Media guide on how to report on sexual violence now in French

use the right words

Most Quebecers might remember the Journal de Montréal headline earlier this year.

“Presumed gang-rape victim had consumed too much alcohol.”

Never mind that the victim was a 15-year-old child, the editor somehow thought it appropriate to add “presumed” before “victim” (even though the terms “presumed” and “alleged” are usually added – often unnecessarily – before the names of the accused to protect their presumption of innocence and the media from any liability, not the victim) and to start off the reporting with a mention of her alcohol intake.

What were the actual facts? Three adult men were accused of gang-raping a 15-year-old teenager. That should have been the Journal de Montréal’s headline. But it wasn’t.

The public outrage was immediate and justified, and the Montreal daily did eventually alter their online headline, but the print version remains and the damage is done. One more irresponsible click-bait headline to add to the myriad already out there, perpetuating victim blaming and rape culture.

As particularly egregious an example of victim-blaming as the Journal de Montréal headline was, though, it’s just one of many (see above) that continue to be seen across the country. Just last week, the same paper referred to a woman’s murder as a “conjugal drama”, in essence reducing and downplaying it to an isolated marital “private” matter between a couple, when stats clearly prove that conjugal violence is killing women across the country with alarming consistency.

Despite attempts to raise awareness and to better educate the media about the importance of using the right language when reporting on sexual violence, dangerously antiquated attitudes about women, consent, slut shaming and victim blaming continue to seep through in reporting.

Use the Right Words

Last year, Toronto-based Femifesto decided to do something about it. With  the help of sexual violence and women’s rights advocacy members across the country (myself included) they created an immensely valuable media guide on how to appropriately and responsibly report on sexual assault without re-victimizing the victims.

Mainstream media has the power to shape conversations about violence in our communities. News stories about sexual violence affect the way we think about it. This tool was created in recognition of the power media has in shaping understandings of sexual violence, and to support those who work in the media as they navigate covering sexual violence. Use the Right Words provides the language and frameworks required to report on sexual violence in ways that do not shame or blame survivors.

Use the Right Words includes information on sexual violence, resources for journalists (e.g. Checklist when Reporting on Sexual Assault, and Tipsheet: 10 Essential Tips on Interviewing Survivors of Sexual Assault), infographics and statistics on sexual violence, all informed by survivors, journalists, anti gender-based violence advocates, lawyers and community members from across Canada.

As Femifesto states, “this guide can be a valuable tool and resource for journalists, media makers, community organizers, educators, and others who want to think, talk, and write about how we can shift from rape culture to consent culture in Canada.”

This multi-purpose tool can be used in several ways:

  • finding tips for specific language or frameworks to use in a news article;
  • facilitating conversations or trainings with colleagues about responsible reporting on sexual violence;
  • mentoring new journalists on ways to report about sexual violence

My fervent hope is that this media guide will be found in every newsroom across the country and consulted in every journalism department. Journalists and editors need to do better educated on how to report on sexual violence and the tools are now at their disposal. They can no longer feign ignorance.

Les Bons Mots

And now, a year later, after months of work and collaboration between the initial organizers and the Coalition d’Ottawa contre la violence faite au femmes (COCVFF) and the CALACS francophone d’Ottawa, the French-language version of the media guide is finally available to those who work and read in French — in and outside of Quebec.

You can access it here.

The official launch is taking place today, starting at 11 a.m. You can follow the conversation on Twitter by searching for the #lesBONSmots hashtag.

You can also find out more information about the guide and the people who helped put it together by contacting Josée Guindon, at the CALACS francophone d’Ottawa via email:

Media needs to do better

Victim-blaming headlines abdicate the responsibility that media organizations have to report accurately and fairly about sexual assault, rape, and all gender-based violence. To choose not to, simply because you don’t care enough to ensure that your editors and reporters are educated on how to report on sexual violence, or to maliciously choose salacious and sensationalist headlines to attract clicks is to consciously fail sexual assault victims when they need you most.

I’m really proud to have served on the advisory board of Femifesto’s Use the Right Words and now it’s French-language translation Les Bons Mots, and to help spread the word. The guides are meticulously researched, contain an impressive number of examples, and are written in a very clear and easy-to-use educational way.

All editors and journalists simply need to do is click on a link, look at the language and image checklists (what to say, how to say it, what to avoid, what images to use to accompany your article, etc.) when reporting on sexual assault, and follow the helpful tips on how to interview a victim of sexual assault.

And while I think it’s utterly vital that media management understand that this should be required reading for all their staff, I also encourage media consumers to read it in its entirety. We need to be savvy consumers when we consume news, and call out irresponsible and damaging reporting when we see it.

It’s only through bringing attention to victim-blaming reporting and raising public consciousness that media will make more of a concentrated effort to report fairly and in unbiased fashion on sexual violence. That, in turn, can only help improve the way victims of sexual assault are seen and treated by society.