** WARNING: DO NOT LIGHTEN IMAGE - PEOPLE MUST NOT BE IDENTIFYABLE ***Domestic violence.Photo Christopher Chan / The Observer
** WARNING: DO NOT LIGHTEN IMAGE - PEOPLE MUST NOT BE IDENTIFYABLE ***Domestic violence.Photo Christopher Chan / The Observer Christopher Chan

OPINION: Why reporting family violence is so vital

REPORTING violence against women is challenging at the best of times, but a journalist working in a regional or rural setting can find this one of the most difficult and confronting tasks they will experience in their career.

Sadly, the Riverina region in south-western New South Wales has witnessed too many incidents of brutality so the topic is one close our newsrooms.

Unlike our colleagues in larger metropolitan centres, regional journalists are very much a part of the communities they serve our children go to the local schools, we compete in the same sporting teams, socialise at the same venues and, when tragedy strikes, we often feel the same pain.

This makes reporting on violence against women a misty mix of our ethical responsibilities as journalists to shine the light on this insidious crime and maintaining our relationships with the community we call home.

Added to that blend is the fact that the reporter often knows the victim and/or the perpetrator, adding yet another layer of complexity to this already tangled situation.

It's a delicate balance when it comes to reporting on these matters in our communities.

While the reporter must acknowledge the horror of the story and strive for the truth, we must also balance the emotional and sometimes conflicting views that emanate.

Human nature will see people take "sides" and effectively split a community between those mourning the impact on the victim and those, with whatever motivation, defending the offender.

The debate can become toxic and sometimes the reporter finds themselves in the middle, accused of either persecuting a victim or elevating an offender to sainthood.

Sometimes the offender holds a place of prominence in the community and this makes reporting such incidents even more challenging at the time. But it's a challenge we should not walk away from.

Language matters and when it comes to reporting violence against women and great care needs to be taken.

While there is an increasing awareness on this front in many newsrooms, there remains some complacency around the way we frame stories.

Research from Our Watch and Australia's National Organisation for Women's Safety
(ANROWS) is as revealing as it is alarming.

It shows that about 15 per cent of reporting on violence against women includes victim blaming such as stating that the woman had been drinking, went home with the perpetrator, was out alone or involved in an argument with them somehow justifying the actions.

A similar number of reports contains statements which offer excuses such as the offender had been drinking, using drugs, was jealous, seeking revenge or "lost control".

And while there may sometimes be challenges around identifying a perpetrator for legal reasons, the research also showed an increase in the tendency of news organisations to leave the offender "invisible" with almost 60 per cent of reports having no information at all about the accused.
As responsible employers, we must also be aware of the impacts that reporting on these matters has on our journalists.

The long held attitude of "she'll be right" is no longer appropriate.

Given that journalists will often know or know the people involved in regional communities, we need to be cognisant of how reporting these matters will affect them.

Sometimes reporters are too close to those involved and editors need to be aware of these connections and prepared to defer to other reporters or, in some cases where resources are limited, other methods to report the story.

Many media organisations have access to professional employee assistance programs which provide 24/7 help and our newsroom leaders certainly encourage team members to make use of this service.

While we talk about the stories as best we can in the workplace in the debriefing process, sometimes these professional services are able to fill the gaps we can't.

For too long the issue of violence against women has been swept under the carpet and placed in the "too hard" basket.

In reporting these tragic circumstances we must be responsible, respectful and sensitive even more so in smaller communities where victims and perpetrators are much more than names they are family, friends, neighbours or acquaintances.

The media has an important role in reporting this violence.

As uncomfortable and challenging as it may be, we have a shared responsibility to work with our communities to bring about positive change.

• Paul McLoughlin is Group Managing Editor, South West NSW for Australian Community Media. The high profile murder of Stephanie Scott took place in his community. The annual Our Watch Awards recognise ethical reporting on violence against women.

*For 24-hour support  phone Queensland's DVConnect on 1800 811 811 or MensLine on 1800 600 636, NSW's  Domestic Violence Line on 1800 656 463 or the  national hotline 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

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