Violeta is a researcher in the Melbourne Law School. Her current work investigates media representations of violence against women.
The photos of Nigella Lawson, the Australian Army scandals, stories of sexual violence within the Egyptian protests, the case of Ariel Castro in Cleveland… it’s impossible to say that news media doesn’t cover violence against women. But what’s missing from these stories? What is news media not saying about gender-based violence?
In 2012 Professor Jenny Morgan and I (with the support of VicHealth) published a report on our research into Victorian print media coverage of violence against women. Our study included a sample of 2452 articles which discuss violence against women from The Age and the Herald Sun over a twenty year period. The aim of this research was to rigorously analyse media coverage of this issue in order to assess its strengths and weaknesses.
Australian academic Professor Bronwyn Naylor makes the argument that coverage of violence against women tends to be framed as either sensationalistic or mundane. This means that we either get large amounts of coverage of high profile cases (for example the Castro case or accusations against well-known sportsmen), or short, uninformative pieces which are given little prominence. The incidents that receive high levels of coverage – which are often sensationalised – tend to include unusual elements such as celebrities, brutal/excessive/strange violence, or elements of stranger danger. Headlines like this one from the Mirror demonstrate how sensationalism is used to entice readers towards content. In this particular example, the images of what appears to be domestic violence are used to shock (which is reminiscent of the ways in which the media uses ‘shocking’ images of celebrities said to be suffering anorexia, weight gain, or botched plastic surgeries).
Unlike the excesses of sensationalistic reporting, coverage that could be seen as ‘mundane’ tends to offer only the very basics of the case: the who, what, when and where. Representing incidents of gender-based violence only through these very basic elements or events, and without the addition of information or context about the problem makes the violence seem individualised, common, and reinforces the notion that the incident was ‘‘just another domestic’’. This type of coverage can be seen in the example below. This short piece doesn’t label the violence as domestic violence, includes no mention of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, and lacks information about support services. While this particular example is from 1985, this remains a common way to represent incidents of violence against women.
So it appears that on the one hand a lot is being said about violence against women, but on the other, there is much that’s missing from the conversation. The VicHealth research I’ve been working on offers some insight into issues of media visibility and invisibility. If I were asked to identify what is consistently missing from the coverage of men’s violence against women I would have to say two things – gender inequity and context about the problem. I’ll explain the different ways this plays out.
Ignoring the continuum of violence: a world of knights and monsters
Based on our research we have found that for certain types of cases (particularly cases of extreme and stranger-perpetrated violence), headlines often demonise perpetrators, depicting them as ‘evil’ and different from ‘normal’ men. This sets up an opposition between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ that doesn’t allow for the continuum of violence experienced by many women from the men in their lives. Characterising perpetrators as ‘monsters’ represents the violence as exceptional and different from ‘run-of-the-mill’ domestic violence. Therefore this type of coverage tends to side-step the role of gender and discussion of the systemic problem of men’s violence against women.
An example can be found in descriptions of Ariel Castro (who was arrested this year in Cleveland USA for holding three women captive in his basement). In the headline shown here, The Australian describes him as ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. Such labels pathologise Castro in a way that separates him, and the actions he’s accused of, from the ongoing social problem of violence against women – a problem which, according to the UN, affects nearly 70 per cent per cent of women worldwide (2009). As Clementine Ford (2013) in Daily Life aptly puts it:
‘While seemingly anomalous in its specificities, it isn’t so far removed from similar instances of abuse whose binding chains aren’t found in dungeons but in psychological prisons. The violence expressed towards Knight, Berry and DeJesus (and to Jaycee Duggard, Elizabeth Smart, Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch before them) doesn’t emerge from a dark and distant wasteland. It’s extreme, yes, but it occurs on the same continuum as that of all violence against women’.
Relationship context: who is missing from coverage of sexual violence?
Among of the key questions we considered through our research were: how is the relationship context between victims and perpetrators represented? Is stranger danger overrepresented? The answers we found were relatively unambiguous. It does appear that sexual violence by strangers is overrepresented in the media. In Australia, where the victim is female, some 75 per cent of sexual assaults reported to police are perpetrated by someone known to the victim (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011). However, in our sample only 41 per cent of articles mention any kind of relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. While the 22 per cent of articles that report stranger violence seem to fit the above crime statistic, it is the nearly 30 per cent of articles that don’t mention a relationship at all that we find problematic. These articles are likely to appear to be reporting stranger violence – it’s an easy assumption when no relationship is mentioned. This misrepresents the relationship contexts within which women are most likely to experience violence.
