Why is Reporting About Violence Against Women so Disjointed?

By Emily Morrison

Recently, we have seen a welcome resurgence of feminism and feminist discourse in the media, however, there is still a lack of awareness and recognition of the spectrum of gender-based discrimination, of which violence against women — for example, stalking, domestic violence or female genital mutilation (FGM) — are just one extreme end.

In the past few weeks, there has been much domestic news coverage focussed on the gruesome murder of 19-year-old Becky Watts at the hands of her step-brother, Nathan Matthews. As usual in such cases, much of the coverage has focused on his character as a “psychopath”, or as a “monster” obsessed with pornography. Such coverage indicates that this kind of crime — in which a woman is murdered by someone known to her, whether a family member (as in this case), a friend, a partner or ex-partner — is a rarity. In fact, statistically speaking, it is the norm.

Of course, the tendency of the media to distort the context is not confined to coverage of gender-based crimes. There is, in contrast, a tendency for the media to highlight and over-emphasise what are often statistically unlikely but more dramatic events. For example, there is the often-touted fact that we are far more likely to die in a road accident than a terrorist attack, and yet media coverage causes people to be preoccupied with the latter. Furthermore, a recent study found that murders of men by women, although far less frequent than the reverse, are disproportionately portrayed in the media.

Whilst the wrongful media portrayal of events is not in itself unusual, in the case of violence against women it can have severe consequences. Not only does the skewed emphasis indicate that women should fear dangers from strangers rather than those closer to home, it also means that our approach to tackling it becomes misguided.

As anyone aware of violence against women and issues of gender inequality more generally knows, these crimes do not happen in a vacuum and are strongly related to societal norms and policies that dictate gendered behaviour patterns and views on women.

In the UK generally, there seems to be little recognition of this. Any feminist campaign not deemed ‘serious enough’, such as that in 2013 led by Criado Perez to have a woman depicted on a banknote, is invariably met (if not with explicit threats of violence) with criticisms of being ‘trivial’. This is then often accompanied by the assertion that there are ‘bigger problems’ facing women. Basically, it’s the equivalent of countering complaints about anything short of nuclear war with a dismissive “first world problems”.

Not illogically, many people simply accept this reasoning. The image on a banknote which few people even consciously notice, hardly seems akin to the crisis in funding for women’s refuges or young girls being subjected to FGM. However, while certainly understandable, this pervasive attitude is unhelpful. They silently (sort of) accept that serious and physical forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and the more widespread but subtle forms of discrimination which block women from participation and representation in public life, are quite distinct and not part of a single problem. But, arguably, that is one of the reasons why — alone among violent crimes — the VAWG statistics remain stubbornly high.

Nowhere is this lack of understanding more apparent than in the reporting of domestic violence. Whilst not having a female on a banknote may seem insignificant compared to the average of two women a week who are killed by partners and ex-partners, they are two sides of the same coin and need to be tackled simultaneously.

When domestic violence is reported in the media (and, in the majority of cases, it is not even mentioned), the cause of the crime is usually indicated to be a one-off incident resulting from the character either of the victim or the culprit. There is rarely, if ever, any indication that such crimes are caused by more widespread societal attitudes towards women. This means that many women are simply not aware of the typical warning signs of domestic violence until it is far too late, and, even more significantly, it means that there is little pressure to tackle the root causes of this crime. Official measures in the UK largely focus on dealing with the consequences such as refuge funding or legal measures such as Clare’s Law, rather than prevention.

So what can be done to change this? Although in the UK and in many other countries domestic violence is either ignored or wrongly portrayed in the media, this style of reporting is not uniform. In Spain — a country which has managed to reduce domestic violence in the last two decades — all murders of women by partners or ex-partners are reported in the national news as a running total.

These crimes are then explicitly linked in a way that makes it impossible for them to be seen as isolated or ‘freak’ incidents. While this might seem macabre, it is a clear, and relatively easy, way of underlining that these crimes are part of something much wider and more pervasive. And is, in fact, a measure which is already used in the UK when reporting on gun crime. Of course, a change in media reporting could only represent a single strand of what would need to include a more widespread policy of education and attitude-change. But, in a mature media market, it could nonetheless be a successful and relatively easy way of beginning such a process.
Whether this will catch on in the UK — where domestic violence statistics are not even officially collected — is another question. But we can keep pushing.

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