What message is the story sending the victims? The perpetrators? And the bystanders? are the three most important questions to consider when telling the stories of gender-based violence.
“WORDS MATTER: The Story Behind Gender-Based Violence in Our Community” was a professional development event that educated journalists, newsmakers, and communication specialists of the language and complexity of communicating gender-based violence through media.

“Words Matter is a topic that is very relevant in today’s media and it is just the beginning of a conversation of how we communicate about gender-based violence in our community,” said Lisa Clarke, needs-assessment project manager at the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre (KSAC).

The half-day workshop was a professional development opportunity for people working in media and communications. It provided better understanding and introduced new language and perspective to stories of sexual- and gender-based violence that are published in print, online, and television, informed Clarke. The event saw Julie Lalonde, public education and anti-sexual violence activist, as the keynote speaker. The panel presentation included Lauren Gilchrist of Peterborough Police Service, Lois Tuffin of Peterborough This Week, and Sarah Deeth of CHEX Television.

The event followed the release of the Lessons From Behind the Door Community Report that addresses access to community services in the prevention of and response to sexual violence against girls and women in the City and County of Peterborough, said Clarke.  According to her, the KSAC, Elizabeth Fry Society of Peterborough, and collaborating agencies have been working with survivors of sexual violence and front-line service providers to research this issue in a needs assessment that was funded by Status of Women Canada. The report is due to be released on October 20, 2015 at the Peterborough Domestic Abuse Network’s annual awards luncheon, shared Clarke.

She briefly explained the proceedings of the event by saying that media and professional communicators discussed “all sides of the story” in talking about gender-based violence, including sexual assault, harassment, and intimate partner violence in public forums. Difficulties and opportunities while talking about public safety concerns regarding gender-based violence, and the limitations in telling the whole story, was also up for discussion. Clarke noted that further, the event allowed participants to talk collaboratively about ideas in addressing victim-blaming and rape culture through words in the news and online.

Among many important topics that were covered during the forum, attendees thoroughly deliberated the use of the word “alleged” when describing the act of sexual assault. Lalonde noted that “alleged” implied disbelief on the part of the communicator. She recommended using alternative words to avoid evoking negative bias towards a survivor’s reports.
For instance, Lalonde suggested we “replace the word ‘alleged’ with ‘said,’ ‘according to,’ or ‘report’, and attribute the words to a specific speaker (for example, ‘according to the police’ or ‘prosecutors say’).”

Another important element when covering stories about sexual assault is approaching and employing the right sources for information. Lalonde talked about who the experts are on the subject, as well as those who are useless towards contributing to the story.

She mentioned that survivors are the experts; however, it is important to remember that they will be experts only on their experience. Individuals who work with survivors have a breadth of experience around sexual violence, so they are the most important experts to talk to, according to Lalonde. Thirdly, academics and researchers who do qualitative and quantitative study specialized around this area are also worthwhile sources to talk to for building a story.

But “don’t talk to someone just because they say something clever over the Internet. And definitely not the neighbours, friends, and family of the perpetrator, or the politicians,” warned Lalonde.
The event was held on October 5 at the Seeds of Change at George Street United Church through the collaboration of the KSAC, YWCA Peterborough Haliburton, Elizabeth Fry Society of Peterborough, PARN-Your Community AIDS Resource Network, Peterborough Police Service, Peterborough This Week, and the Peterborough Examiner.
It was supported by Status of Women Canada, United Way- Peterborough and District, and Ontario Ministry of the
Attorney General.

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Ugyen Wangmo is a self trained media personal, steadfast to ‘right to information’. She has about six years of media experience through a variety of roles as Reporter, Editor, Stringer, and Freelance writer. She graduated from Trent with a degree in Chemistry and Biology. When not nosing around for leads to write a thing or two about, she indulges in books, fashion, and dance.