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Telling the Stories to End Gender Violence

With sensitive reporting, journalists can spark real social change.      


The statistics are devastating:  35 percent of women worldwide have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, according to the World Health Organization. In some countries, the number goes up to 70 percent.

A Story of Recovery, Change and Hope

Photograph by GUS CHAN/ The Plain Dealer

On March 5, 2007, Johanna Orozco’s ex-boyfriend destroyed the lower half of her face with a shower of bullets from a sawed-off shotgun. Weeks earlier, she had reported him for rape. He had spent four days in a detention center, and then he walked free.

She was 18 years old; he, a year younger.

Journalist Rachel Dissell of The Plain Dealer met Orozco as she lay in her hospital bed following the shooting. Dissell beganto talk with her, and Orozco responded by writing on a whiteboard until surgery nearly a month later would restore her speech.

Dissell knew from the start there was an important story to tell about dating violence in the context of what happened to Orozco. But as she came to know Orozco more, the real heart of the narrative developed: an account of recovery and personal resilience.

As Dissell crafted the nine-part series that followed Orozco’s journey, she strived to balance sensitivity to Orozco’s emotions and her physical and psychological needs with Dissell’s own need to tell a story that would resonate with the audience shefelt most needed to hear it.

“When we wrote the series we kept parts of it very short, reading at a fifth grade level. We were very specifically thinking about young readers and high school students needing to read this. That was because we figured out from Johanna that she probably wouldn’t have talked to an adult or listened to an adult about getting help, but she would have listened to her friends,” says Dissell.

The story had quite an impact. Orozco received about 600 messages through social media and emails from school-aged people wanting to talk about her experience and share their own stories, according to Dissell. It also resulted in legal change, after a few years of additional lobbying by Orozco and others. In 2010, Ohio passed a law that enables teens in abusive relationships to obtain orders of protection against their abusers. Another law now mandates that all middle and high school students inthe state learn about dating violence in their health education classes.

Orozco went on to work for several years with a domestic violence center in Cleveland. She would go to middle and high schools and tell her story in a “way kids could really relate to,” says Dissell. Today, Orozco focuses mainly on raising her family, but she still speaks publicly about her experience, says Dissell.

—C.L.M.

But these statistics can change, believes Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York.

Change begins, says Shapiro, with telling the victims’ and survivors’ stories.

“Journalism and social reform go hand in glove and one of the most encouraging signs I’ve seen is the growing presence of these women’s stories not only in America but in worldwide news coverage,” he says.

Through these stories, the public learns “the extent of gender-based violence and the many forms it takes,” as well as its “very well established psychological impact,” says Shapiro. 

People also learn that gender-based violence is not inevitable. Increasingly, Shapiro finds reporting that addresses ways to counter violence, including effective bystander interventions, women’s self-defense training and reinforcing the message that “it’s not okay to say that sexual assault is a woman’s fault for being provocative.”

Shapiro notes a particularly influential series of reports about sexual violence on college campuses. In 2011, the Dart Center recognized the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and its team of investigative reporters for their work on the issue and a six-part narrative—produced jointly with National Public Radio—that centered on survivors of sexual assault. The series covered women’s personal experiences and struggles for justice, intertwining them with data on campus sexual violence. It led to government investigations of several major universities, according to Shapiro. 

The report also inspired “widespread activism by young women themselves,” says Shapiro. “It’s become a major issue for student activists across the country who are tired of universities brushing sexual violence claims under the rug.” 

And the Obama Administration has taken notice as well, announcing in January the formation of a task force to help universities address the issue of sexual assault on campuses.

 

A sensitive topic 

Stories like those of the campus assault survivors require much care in their compilation. Reporters face the challenges of winning their interviewees’ trust and protecting them from further harm and stigmatization.

“When the subject is a sexual assault victim or a battered woman…[she] may simply not trust the reporter to convey the reality of a terrible traumatic set of experiences. A person who has been traumatized…has experienced the worst kind of betrayal by the world we can imagine,” says Shapiro. 

Rachel Dissell, a reporter for The Plain Dealer, has interviewed numerous violence survivors, young and old, close to and long after the time of their assaults.

“I think as a reporter if you cover this issue all the time you have to be willing to back off if you get the sense it’s not the right time to tell the story. You can’t get so wrapped up in it that you have to tell the story. Ultimately, it’s not about you. It’s their story and you have to allow them to have some control of that,” says Dissell. 

Yet, Dissell keeps at the work of trying to tell these stories, of “shining a light where it needs to be shined and giving a voice to people who aren’t usually listened to,” because she knows how crucial it is.

“It’s a hard topic because people have so many misconceptions, so many dug-in opinions about sexual assault,” says Dissell. “I can look at really good, concrete data on sexual assault and know who is likely to be attacked, and it doesn’t match people’s perceptions, and I think, oh wow. There is so much work to be done. And it is done so much through personal stories.”

 

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.