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Naming the ‘invisible perpetrator’: a big step forward for media coverage of violence against women

Domestic violence victim Jessica Silva, who fatally stabbed her ex-partner James Polkinghorne. AAP/Joel Carrett

Until recently, domestic violence against women and children was publicly invisible. Today, media coverage is widespread and a landmark Australian study draws our attention to the “invisibility” of perpetrators in coverage. That’s a big step forward.

If you don’t quite understand what is meant by “invisible perpetrators”, that’s OK. The use of such terms is a sign of how analysis of media coverage of this kind of violence is becoming more sophisticated as the original problem – that there was virtually no media coverage – evaporates.

The term “invisible perpetrators” refers to how almost 60% of media reports about a violent incident provide no information about the perpetrator. The term comes from the new study, one of the largest of its kind, here or overseas.

The study says:

Violence against women is committed by another person, usually a man, usually by a man that a woman knows, yet it is frequently reported as though that other person – boyfriend, husband, partner – does not exist.

It offers this example of a headline that renders the perpetrator invisible: “Axe slashes a family apart”, from the Daily Telegraph.

Even when reports mentioned perpetrators, journalists used passive sentence construction, deliberately or otherwise, to obscure or elide who exactly perpetrated the violence and with what degree of intent.

The report’s key finding is that the quantity and quality of media coverage of violence against women and children have improved recently, but there is still considerable room for improvement.

From my reading of the 116-page report, I would say there has been a seachange over the past few years in how the news media cover violence against women and children. This is especially true when you compare the rate of change with the many years it took mental health advocates to persuade media outlets to cover the issue seriously.

These advocates also worked hard at encouraging them to stop using stereotyping terms like “psycho” and “sicko” in headlines. These demeaning terms still sometimes creep in, but are much rarer.

Jointly commissioned by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and Our Watch, a national body set up to take action on violence against women, the study examined 4,516 media items from a four-month period in 2015.

The breakdown by media was: radio 41%, online 29%, newspapers 20% and television 8%. Suburban and regional newspapers were included as well as metropolitan dailies and the national daily, The Australian.

Close to 100 AM and FM radio stations were surveyed, along with 50 television stations. The surveyed online news websites were mainly the major media companies: News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media and the ABC.

The study’s authors acknowledge a limitation of their work was excluding combination local and international news websites Guardian Australia and Daily Mail Online, as well as sites such as Crikey and The Conversation.

The majority (61%) of news reports studied were about individual incidents of violence, especially sensational cases, rather than the broader issue. This is not surprising given news prioritises the concrete over the abstract. As media scholar Michael Schudson puts it, daily journalism:

… puts greater store in astonishing readers than in leading them to understanding.

Alongside the quantitative analysis, the researchers qualitatively analysed a small number of cases, teasing out the nuances of coverage.

The first concerned Luke Lazarus, a then-23-year-old convicted in 2015 of raping an 18-year-old woman in the alleyway behind the Sydney nightclub owned by his father. The conviction was later quashed and a retrial ordered.

Many stories focused on the social, psychological and economic cost of the case to the man. Few said much about the impact on the woman. Her victim impact statement was reported sparsely, even though it included wrenching details about her sitting in the bath for days after the attack and crying so hard she could not breathe.

Many stories provided unnecessarily graphic details about the alleged anal rape. The judge who passed the original sentence commented that this was a “particularly degrading” form of rape. Only one print report mentioned this.

The study’s authors compared the sensational reports with one from Australian Associated Press (AAP) that “foregrounded the crime without degrading the victim”. As a news agency, AAP reports are widely available across newsrooms, which suggests a degree of editorial choice in the selection of salacious stories.

A second case study concerned Jessica Silva, who fatally stabbed her abusive former boyfriend, James Polkinghorne, in 2012.

Many stories cited in the study failed to make clear that Silva had left Polkinghorne because he had been abusive, that he had threatened to kill her, or that he found the safe place she had been in and she had acted in self-defence.

One news website located its report in the “Latest in entertainment” section with the tagline:

Jessica Silva opens up to 60 Minutes about the night she killed James Polkinghorne.

Yes, _that _show. But just as the plight of Sally Faulkner’s young children has been pushed aside in the clamour to (rightly) criticise 60 Minutes, it is important to keep in mind the significant advances being made in media reporting on violence against women and their children.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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