Two women every week are killed by a partner or former partner in England and Wales, data from the Office for National Statistics shows. Across the UK, almost 1 in 3 women aged between 16 and 59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetimes.
Every now and then, these shocking stories will make the news. And we’ve all seen how they can end up being reported: they become sensationalist tales that all too often centre the perpetrator with lines about “jealous husbands”, or they misrepresent patterns of abuse by describing violence as if it was a “moment of rage” that no one could have predicted.
How these stories get reported makes a huge difference, not just to the victim’s families, but to the public’s understanding of the deep-rooted, systemic issue of violence against women and domestic abuse more widely.
This is the argument that activist Janey Starling and her grassroots feminist campaign group Level Up made when they launched their successful 2018 campaign to change the press regulations around reporting domestic violence.
The UK’s two press regulators – Impress and the Independent Press Standards Organisation — backed the new guidance in April 2019, and have published Level Up's reporting guidelines as part of their resources.
These list five key standards - accountability (in terms of holding the perpetrator responsible), treating victims’ with dignity, avoid sensationalist, trivial or ambiguous language (call the crime domestic violence as opposed to euphemisms) and also not including speculative reasons for the violence.
Starling, a London-based campaigner who has worked in domestic violence shelters while acting as co-director of Level Up in her spare time, spoke to Global Citizen as part of our Leaders of Tomorrow series, about why it was so important to get these new rules on the books. She also has lots of advice about how to set about pushing for change in society.
“When someone kills their partner it usually comes at the end of a sustained period of coercive control,” Starling says. “These crimes are sadly frequent, but the way the press reports it, it’s as if it’s a freak accident that came out of the blue that no one could have known about.”
"But this reporting just isn’t helpful to our public health understanding of why people kill their partners and how to prevent it,” Starling continues.
There are now official press guidelines in the UK for how to report on domestic abuse — after an incredible campaign ran by the inspirational Janey Starling from feminist organisation @We_Level_Up.— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) May 25, 2021
This is the story of her activism 💪 #LeadersOfTomorrowpic.twitter.com/IyiHQ32Qy4
Alongside her Level Up co-director Seyi Falodun-Liburd and a community of like-minded people, she’s generated a host of campaign wins — from getting diet pills banned from Love Island adverts on ITV2, to investigating Facebook’s handling of harassment.
Starling argues that how media organisations report on sensitive topics has been changed before. “A really good example is the guidance for reporting on suicide issued by the Samaritans [a suicide prevention charity].”
“Nowadays, every journalist knows that when reporting on suicide that you have to be really really careful, because it has public health consquences,” Starling says, referring to the guidance, which is continually updated and included in press regulators’ codes of practice, and includes things like ensuring a number for support is included in the article.
“What Level Up set out to do was to create essentially the same thing for fatal domestic abuse,” Starling continues. “We want to see a situation where every journalist, when they are reporting on fatal domestic violence, knows they have to report it sensitively.”
Starling and her fellow campaigners say there is a direct connection between insensitive and sometimes inaccurate media reporting and the wider public’s ability to spot the signs of domestic abuse and, ultimately, prevent it.
“Not only because it [bad reporting] has a hugely traumatic impact on the victims’ family, but it also has an impact on how we understand the phenomenon of domestic abuse in the UK.
“In the end, if we can start changing the way that we start talking about domestic abuse we can stop it happening, and crucially, we can stop women from being killed."
It tooks months of preparation before they launched the campaign in late 2018. “We were building a coalition of victim’s families, academics, specialists in domestic abuse and also of journalists,” Starling says. “We wanted all these people to come together, who want to see a change.”
She wanted to include journalists in the conversation to find out what kind of training they were getting around this topic before writing articles about it. “But it turns out there isn’t any,” Starling adds.
The responses from all the people they consulted were generally positive, Starling continues. Often, she’s met with resistance when campaigning, but in this instance the issue was clear for everyone to see. Moreover, the journalists themselves wanted tools and advice for better reporting.
“Some of the basic requests that victims’ families told us they wanted, which we included in the guidance, are so easy for journalists to do, even during a busy news cycle. That’s things like ‘don’t use an image of the perpetrator, and please put a helpline number at the end.’”
Soon Starling was being invited to talk about their campaign on national television and radio, featuring as a guest on shows like BBC Two’s Victoria Derbyshire programme and BBC Woman’s Hour. The coverage led to more people coming out to support the campaign.
‘There seems to be a standard template of romanticising domestic homicide’— Victoria Derbyshire (@VictoriaLIVE) April 16, 2019
Janey Starling @we_level_up says inaccurate reporting doesn’t help identify others who may be at risk
Guidelines for journalists on reporting domestic violence-related murders are being published. pic.twitter.com/QUzTOzO8nj
“There are so many people who have experienced abuse or have lost family members to domestic homicide, so there was this huge swell of people coming forward who were so pleased to see a change,” says Starling.
“They were so pissed off, frankly, at how this issue [of domestic violence] is often reported. Many people who have gone through these experiences are often despairing at the press coverage of it."
Despite the positive reaction and the resounding success of getting press regulators on board with their guidelines, Starling says that changing attitudes in society is slow work. However she feels positive that we are living through a politically active time and wants to see more people “embedding activism and community into their lives.”
“We’re living through a political moment where people are more responsive to conversations about gender-based violence,” Starling adds.
“There’s a better sense of it being a systemic thing, as opposed to the ‘lone wolf’ characterisation that’s really unhelpful. Change takes a long time and attitude change is what we need.”
Starling’s advice to others is that if you see a problem in society, feel confident that it’s likely others can see it too. She says it’s vital to connect to other people and work together, rather than alone. “There is that old proverb, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together’. It's a sentiment that is so important for systemic change,” she says.
“Listen to your gut and hold on that energy because that angry energy and sense of injustice is so powerful as long as you translate it into action,” Starling continued. “Do research on the issues you care about, think about who you can get involved with, and if there isn’t anyone working on it, start it yourselves.”
If you have been affected by the issues in this article, help is available. The UK’s freephone 24-hour National Domestic Abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247.