Reporting Taboos

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Monday 15 August 2016
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Journalists attending the 'Reporting Taboos' training course at Thomson Reuters Foundation headquarters in London, July 2016.

In many countries, there are topics that news media rarely, if ever, report on: abortion, mental health, menstruation, LGBTI issues, female genital cutting, to name a few. Often these are issues that society does not speak about – they are taboo. And yet these issues have an impact on huge numbers of people.

Reporting Taboos, a new Thomson Reuters Foundation global programme, targets journalists working for domestic media in developing countries, or countries in political transition to tackle these important topics that are rarely, if ever, discussed.

Seven journalists from Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Nicaragua and Zambia came together in London from 11 – 14 July and underwent five days of intensive training. 

They challenged their own biases, analysed whether issues are culturally dependent, or whether there are common taboos across the world. Covered during the course were: story conception and planning; interviewing techniques; finding multiple sources to speak about sensitive issues, and more.

Following the workshop, journalists will receive editorial guidance and mentoring support to help them research, report and produce their stories.

Read a blog by Paul Casciato, Thomson Reuters Foundation Trainer

Witchdoctors, Women Outcasts and LGBT Rights: Reporting Taboos

Challenging your own biases and revealing the taboos, stigmas and predispositions that shape your perceptions of the world around you can be a more daunting and emotional challenge than one might at first imagine, particularly in a sterile office training room filled with journalists.

But when those journalists come from many walks of life, seven different countries and have the courage to share stories, confront their prejudices and shine a light on the societies they live in, the relentless effort to view humanity through the lens of objectivity is a rewarding experience.

There may still be tears, however. 

For five days in July, the Thomson Reuters Foundation “Reporting Taboos” course hosted seven journalists from countries as far away from each other as Botswana and Bosnia Herzegovina to Egypt and Armenia, discussing societal taboos and the stigma attached to such topics as LGBT rights, the oppression of women, witchcraft and the frightening lives led by people with albinism in Africa.

Across the globe, efforts to establish the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities are on the rise, as are attacks on the community.  A lone gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a Florida gay nightclub on June 12. Hatred and violence aside, legislation to grant LGBT rights can be slow in coming and enforcement may be sluggish at best. 

In Africa and elsewhere, witchcraft and the persecution of minority groups associated with bad luck, demons and dark magic persists and in some countries has resulted in the butchery of people with albinism (albinos) for the use of their body parts in good luck charms and other witchdoctor potions. Children are particularly at risk. Body parts removed while the victim is still alive are highly prized.

Seven journalists invited to the workshop, led by former Reuters colleague Lisa Essex and assisted by me, strove to tackle subjects that have confounded them in their own countries. We also considered ways of reporting on them for publishers at home and abroad.  

African journalists from Zambia, Kenya and Botswana shared their desire to report on HIV transmission amongst prisoners, to smash the silence surrounding homosexuality and safely write about the widespread gender biases which allow governments to appear proactive to the international community with opaque LGBT rights legislation that looks good on paper, but makes it easy to keep advocacy groups silent in practice.

In Nicaragua, Armenia and Egypt, systematic and universal patriarchal oppression allows men to keep women underrepresented in education, employment as well as in ownership of property and businesses. Violence against women and children in rural Nicaragua often goes unreported because mothers fear being kicked off the land and/or separated from their children.

One  journalist held participants spellbound with the story of how women suffering from fistula, are transformed from prized, young (often early pubescent) wife to unclean outcast after giving birth. An internal tear caused by prolonged obstructed labour creates an open passage between the anus/bladder and vagina that leads to uncontrollable leaks of faeces and/or urine.

In all, we learned that silence is deadly and that journalists need not be silent about taboos, stigmas and prejudices. We discovered that an international workshop in London helped us all to improve our perspectives and that sharing our experiences provides all of us with new ideas on how to expose those dark things to a light that they may hopefully be banished.