Humans are natural story tellers. We thrive off of sharing our experiences with one another and are a fairly inquisitive species. The media plays a large role in satisfying this curiosity and connects our world during times of victory and terror. Through news stories, we are able to draw conclusions and form our own opinions regarding current events. We rely on journalists to give a voice to the voiceless and tell stories that would otherwise go unheard. There is a sense of trust between journalists and readers and it is a journalist’s responsibility to build and maintain that trust through ethical practice.
What happens when a journalist steps out of bounds and breaks this trust? For many Yazidi women, their trust in the media has been broken by journalists who threw away the rule book and did what they felt was necessary to get their story.
A Case Of Unethical Journalism: Yazidi Women Express Their Frustration With Foreign Correspondents
On August 3, 2014, ISIS militants attacked and raided Yazidi villages and towns in Iraq – attacks which were justified on religious grounds. Chaos and panic poisoned the air, separating women from their children. During the attacks, some women and girls were able to flee their towns though many were taken from their homes and held in captivity, subjected to both physical and sexual violence. Those who managed to escape the horrific confines were unable to return to their normal lives as journalists flocked to the survivors, hungry for a story.
A report written by Johanna E. Foster for the Women’s Studies International Forum in 2016 exposes some of the unethical practices being carried out by journalists during interviews with Yazidi women. The report includes comments from 26 Yazidi women 18 years of age or older. 13 of these women were survivors of ISIS captivity and the other 13, though not captured, were forced to flee their homes during the 2014 attacks. Foster and her team were careful to not replicate the same traumatic interview experiences the women had already endured. Each woman was asked to sign a consent form before the study was conducted which gave the participants the right to refuse to answer questions and end the interview if they began to feel uncomfortable.
Foster’s report sheds light on an overlooked but important issue – the unethical and insensitive practices of foreign correspondents.
Overstepping Ethical Boundaries
The Women’s Studies International Forum Report reveals that 85% of the Yazidi women who survived ISIS captivity felt that the journalists they had spoken with had crossed ethical boundaries in their reporting practices. Some journalists promised the women money or aid in exchange for their story. Others disclosed the survivor’s identity without any form of consent.
The Yazidi women featured in the report all believe that it is important to share the stories of the survivors so long as the published stories do not put them or their family in harm’s way. A number of the survivors featured in the report felt “deeply betrayed” by the journalists as they felt they had been pressured into sharing their stories.
Other concerns voiced by the women in the report had less to do with ethics and more to do with humanity. The women recalled traumatic interview experiences which resulted in psychosomatic responses such as intrusive thoughts and flashbacks.
Foster writes in her report, “Of those survivors who had granted interviews, half of them described having flashbacks, as well as of feelings of sadness, fatigue, crying, self-flagellation, and fainting during or after interviews.”
Foreign correspondents are not therapists. Though many journalists must undergo training before they can begin reporting, they often lack the necessary skills required to handle psychosomatic responses. It was reported that the journalists often pushed the women into answering questions that they were not comfortable answering resulting in a traumatic experience for the survivors.
The survivors’ fight for freedom didn’t end when they escaped captivity. Many journalists reporting on the attacks ignored the women’s requests to keep their identity anonymous. This decision put not only the survivors in a dangerous position but jeopardized the safety of their family and friends.
Gender And Reporting Ethics
Yazidi women disclosed that the majority of the time they were being interviewed the reporter was a male which made the entire interview process even more uncomfortable and traumatic.
These women had been taken from their families by men, endured horrific assault by men, and escaped captivity only to be subjected to intense questioning by men. Not only did the male reporters make the women feel uncomfortable, but the Yazidi women recall that often their stories were told through a male voice, sensationalizing their experiences.
On the other side of the spectrum, the women mentioned that if they were to make a comment off the record, the journalists saw this as irrelevant information, discrediting their stories. Foreign correspondents reporting for news sources in countries such as Canada and The United States have a tendency to downplay the experiences endured by survivors of sexual and physical violence overseas, suggesting that this is just ‘how things go’ in some parts of the world. This is absolutely not the way things go in the world. Sexual violence is sexual violence no matter where in the world it is happening. We cannot continue to shrug our shoulders at these events and write off the survivors’ experiences as just a part of life.
A Call To Action
War reporting has historically been dominated by men which may begin to explain the lack of trust Yazidi women place in journalists. This is not to say that male reporters are not to report on these events but why are women – who have endured horrific sexual violence by men – being forced to sit in a room and re-tell their stories over and over to a man? Where are the female correspondents?
Foster’s report is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unethical journalistic practices yet it seems that there is nothing being done to combat this issue. It is not uncommon for foreign correspondents to (whether intentionally or not) paint themselves as a hero for telling the stories of victims of trauma. The roles must be reversed if we wish to change the current narrative. The women are their own heroes – their stories are not an epic adventure but a brave fight for their lives.
Journalist Zahera Harb expresses discontent with the results of the report and writes, “The findings of the study were disturbing, as they shed light on some foreign correspondents’ practices when dealing with vulnerable individuals.”
Where is the line drawn between ethical and unethical journalistic practice? At what point does a journalist decide that a 1300-word story is worth more than the sanity of an individual?
Yes, impactful journalism is transparent and raw, but until concrete changes are made to the current practices of foreign correspondents, women and girls will continue to endure exhausting and traumatic interviews only to have their experiences misinterpreted. It is time for journalists to take off their capes because they are not heroes – survivors of sexual and physical violence do not need saving, they require respect, agency, and a right to have their stories told as they wish to have them told.