A journalist and friend once said to me, “everyone thinks they’ve been badly represented by the media”. This struck me, as for the past three years Melbourne Law School Professor Jenny Morgan and I have been researching media representations of violence against women in the hope of improving coverage. My friend’s comment pointed to a malaise around the possibility of ever “getting it right” in the eyes of those outside journalism.
I thought of all the money corporations and politicians pour into monitoring their image in the media. Was our research a similar exercise? If viewed solely as PR by journalists, our research runs the risk of falling flat with the very community we seek to engage. But by outlining our findings, I’d argue our work on media coverage of violence against women has nothing to do with spin; it’s about the story.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 40% of women have experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15. VicHealth found “intimate partner violence contributes to more ill health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than any of the other risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking”.
Violence against women is a systemic, social problem rooted in persistent gender inequity, and is often marred by myths and misconceptions. The media isn’t solely responsible for this; we all participate in sustaining this status quo. Nevertheless, news media inform us, and has a responsibility to do so accurately. And it’s in this space where our research can be of benefit.
Our study analysed 2,452 Victorian articles about violence against women over a 20-year period. Overall, coverage was fair and respectful. But we found some areas where the realities of gender-based violence could be more accurately represented.
In particular, we found incidents of violence against women were rarely identified as gender-based. This makes these incidents look like random acts of violence perpetrated and experienced by individuals “with problems” as opposed to being part of a broader social problem affecting us all. Gender-based crime is rooted in particular ways of thinking. By reporting incidents in the context of the broader issue of violence against women, readers would be more likely to consider these crimes in relation to the bigger picture.
We also found a particular focus on “stranger danger”. The shocking death of Gillian Meagher left Australia fearful about safety on Melbourne’s streets. However, women are most at risk from men they know.
Our findings suggest news coverage of violence against women tends to reinforce the perception that women’s greatest risk comes from strangers. This is likely unintentional; it happens inadvertently through the omission of information. We found crime stories often fail to mention the relationship between victim and perpetrator, which can give the impression that no relationship exists. Reporting the relationship would provide a more accurate account of the case, though sometimes contempt of court laws constrain the information journalists can disclose.
Also largely absent from coverage was any discussion of sexual violence committed by intimate partners (or former partners). While in Victoria 13-19% of recorded rapes are perpetrated by an intimate partner, in our sample of 817 articles about sexual violence, only three discussed intimate partner sexual violence in any depth.
Silence around this issue is likely to impact how the crime is understood. Research has shown that victims are more likely to perceive violence against them as a crime if it is committed by a stranger.
One of the most surprising findings relates to the use of sources (who are quoted or paraphrased). In the 1349 articles that include a source, only 82 (6%) cite a social worker, violence against women prevention advocate, or expert in the field. Instead, journalists tended to turn to police and criminal justice personnel for comment. While such sources are legitimate, neglecting the perspectives of experts is only offering a partial view. Calling on them would provide context and information central to comprehensive coverage.
Many of the points raised here are based on long-standing rudiments of journalism practice. For crime reporters there is little room for comment or analysis when reporting incidents of violence and laws of contempt often restrict them. Stories are often approached from a “he said, she said” perspective. The issue of violence against women can’t be adequately covered this way. Providing informative, fair and accurate news about this issue means putting gender-based violence into context, providing details about available services, and seeking experts for comment. Reflecting again on my friend’s comment, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not really about good vs. bad coverage; it’s about telling the whole story.