The Media & Sexual Abuse - A Double-edged Sword

October 3, 2016
The media play an important role when it comes to sexual abuse. Especially investigative journalism.
There is no doubt the documentary ‘States of Fear’ and the work of Mary Rafferty led to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s apology to the victims of abuse in these institutions. After the establishment of the Ryan Commission and the Residential Institutions Redress Board and the publication of these reports we witnessed an enormous expression of solidarity from the general public.  I have no doubt this was the start of a positive change in attitude to sexual abuse. These along with other examples have encouraged others to come forward.
Media coverage on court cases, reports and experiences of sexual abuse can encourage people to reach out for the first time. As a result, we experience a huge increase in calls and unfortunately this can mean we don’t have the resources to respond as soon as we would like.
Over the years the biggest influxes of calls have come as a result of both the Ryan and Murphy reports. More recently it has been familial cases that have come before the courts. People often relate to the stories these cases reveal.
While media coverage can encourage people, fear of media coverage can also inhibit people from coming forward.  Headlines and photographs can quickly trigger people. They evoke sadness, anger and often identify with darkness people have experienced.
The infamous photograph of Brendan Smyth outside the courts is still used by the media. Popping into your local newsagent to pick up milk and to be confronted with images of your abuser coupled with disturbing headlines will stir up a tsunami of emotion. Without the right support it can be incredibly isolating and disturbing.
People can also feel encouraged by media coverage as they can identify with the person’s experience. This identification can incite a feeling of belief and acceptance; belief that what happened to that person also happened to them.
This can evoke a positive feeling as the person reporting or telling their story represents the story of thousands of others who are witnessing, observing and invested in their story or case.
But media coverage presents a double edge sword. Media coverage on sexual abuse is plentiful and this saturation has led to a desensitisation of the issue among the general public. Compassion fatigue can result given the nature of persistent horrific events in today’s culture.
If the general public feel desensitised and fatigued, it is difficult for people who have experienced sexual abuse to find their voice to tell their own story.
People who have experienced sexual abuse can also be terrified of the implications of having to cope with media attention if they choose to report. This can often be misunderstood and is something we hope to give people clarity around before embarking on reporting.
Deirdre Kenny, Advocacy Director


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