IPSO Blog: Reporting sexual offences

Head of Standards Charlotte Urwin on the importance of encouraging conversations about sexual violence and our new guidance and public information can support journalists and survivors.

Last week I spoke at a conference in Birmingham, bringing together Independent Sexual Violence Advisers from across the UK. ISVAs provide emotional support and guidance for anyone reporting current or non-recent sexual offences through the Criminal Justice System.

I was there to launch new information we have produced for survivors of sexual offences, explaining what they can expect if they speak to a journalist about their experience; as well as guidance we have produced for journalists on how to report sexual offences.

A key theme from the conference was the need to challenge the myths that exist about sexual violence, including that most sexual violence is experienced by young women, and that most sexual violence is perpetrated by strangers. In fact, anyone of any age can be a victim of sexual violence and most rapes are committed by friends, family or acquaintances, not by strangers.

The media plays an important role in challenging those myths and in encouraging a broader conversation about sexual violence, which is a significant social phenomenon. The #metoo campaign, as well as ongoing inquiries into sexual abuse within sport and within religious institutions show how important conversations about this topic are. Survivors of sexual offences that I have spoken to have often talked about how sensitive media reporting of sexual offences helped them to speak about their own experiences and encouraged them to seek support.

We wanted to support survivors to feel comfortable in speaking to the media if they decide to do so. We hope that the information will help survivors understand the rules which newspapers and magazines regulated by IPSO must follow when reporting on sexual offences. It informs them about what to expect from journalists, empowering them to speak to the media should they wish to, and to know where to go for help if they do not.

Survivors of sexual offences are given lifelong anonymity within the law. The Editors’ Code of Practice also bans journalists from identifying or publishing information which might identify a victim of sexual assault, with separate protections for child survivors or witnesses. Speaking to journalists, I know it can be sometimes challenging to work out how to report on sexual offences in a way which encourages transparency and openness about court proceedings, whilst also protecting a survivor’s anonymity.

To help journalists to navigate this area, we have produced guidance on this topic aimed at editors and journalists which outlines key questions in line with the Editors’ Code and includes a number of useful case studies. It includes information on legal obligations, the rules on anonymity and avoiding jigsaw identification, and advises on language and interviewing survivors of sexual violence.

We developed both of these documents after discussions with organisations which provide support to survivors of sexual offences and domestic violence, including Rape Crisis, Solace Women’s Aid, LimeCulture and Women’s Aid. IPSO members of staff also met with survivors of sexual offences and domestic violence, as part of the Angles project being run by On Road Media.

My sincere thanks go to everyone that we spoke to as we were developing the guidance and the leaflet. I am extremely grateful for all their input and advice, which strongly influenced the shape of the final product. We hope that it will be used widely, both by survivors and in newsrooms, and welcome any feedback or comments.

Read the guidance here

Listen to podcast here