Guest Blog: Making a difference on reporting domestic abuse

Teresa Parker, Head of Media Relations & Communications at Women’s Aid, on her experience of working with publishers and partners to raise standards of reporting on domestic abuse.

In June, there was strong criticism of the front page of The Sun. It ran a headline quoting JK Rowling’s ex-husband admitting to assaulting her, saying “I’m not sorry”. IPSO received over 1000 complaints from members of the public, but did not take any forward because there was no complaint from the subject of the article. More on why here. 

The Sun said they were condemning his remarks and called it a “sick taunt” in the piece. They said they wanted to expose a “perpetrator’s total lack of remorse”. 

For many survivors of domestic abuse and the charities working with them, the headline amplified the perpetrator’s voice and some found it completely unacceptable. 

While Women’s Aid were being asked to sign letters of complaint, I needed to find out what had happened. My instinct was to lean in rather than back off. I had previously had positive experiences of working with The Sun on a number of impactful domestic abuse campaigns over many years, and wanted to have a proper conversation with them about what had happened to see if there was an opportunity for learning. 

One thing we know at Women’s Aid is that domestic abuse is everywhere. Every single newspaper covers domestic abuse, whether they call it by its name or not. While of course it is really important to raise awareness and campaign for change, I feel that much of the coverage, in print and online, uses sensationalist headlines, images and quotes. Domestic abuse also appears in parts of newspapers you might not necessarily expect, even in relation to sport – hence the reason we developed our Football United Against Domestic Violence campaign.   

Aware that this was much bigger than a single headline or single publication, I looked at the bigger picture and considered what would make a positive difference going forward. I then spoke to the editor of the Sun, not only about the headline but also what great coverage looks like, such as The Sun’s Save Our Shelters campaign. 

Knowing what positive, responsible coverage of domestic abuse looks like is as important as knowing where things have gone wrong. What became apparent is that as well as collaborating with a handful of journalists who really ‘get’ domestic abuse, you need awareness and learning across newsrooms to make a real and consistent difference. 

Following on from the discussion grew an important conversation about what good practice looks like. I prepared a short, easy-to-digest guide for journalists about covering domestic abuse, which IPSO has made available on the resources page of their website, alongside some fantastic guides from organisations including Zero Tolerance and Level Up 

I also developed a session with survivors about reporting domestic abuse in the media for the team at The Sun. Journalists from across the title attended the online session, and we went through the guide, followed by a presentation on domestic homicide reporting from Level Up and information on using domestic abuse statistics. The real impact, however, came from the voices of the survivors in the session, including Ryan Hart, whose mother and sister were killed by his father. According to feedback from the team at The Sun, it was this that made a real difference and will have a lasting effect: hearing the words of those who had experienced abuse and lost loved ones at the hands of domestic abuse perpetrators.  

Buoyed by the success of this session, we are now seeking funding so I can develop this into a wider project. I would like to see similar customised sessions rolled out more widely across newsrooms, working with both survivors and partner organisations to do this well. 

In the meantime, I will do what I can for journalists who want to work with us, those who wish to learn about responsible reporting of domestic abuse in the media and hear from survivors. 

By starting conversations and listening to each other, we can change what the future of domestic abuse media coverage looks like. In doing so, we also change society’s understanding of domestic abuse and what a healthy relationship looks like. 

As with all our guest blogs, this blog is the opinion of the author.


Originally published 15 October 2020.