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Q&A With Jan Leach

Jan Leach is an associate professor at Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She visited Chennai, Hyderabad and New Delhi in July and interacted with students, women rights activists, mediapersons, law enforcement personnel and nongovernmental organizations. 

Excerpts from an interview with Raktima Bose. 


What is the media’s role in raising awareness about gender-based violence (GBV)?

The biggest role is the role of responsibility. The responsibility of how do we report this, whether we can effect any change, whether we can call people to action, whether we have accurate context for the issue, whether we have been providing enough privacy for the victims and suspects, whether we afford them a measure of dignity in telling their stories. We have the responsibility to report, to tell the truth with accuracy and then we have the responsibility toward our audience.


Does GBV reporting actually bring positive results? 

I don’t have any statistics but here’s what I would hope:  that by reporting instances of GBV, we could make some measure of change. Maybe we help people feel less victimized; maybe somebody sees a story and says, “I can tell my story now;” maybe we help them to feel less shamed; maybe we hold people accountable, meaning legislators, victim rights activists and the police. Can we make a difference? I don’t know! But can we try? I am sure we can and if we do that, we have fulfilled our responsibility and perhaps given one more person one more way to make a difference.


What ethical considerations should journalists keep in mind to maintain credibility in coverage of gender-based violence?

The first one is privacy—having to do with naming victims, affording them a measure of care and concern while interviewing them, using neutral language, not calling them victims if they want to be seen as survivors. The second one is privacy for suspects. One of the things to consider is, once you accuse someone, what does that do to that person, now and in the future? And the third one is affording both the reader and the source an element of dignity. We can approach the story with a lot of sensationalism, but who decides what’s sensational? What happens in the community when there are such reports? Do people raise questions, do they talk shamefully or shun the victim, do they call for help, do they approach people who can offer the victim assistance and do the courts respond immediately?  


Does the rush for “breaking news” compromise accuracy and sensitivity?

I don’t think “breaking news” compromises sensitivity, but it’s a thing we always need to be aware of. I think this rush to get things reported, to be first, to be competitive and to post things online can really affect fact-checking and verification. So, as responsible journalists, we have to be sure that we have the facts, it’s all verified and it’s authenticated or substantiated before printing, broadcasting or posting.


What are the challenges posed by social media in coverage of gender-based violence?

The major ethical concern, in my opinion, for online journalism, not necessarily for GBV coverage only, is when you are not accurate, it diminishes your credibility in ways that you can never quantify. So, being accurate, in my opinion, is more important that being fast. The second one will be the idea of commenting. So, be very mindful of what you post online and what comments it’s likely to generate, whether you are going to moderate your comments or if you are going to use your comments for reporting later. The third thing is tweeting. The idea of retweeting indicates a measure of endorsement. So, you have to be careful that you attribute your retweets as opposed to just sending them out. The fourth element is the whole issue of user-generated content. You want to be really careful about where the information has come from, who said it was true, is this all sides of the story, does someone have a conflict of interest or does someone have an ax to grind.


What are your views on the American media’s coverage of gender-based violence?

I think it’s very interesting because we don’t call it gender violence per se. But we have a lot of issues like harassment in the military, date rape cases on college campuses and mothers hurting or killing their children. I would suggest that all media need to provide context for these things, but not all media do.


How can media help battle stereotyping of women? 

The first thing we should do is recognize there are so many ways women are stereotyped in the media. There are stereotypes of women in advertising, in newsmakers, women victims, women politicians. We should be aware of it, be sensitive to the language and really take an audit how are we doing what we are doing. Do we have enough women sources quoted in our newspapers? That’s a stereotype in itself if all the sources are the same men in power. 


What would be your advice to journalists on maintaining accuracy and transparency?

Accuracy is the biggest aspect of credibility. Being very attentive, being unrelenting about checking your sources, verifying the facts, going to multiple sources for all sides of the story. We frequently hear that we need to have both sides of the story. No! We need to have all sides because someone may be helped, someone may be hurt, someone may be positively affected and someone will be negatively affected. Transparency is one of the big new issues in the new ethics of journalism, you really need to tell people why you are doing what you are doing. Here’s a disclaimer about this:  some of this news may have been provided by citizens who are not trained journalists or here’s why we selected this photograph to run with this story. In the United States, we are doing that all the time. Transparency can also eliminate potential conflicts of interest. 


What is the importance of media ethics?

It’s ultimately important. Why does it matter? Because we could influence! We have such incredible responsibility. We are influenced by lots of things—our family, friends, teachers, where we grew up and our ethnicity and we are influenced by the media. That gives us the ultimate additional responsibility of influencing others. If I see an ad on TV, which is media, I am likely to buy that product. If I read a story in the paper about corruption, I am likely to not vote for that person. If I read a story about GBV, I may be moved to say, “We should do something about this.”