WMC Women Under Siege

Study: 85 percent of Yazidi women interviewed describe unethical journalism practices

Following ISIS’s vicious attacks in Aug. 2014 against the Yazidi people in Sinjar, Iraq, the international press descended upon nearby displacement camps and began reporting on the atrocities. While ISIS had abducted thousands of men, women, and children, stories of particular cruelty employed against Yazidi women and girls—including sexualized violence and enslavement—began to trickle out along with the accounts of those who managed to escape and garnered particular media attention.

Details of forced marriage, slave markets, and rape dominated headlines, sometimes with salacious treatment and framing that caused great harm to survivors and their families. A snapshot of these harms and ethical missteps is detailed in a new report, “Voices of Yazidi women: Perceptions of Journalistic Practices in the Reporting on ISIS Sexual Violence.” 

For this photo, the survivor wanted to share her story, but asked that her face be concealed. This is one example of how journalists can sensitively cover sexualized violence. (Lauren Wolfe)

The authors found that of the survivors who interacted with the media—the authors interviewed 26 women for their report—85 percent described journalistic practices that may have been unethical, based on the Dart Center’s guidelines for reporting on sexual violence or the UN’s Global Protections Cluster guidelines for reporting on gender-based violence. Yazidi women, who had been previously rejected by their communities when they escaped ISIS captivity, were then being “served up” for journalism interviews, often with pressure from Yazidi men and camp management.

Sherizaan Minwalla, one of the authors, was working as a human rights lawyer in Kurdistan when survivors began escaping from ISIS captivity in the fall of 2014. She noticed a troubling pattern: one in which journalists often paid little mind to ethics and consent while interviewing those survivors. She remembers watching the first news accounts roll out. One in particular, which Minwalla found astonishing, detailed a survivor’s escape and abuse but made no effort to cover her face or conceal her identity. “Something is wrong here,” she thought at the time. Minwalla began to raise these concerns with colleagues and friends, simultaneously researching standards of journalism ethics but, she said, “Nobody was talking about it.”

In 2015, Minwalla wrote a piece for The Daily Beast about her frustrations, in which she compared the situation in Iraq with a particularly low moment in journalism: In the 1960s, Newsweek journalist Edward Behr heard a British TV reporter shouting, “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” to rescued Belgian nuns in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Minwalla argued that the public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexualized violence does not outweigh the victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy (retaliation and shunning are outcomes of such revelations of personal details). The article sowed the seeds for what later became a two-year project researching journalistic practices from the perspective of Yazidi women. Minwalla, now with the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the American University Washington College of Law, co-authored the report with Johanna Foster, an assistant professor of sociology at Monmouth University. 

In the report, women recounted being blatantly misled by journalists. One woman, named Alifa (for safety reasons, the authors used pseudonyms for all of the women in the report), said, “[Journalists came] from Europe and from the United States, and from Iraq. There [was one journalist who] came to us and he interviewed us and we told him, ‘Please don't put it on TV,’ and he said ‘Ok, I swear, I will not put you on TV.’ But in the night we opened the TV and we saw ourselves. We called him but he didn't answer. We were so sad, and I was so sad.”

Another woman, named Rohan, recounted a similarly disturbing incident. “[Journalists] don't take permission,” she said. “And my son would say, ‘No don't take my picture, I don't want to take a picture.’ And they would push his hand and take pictures...”

Many of the women felt that speaking with journalists was important. But, the authors found that some journalists did not obtain informed consent as they benefited from that community pressure on Yazidi women to talk publicly about their stories.

“There are some real issues around what does consent look like with someone who’s just been trafficked,” said Minwalla. “Maybe ‘yes’ doesn’t quite mean ‘yes.’” 

It is inappropriate to assume a source understands consent. Many Yazidi women are illiterate and had never engaged with the media nor had access to the Internet before meeting journalists following their captivity. It is ultimately the decision of the interviewee to decide if she wants to participate, and journalists must present and obtain crucial information before getting consent, such as does the woman understand that her image and words will be seen around the world on the Internet? Does she know what the Internet is?

A few tips Minwalla suggested are to describe the implications of the interview, including where it will end up, the specific publication for which a journalist works (and whether it exists only in print or online for all to read), and the purpose of the conversation. To avoid re-traumatizing survivors, journalists must be conscious of re-directing the balance of power, so the survivor maintains control of the conversation and knows she does not have to answer any uncomfortable questions. Journalists should discuss anonymity, as well as exposure the article would bring.