While stranger-based violence receives considerable amounts of coverage, our study revealed one area that is so underreported, it is nearly invisible: sexual violence in the context of intimate (or ex-intimate) partnerships. Although the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011) shows that 13-19 per cent of reported rapes are perpetrated by intimates or ex-intimates (and this is a notoriously under reported crime), only 4 per cent of articles about sexual violence in our sample discussed violence in this context. When looking closely at our sample, of the 817 articles discussing sexual assault, we found that only three articles discussed the issue of sexual assault by intimates in any depth. And this hasn’t changed throughout the twenty-year period we investigated. Unfortunately, the lack of media coverage around this issue does nothing to help women experiencing sexual violence from a partner, and only reinforces existing societal taboos and silence in relation to this problem.
Missing out on context
Our study, and much international research, has found that coverage of violence against women tends to lack context. What is meant by lack of context can be quite general and mean many different things. In the case of our research, context includes:
- Calling it what it is: gender-based violence, violence against women, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, etc. The appropriateness of each of these terms is debated but nevertheless, all of these are terms that are understood by the public as being part of a broader social problem. Violence from an intimate partner is an ongoing issue that affects one in three women in Australia (Mouzous & Makkai 2004) – even if not everyone knows or believes the statistics. Unfortunately, articles in our sample rarely used these terms to describe incidents of violence against women.
- Including information: this includes statics, prevalence, patterns and dynamics, as well as information about support services. We found this information was rarely included, and information about support services in particular was included in a mere 2 per cent of articles.
- Mentioning the history of violence (when relevant): research has shown that as many as 70 per cent of male perpetrated intimate partner homicides are preceded by violence (Wallace 1986: 97). However news pieces about intimate partner homicides tend not to discuss this. The inclusion of this information offers readers a greater understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence.
- Discussing gender inequity as part of the problem: this particular element is rarely discussed in the media. Unfortunately, while this is among the most important root causes of gender-based violence, it appears among the least likely issues to be discussed in the mainstream media.
Filling in the gaps
There are a myriad of reasons why journalists cover the issue of violence against women in particular ways. Media reporting is influenced by tradition, social and cultural norms, news values, lack of time, and perceived audience interest. Low levels of awareness of the impacts of gender inequity, and of the dynamics of violence against women are also likely to affect coverage. Many of these factors are difficult and slow to change. However, there are ways to push coverage to include more useful information about the issue – and maybe even challenge some commonly held misconceptions.
Our research found that of the 1349 Victorian articles which cited an authoritative source, only 6 per cent (or 82 articles) included a social worker or academic who has expertise in violence against women. This is an area where the sector could mobilise to affect change. Strengthening networks with journalists and building the capacity of those in the sector who regularly work with media are excellent ways to increase the likelihood that informative voices and commentary will be included in stores about violence against women. This involves working together to increase evidence-based and accurate reporting on gendered violence through promoting consistent and clear messages on violence against women and gender equality. This is particularly important when high-profile incidents occur and journalists are likely to be seeking commentary – like in the Ariel Castro or Nigella Lawson cases.
One example of this collaborative work can be found in the Victorian Cross Sector Advisory Committee on Violence against Women in the Media which is convened by Domestic Violence Victoria (DV Vic) and includes representatives from the media industry, the violence against women field, Victoria Police, state government and key academics. The Committee provides a forum to share ideas and resources and collaborate on strategies. DV Vic is also working on the development of a media strategy to support the coordination of efforts to engage with media in the primary prevention of violence against women. To ensure the work is collaborative, the development of the framework will include consultation with a broad range of specialists working on the prevention of violence against women.
Speaking with a unified voice will mean these messages are more likely to be repeated, which will increase their impact. If those in the sector and those making media work together –– we can help to push the so-often ignored aspects of violence against women into the spotlight.
Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011, Recorded Crime – Victims, Australia, 2010, Catalogue no. 4510.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.
Ford, C 2013, ‘What Cleveland tells us about the cycle of abuse’, Daily Life, 14 May 2013, http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/what-cleveland-tells-us-about-the-cycle-of-abuse-20130513-2jhow.html
Mouzos J and Makkai T 2004, Women’s experiences of male violence : findings from the Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS), Research and public policy series no. 56, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra
Naylor, B 2001, ‘Reporting Violence in the British Print Media: Gendered Stories.’ The Howard Journal 40(2): 180–194.
UN Department of Public Information (2009), Violence Against Women, http://www.un.org/en/events/endviolenceday/pdf/UNiTE_TheSituation_EN.pdf
Wallace, A 1986, Homicide: The Social Reality, Research Study No 5. Sydney: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics.
For details about the research discussed here please see our reports on Victorian print media coverage of violence against women on the VicHealth website.