In March 2019, following extensive consultation with victims and survivors and journalists and editors, guidelines on media engagement with victims and survivors were launched. One is for victims and survivors on how to engage with the media and one is for journalists, editors and educators on how to engage with victims and survivors and report on legacy issues. Cheryl Lawther of Queen’s University Belfast is part of the project team ‘The Victims and Dealing with the Past’.
‘I’ve always encouraged victims to speak up and tell their stories, share their stories because I think if you don’t share them people will never learn’.
This quote comes from a victim of the Northern Ireland conflict. It was made during an interview with the author as part of a broader project ‘Victimhood and Dealing with the Past’.
One of the key themes of this project was victim voice and, in particular, how voice is exercised, represented and mediated. Yet, while dealing with academic themes such as this, our project team (Dr. Cheryl Lawther, Prof. Kieran McEvoy and Dr. Lauren Dempster) had a firm ethical commitment to ‘giving something back’ to the individuals and communities we worked with and producing project resources that were practical, accessible and usable. Drawing on the theme of voice, feedback from our interviewees and having become aware of a lack of comparable international work, that practical commitment translated into the production of two parallel sets of guidelines: one on victim/survivor engagement with the media, and one on journalist, editor and journalism educator engagement with victims and survivors.
This blog post reflects on the process of creating these guidelines. It does three things. First, it draws attention to the importance and challenges of hearing, representing and working with victims’ voices. Second, it details how the guidelines for media engagement were created and highlights the importance of consultation with victims and survivors and media professionals at every stage of the process. Thirdly, it showcases the key principles that inform the guidelines. As such, this blog post highlights the importance of sensitive and ethical work for those who work with victims and survivors and seeks to encourage best practice on media engagement.
VICTIMHOOD, VOICE and the MEDIA
International research points to four key themes around victim voice and dealing with the past: recognition of the complexity and multiplicity of voices post-conflict; the importance of hearing and acknowledging the voice of victims; that the exercise of voice may be part of therapeutic process; and the role that voice can play in broadening out our understanding of the past. Yet, as Vanessa Barker in her work on the mobilisation of victims of crime demonstrates, the ‘politics of pain’ may lead to the manipulation or capture of victims’ voices by vested interests. Equally, the political currency of victimhood, risks the domination of certain voices and narratives. The result, as sociologist Professor John Brewer argues, is that some voices ‘tend to dominate the debate’ and ‘affect our perceptions of who the victims are what experiences they suffered’.
These themes were echoed by interviewees for the ‘Victimhood and Dealing with the Past’ project. In respect to the treatment of victims by the print and broadcast media, interviewees critiqued what was perceived to be a focus on a small select number of atrocities – ‘there are cases in Northern Ireland which have become sexy cases’ and the over expression of certain voices – ‘it’s kind of like the loudest voice, the sharpest elbows, the biggest, who pushes their way to the top of the queue’. Others cautioned against the exclusion of ‘uncomfortable’ voices – those who challenge preferred understandings of victimhood for example, the marginalisation of women’s voices and the tendency to reduce victims and survivors to one moment in time, encouraging the over narration of their story ‘like a worn record’ and freezing individual’s identity at the point of their trauma. For our interviewees, these practices, along with certain aspects of journalistic practice such as ‘door-stepping’ and the use of traumatic images without prior warning were considered insensitive, re-traumatising and doing little to respond to the needs of victims and survivors or broader peace-making efforts.
VOICE, AGENCY and CONSULTATION
Against this background, the project team began the design and development of creating guidelines for victim/survivor engagement with the media. It immediately became apparent that if best practice was to be encouraged, an additional set of guidelines were required – those for journalist, editors and journalism educators on how best to engage with the victims and survivors and report on legacy issues. To ensure the guidelines were directly relevant to both constituencies, we appointed Susan McKay, an award-winning journalist with extensive experience of working with victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict to write the guidelines and began an in-depth period of consultation with victims and survivors, and journalists and editors.
This period of consultation took a number of forms. Interviews and discussions with journalists and editors were handled by Susan McKay. At the same time, the project team, working in partnership with the Commission for Victims and Survivors Northern Ireland (CVSNI), the statutory body with responsibility for victims’ issues in Northern Ireland hosted a number of policy seminars and feedback sessions. At these sessions, participants were asked about their experiences of media engagement, areas of good practice and practices to be avoided and key points they would like to see addressed in the guidelines. The same process was repeated twice with members of the Victims and Survivors Forum, a representative group, of victims and survivors and part of the CVSNI who discuss and consult on key policy issues. Draft versions of the guidelines were also sent to all victims’ groups in Northern Ireland in receipt of statutory funding and feedback sought. All attendees at our broader project conference ‘Victimhood and Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland’ were also provided with draft copies of the guidelines and feedback sought.
PUTTING it into PRACTICE: LAUNCHING the MEDIA GUIDELINES
The result of our processes of consultation has been the production of four documents:
1). Telling your Story to the Media: Guidelines for Victims and Survivors.
2). Telling your Story to the Media: Guidelines for Victims and Survivors on Speaking to Journalists (Essential Tips).
3). Treating Victims of the Conflict with Respect and Dignity: Guidelines for Journalists, Editors and Media Educators.
4). Treating Victims of the Conflict with Respect and Dignity: Guidelines on Interviewing Victims and Survivors of Conflict (Essential Tips).
Each document presents practical and common-sense advice on media engagement. They chart the process of engagement – from thinking about doing an interview, to follow up and protecting your own health as a result of undertaking this work. They are directly informed by our work with victims and survivors and journalists and editors. Indeed, the decision to produce the ‘essential tips’ documents – a one-page quick reference document of key points, was a direct result of requests made by victims and survivors.
Collectively, the guidelines seek to encourage a step change in victim/survivor media relations. For victims and survivors, we hope that the guidelines will go some way to countering historical examples of questionable practice, decrease instances of retraumatisation as a result of media reporting and encourage opportunities for empowerment. For journalist, editors and educators, we hope that the guidelines will, at a minimum provide a base line of best practice, and at a maximum, in the words of one research participant, ‘…take it a step further and do some good – shine a light on injustices, seek to remedy those who have previously been badly treated by the media and use your powerful social influence for the better’.
The guidelines are freely available on our project website and are designed to be of immediate use. Please feel free to distribute them amongst your networks.