Among other troubling details laid out in the report, journalists relied on quid-pro-quo promises of money or aid, which led to a feeling of betrayal by the women, who expected help in return. (A journalist should never offer money to a source; the journalist wouldn’t know whether the source is being truthful, or whether the source is just saying what he or she wants to hear. At the same time, in such situations, WMC Women Under Siege has witnessed and experienced misunderstandings between journalist and source: Sources often assume money or some kind of aid is part of the deal when speaking to the media, when no such thing has been offered or promised.)

According to the report, 80 percent of women expressed fear that if journalists disclosed details of their identity—including names, eyes, and markings like tattoos—it could lead to retaliatory violence and even death of family members in captivity. Some survivors told the authors that they’d witnessed, heard, or experienced ISIS identifying them through media reports and then retaliating against relatives or other community members.

One woman, named Sara, recounted her experience of retaliation when ISIS captured her and held her for a year: “We were in homes for 10 months and they had TVs—women who were rescued went on TV and said things about ISIS and how badly they treated them and how the KRG rescued them—then ISIS would beat us really badly.”

One of the most fundamental considerations, which Minwalla said journalists have often ignored, has been to find appropriate translators. In this instance, Yazidis don’t necessarily trust the Kurdish community, so using a Yazidi woman translator who speaks the proper dialect is essential. Interviewing someone about surviving sexualized violence requires special care and should be done with the help of a woman who is trusted by the local community. Such interviews should also be private, in a location of the woman’s choosing.

Women also described suffering physical and emotional pain after sharing their stories with journalists. Some said they had flashbacks, cried, self-flagellated, and fainted. One woman had arrived in the camp after escaping ISIS the night before and was interviewed by a journalist the following morning. “I was crying too much and I was telling them my story,” she told the authors.

A concept that some psychologists and advocates use to refer to the effect of thoughtless, sensational, inaccurate journalism on survivors of trauma is called “the second wound.” In an article on the Dart Center’s website by Cait McMahon, Matthew Ricketson, and Gary Tippet, the authors refer to a particularly awful instance in which journalists “caused terrible pain and left ugly and lasting emotional scars.” In May 2010, a woman named Vanessa Robinson had been found in her home in Mooroopna, Australia distressed and disoriented, and her two sons were found dead.

The Australian media soon ran incorrect facts and insinuated that Vanessa might have been involved in “the suspected murder.” But later the cause of death was found to be a leaking gas heater.  Her family wrote an open letter that said, “These past few days have seen our beautiful daughter and loving mother Vanessa tried and judged in a sensationalized media frenzy that did not give any credence to waiting for the truth to arise…the family has been affected greatly by the insensitivity shown by the media in its grab for headlines.” 

That second wound is easily avoidable yet inevitable without trauma-informed interviewing practices. Laura Haigh, a researcher for Amnesty International who has been working in Burma with the Rohingya community, was interviewing women about rape and sexualized violence by the Burmese military this month. While many media reports that have come out of Burma and Bangladesh have been thoughtful and well done, she said, the sheer scale of media attention means that it’s urgent that journalists take proper precautions to minimize harm. Haigh said she’d read media reports that repeat the same woman’s story, and in others, read a level of detail that concerned her. “For example, I read an article describing soldiers as cleanly shaven or breathing heavy, and I don’t see what purpose that serves,” she said. “You really wonder what questions were asked to illicit a certain response.” There are times, of course, when survivors want to tell their story in a particular way, and such details emerge organically.

Haigh’s team specifically sought women who hadn’t spoken with the media, to avoid creating further wounds. Informed consent is central to Amnesty’s work with survivors of sexualized violence and rape, according to Haigh, and involves describing “who we are, what we do, and why we want to speak with people.” Haigh’s team brings lists of support services to give survivors and shares contact information if people want to follow up with questions or concerns. Journalists can also refer survivors to various organizations doing work in the area, such as Amnesty.

Importantly, Haigh doesn’t frame the interview solely around sexualized violence. A survivor is more than the bad thing that happened to them. Rohingya women have experienced gruesome sexual attacks but have also lost family members and homes, which also forms part of their experience. Haigh finishes her interviews by asking people about their wishes for the future so that survivors can share, in their own words, their hopes and dreams. 

Minwalla also recommends that before interviewing victims of trauma, journalists should speak with third parties and local experts. Only then is it appropriate to request contact in a way that doesn’t pressure the survivor. Such interviews require time, and the onus is on not just journalists, but also on editors and media consumers to demand better practice, Minwalla said.

Journalists “get a lot of pressure to give something that is sensational and dramatic, and there’s this ridiculous obsession with consuming sex and violence,” she said. “In the meantime, let’s not hurt the person who was harmed.” 

Click here to read our guide on "10 dos and don'ts on how to interview sexualized violence survivors."

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