Who broke-the-story-first? Experiences of women survivors of violence in the mainstream media — Part 1

Image by Sylvia Nalubega, UGA, Oct/2021, via AWDF/AfriRep

It is March of 2018 in Uganda. The conversation on prevalent sexual assault is frequenting media, civil society, and public conversation spaces as part of the International Women’s Day momentum. One prominent news publication runs a social media campaign asking women to share their sexual harassment and gender-based violence stories. The incentive — “a luxurious bottle of wine” for the “lucky winner.” After the inevitable public backlash, the publication offers a defensive apology, citing pure intent and regretting the “misunderstanding” caused. They take down the post.

The fourth estate trades in public information, and to acquire and tell stories, reporters would have to follow a process. For instance, they would have to do some fairly extensive research, go into the field, sit down with survivors and get to the bottom of not just facts but also hopefully the emotional and psychosocial reflections of respondents. The stories would also have to be subjected to quality checkers before press time. Checkers are supposed to catch such tone-deaf messaging as in the newspaper’s campaign.

However, a fast-growing trend of social media as a news source has made the space a worthy competitor for mainstream media; and the race to who-broke-the-story-first has intensified. There are, of course, perks to a more saturated media: less bureaucracy, more opportunities for emerging reporters, you name it. On the other hand, the risks include a dangerously diminishing quality of the content presented to the masses. As fate would have it, responsible journalism flies out the proverbial window, and the pursuit of a top spot on the social media algorithm prevails.

In violence against women reporting, inaccuracies stem from an even bigger issue: social beliefs pertaining to gender stereotypes and sexist conditioning. In patriarchal societies like most African countries, where perpetrators are rewarded with impunity for their behaviour, journalism has increasingly doubled down and reinforced that culture. Media language and tone take the form of subtle or overt blame and mocking directed at the survivor and a eulogy for the perpetrator. Unfortunately, those narratives only serve to keep the lives and existence of women in perpetual danger of patriarchal violence.

Acquitted perpetrators, trivialised survivors.

Often, news stories on violence against women not only have the face of the survivor plastered at the top of a page but also attempt to sanitise the perpetrator. When a former woman Member of Parliament in Uganda sought legal action against a man who had sexually harassed and threatened her to the point of a nervous breakdown, the dailies repeatedly referred to the harassment texts as “love messages.” In one story, a headline that seemed to take a hit at the survivor read: “MP cries in court over love text messages.”

In March 2021, three male morning show presenters on a Kenya radio station ridiculed and blamed a survivor of sexual harassment with overtones of slut-shaming, implying that it was her fault that she had been pushed out of the window of a storey building by her aggressor. It is worth noting here that while in the case of the Ugandan Member of Parliament, a public call on editors to revise the language was not heeded, the Kenyan radio took reparative action on its presenters.

Both these narratives were neither fair nor the truth — standards that journalism holds itself to. Indeed media houses — including these — have on countless occasions done a sterling job at telling stories on injustice, especially where the victims are dissidents of the State. However, when it comes to preventing and responding to violence against women, the debate takes a pattern of ineptitude that mirrors a value system that undermines the dignity of women reproduced through language, voice, and information platforms.

What media practitioners say

Samira Sawlani is a freelance journalist and media analyst in East Africa who covers stories across Africa. She says that the pursuit of trending topic-statuses on social media may indeed shape practitioners’ coverage of a story, a justification some journalists give when called to account. But for her, there is one major factor behind insensitive reporting on violence against women on the continent: “…we can talk all we want about the media and what can be done on the part of practitioners — however, a lot of what is brought into the newsroom comes from their belief systems which are rooted in societal systems and structures,” she says. How to fill the gaps? Samira says there is a need for all media houses to carry out training and workshops on how to report on violence against women. “There is also the possibility of setting up media watchdogs to oversee these,” she adds.

We can talk all we want about the media and what can be done on the part of practitioners — however, a lot of what is brought into the newsroom comes from their own belief systems, which are rooted in societal systems and structures, Samira Sawlani, Regional Freelance journalist, East Africa.

Josephine Karungi, a seasoned journalist in Uganda, attributes these challenges to three critical aspects: poorly trained practitioners, a culture of media sensationalism, and a general lack of empathy. In the newsroom, investment in stories often varies according to their perceived importance. That investment can look like human resource training, how much time is spent assessing the facts and sensitivity of a story, among other things. “Hard news (serious, of high interest and consequence), and disaster take precedence and violence against women is not considered that.” She points to mass distribution of traumatic events, or what has been colloquially termed trauma porn: “unless there’s 50 girls locked in a house, or something like that, it will not be considered top news.”

In Part 2, we unpack the foundations of media practice that pander to these harmful belief systems and discuss the recommendations by feminists who have organised around reform thereof.

Edna Ninsiima is a Uganda-based young feminist writer and Communications Consultant. This blog is part of a series following the joint launch of the Evidence Generation Guide [and in French] on prevention of violence against women in September 2021 by AWDF, Raising Voices and the Sexual Violence Research Initiative. Read the first blog which focused on the webinar reflections and access all resources related to the launch here.

This article is also published on our website: www.awdf.org

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