“DRINK was downfall of sex-abuse former carer”.
This was the headline about a man found guilty of two counts of rape and one count of assault causing bodily harm. The woman he raped and abused, who suffers mobility and health issues, was his former partner.
Rape and abuse is his “downfall”? Really? That’s the headline about a man’s choice to commit sexual and domestic violence against a woman with disability issues?
Headlines like this tells the public that rape is primarily a problem for the perpetrator not the victim, and that the she is invisible and irrelevant.
This headline also tells people that his choice to commit rape and domestic violence wasn’t really his fault, it was the drink that made him do it.
The MEAA code of ethics says the purpose of journalism is to describe society to itself. When journalists describe sexual and domestic violence as a perpetrator’s “downfall” and blame it on something other than his choice to be violent, we are failing at our purpose.
Men’s violence against women is not caused by alcohol or a man’s downfall, it is caused by a power imbalance most commonly defined by gender.
Rape is not about sex, it is about power and control.
According to Women With Disabilities Australia, “women with disabilities are 40 per cent more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women without disabilities, and more than 70 per cent of women with disabilities have been victims of violent sexual encounters at some time in their lives”.
None of these issues are recognisable in a headline that describes rape and domestic violence as a perpetrator’s downfall.
Sadly, this is all too common in media reporting of men’s violence against women and children.
A brief google search of news headlines over the last few days brings up five different stories about “child sex charges”. The Leader, Yahoo 7 News, the ABC, The West Australian and The Newcastle Herald. Some of these cases haven’t been to court yet, so the guilt or innocence of the accused has yet to be determined, but the description of the charges against them is deeply troubling. Sex requires consent and children cannot give consent, so any sexual interaction with a child cannot be described as sex. It’s rape, sexual abuse or child abuse.
The influence of headlines like this should never be underestimated. Even if the body of the article provide more details and context, around 60 per cent of people will never read beyond the headline. People who see these headlines may not pay a great deal of attention or think very deeply about them, but the insidious message that violent men are not responsible for the actions still seeps in.
Responsible, ethical reporting of men’s violence against women requires an understanding of the broader context and a willingness to report without sensationalism. And it is possible to do in a way that is both respectful of victims and attractive to audiences. The Guardian recently published an article about the murder of Claire Hart and her daughter Charlotte. Claire’s two surviving children, Ryan and Luke, spoke bluntly about the way the media ignored their father’s controlling behaviour prior to the murders and made excuses for the killings afterwards.
Again, this is a common approach to men who murder their partners.
In May this year Greg Floyd shot and killed his partner, Orla Holt. Almost every news outlet in the country included some commentary on how “nice” Floyd was.
The ABC: John Suta said like the rest of Wangaratta, he was shocked by the tragedy. “He seemed to me to be a decent young fellow, who worked hard in order to protect and feed his family,” he said.
The Herald Sun: (quoting Floyd’s sister) “Everyone will tell you he was an excellent person, there wasn’t a bad bone in his body.”
News.com.au: A former neighbour said there had never been signs of trouble at the property. “They’re pretty good people,” he said.
Kidspot: “The family have been described as loving and normal. Neighbours say they had never even heard Floyd yell at his kids.”
The Age: “They were very nice people.”
Floyd chased his partner and their four children to a neighbour’s house with a loaded gun. The children managed to escape, but he shot and killed Orla Holt, who was a person, a woman, his partner and the mother of his children.
His family and neighbours may not have recognised violence in him or his relationship, but that is not the story. The story we should be reporting is that Greg Floyd killed his partner and this happens, on average, once every week in Australia.
Journalists have a responsibility to their audience and the society that depends on them for information and truth.
The Our Watch Awards for exemplary reporting to end violence against women is not just about recognising the work of journalists who shine a light into Australia’s dark corners. The awards also highlight the victim blaming, invisible perpetrators and dangerous gender stereotypes that are still all too prevalent in media reporting of men’s violence against women.
We know attitudes and behaviours grounded in gender inequality drive violence against women, and the media has a strong role to play in changing these attitudes.
The thousands of women, children and men who suffer from men’s violence deserve far better than they get from the profession that exists to tell the truth about our society.
This article was written by Jane Gilmore who is a journalist and author of #fixedit — a website fixing media reports of male violence against women. This article is an excerpt of her TedX talk in Sydney on Thursday last week and has been copied from here.