The Weight of Words

A report by Marie-Christine Gries, SI UN Representative at UNESCO, Paris.

“The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in cooperation with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, has just published a handbook for journalists (see feature image) on the formulation and content of messages to report on violence against women and girls. The launch of this publication took place on Thursday, November 21 in the presence of many journalists, representatives of state delegations and NGOs.

Introducing the session, H. E. Elaine Ayotte, Ambassador of Canada, gave the reason for the development of this handbook: the frequency of these criminal acts makes it a topic unfortunately common in the media. Journalists, in today’s media world, have to adapt to the acceleration of daily news production, and the reports published about these criminal acts are very often constructed in conventional “jargon” which is saturated with biased representations, and very marked by sexism and prejudices.

Giving journalists a tool to change the reporting of these acts must have an impact on listeners and readers and help to break the silence, remove the victims of invisibility, change the ideas and behaviours that promote tolerance towards feminicide and violence, a global scourge that affects at least one third of the women of the world who are, or will, be one day victims.

The language used in all reporting must reinforce a balanced and objective media coverage of the acts of violence, which today are highly underestimated. The editorial assistance provided by this manual should also allow journalists to include an educational approach in their articles.

UNESCO Handbook for Journalists ‘Reporting on Violence Against Women and Girls’. Click the image to view the full report.

Ten specific themes are addressed in the handbook, ranging from “traditional” crimes (domestic murders, forced marriages, mutilations, rape and rape as weapons of war…) to modern cyberspace attacks and harassment.  Each section on these ten themes include a precise definition accompanied by Statistics (according to UN sources; UNICEF, World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…) with a contextual explanation, details of the legal texts and international conventions and lists of documents and organisations to contact if necessary. The criticism of common journalistic habits is underlying, in the reporter’s best behaviour practice tips. A chapter of general recommendations is also devoted to ethical journalism.

The innovation of this book is the glossary of terminology developed for each section, such as placing the word “honour” in quotation marks or using the term “so-called honour” for crimes committed on the basis of a sexual or behavioural transgression committed or alleged to have been committed by a woman. In the case of rape and sexual assault, the ambiguity must be removed: the victim is declared and not presumed. Editorial advice goes far into the subtleties of language: do not confuse smuggling and trafficking; and don’t say “she confesses to have been harassed” which leads to an idea of the victim’s share of responsibility. Finally, any woman will appreciate the advice to replace the miserabilist term victim by Survivor that evokes the strength of women in adversity, their resilience, as done with the image chosen for the cover of the handbook.

The feedback from the hall was very positive, especially from the journalists present, but also from the teachers for whom this handbook was received as an aid to the education of young people, girls and boys to fight with them as early as possible against the reproduction of models of gender violence and to progress in a culture of gender equality”.

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