views.
- Humanise your subject and don’t rely on a single narrative or stereotype.
- Confront your own prejudices as a journalist and use policies when reporting on difficult topics.
- Don’t only focus on the negative stories, but also look at how organisations and survivors are combating GBV in their spaces.
- Do more to normalise conversations around gender and sexuality.
Finally, a word from Paula Fray:
“It’s about being part of societal change towards greater understanding, prevention and intervention in matters of GBV.”