More women are speaking out, but the media must strive to tell their stories with care, writes Kristine Ziwica.
Last week, the ABC announced it was planning a special Q&A panel on the #MeToo movement, which will air on February 15th. Given #MeToo has dominated the headlines since sexual harassment and assault allegations were published about Harvey Weinstein in October of last year, there’s nothing surprising about that. (Well, it’s a bit surprising that Q&A producers have waited so long to devote a program to the topic.)
What is truly surprising is that the Q&A producers have opted to invite controversial Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet, a man who has been accused of harassment by a number of women, onto the panel. For the record, Waterstreet has denied the claims published in a series of articles for New Matilda.
And what is also surprising is that even though the show will discuss a movement driven by women sharing their personal experiences of sexual harassment and assault, the panel will not feature a single woman who has, at least publicly, shared her experience – what some call a survivor advocate. Also expected to appear on the panel are actress Rachel Griffiths, employment lawyer Josh Bornstein and Professor Catharine Lumby.
The choice of panellists brought swift condemnation. Nina Funnell, a sexual assault survivor and journalist who worked on the New Matilda investigation, made her thoughts perfectly clear in a comment piece for Fairfax. “It’s rather insulting that the ABC would prioritise the voices of men while relegating sexual assault survivors to the audience,” she wrote.
Women’s officers from 11 universities representing more than 800,000 female students from across the country wrote a joint letter condemning the decision. “By giving Waterstreet a place on this panel, the ABC is silencing the voices of survivors in exchange for advancing the voice of perpetrators,” they wrote.
To my mind, this isn’t just about Q&A. While the choice to feature an alleged perpetrator and relegate those with lived experience to the audience is egregious and I join others in strongly recommending the producer’s reconsider, this latest row over media representations of violence against women raises some important questions about how, in this new #MeToo era, the media reports women’s experiences of trauma, if indeed they give these women a platform at all.
So back, briefly, to Q&A. In a time when more and more media outlets are giving prominence to women’s voices and their experiences of violence, and this pre-dates the #MeToo movement — in 2015, New York Magazine featured portraits of 35 Cosby accusers on the front cover with the headline, “I’m No Longer Afraid: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby and the Culture that Wouldn’t Listen”, and in 2016 Buzzfeed published the Stanford rape victim’s impact statement in full, which CNN’s Legal View host Ashleigh Banfield (pictured above) then spent 23 minutes reading live on air — Q&A’s choices are, indeed, particularly odd.
They are, however, not entirely without precedent. And that’s the problem. Q&A seems to have slid back into old habits that have long plagued the reporting of violence against women – habits some, including me, hoped were slowly becoming a thing of the past.
Two years ago, a comprehensive analysis of the reporting of the 2015 Luke Lazarus rape trial conducted by researchers on behalf of Our Watch noted a “disproportionate focus on the accused compared to the complainant, including his family relations and the effect the case had on him and the associated muted and selective reporting of the victim impact statement”.
Yes, you read that right. There has been a strong tendency by the media to “mute” the victim impact statement and focus on the point of view of the alleged perpetrator.
A previous review of all international studies on media reporting of violence against women produced by the same researchers for Our Watch a year earlier noted a lack of women’s voices generally in news coverage, including contributions from women who have experienced violence.
So yes, it’s fair to challenge the producers of Q&A, but we must note that they are not alone. This is a much bigger problem, which judging by this recent flap, still needs fixing.
That said, it is not only a potential backward slide into old habits to preference the perpetrator over victims that concerns me. It is also the potential harm newer forms of ‘confessional’ journalism, particularly confessional feminist journalism, might do when used as a vehicle to raise issues like violence against women. For a relevant case study, I give you Babe.net’s handling of “Grace’s” experience with the writer and comedian Aziz Ansari.
While the original article in Babe.net caused quite a bit of controversy (for the record, I believe the issues about what some have called ‘sex in a misogynistic world’ are important and should be part of the #MeToo conversation), there seems to be a consensus forming that the story was badly reported.
Yes, it was badly reported in the sense that Ansari was only given a few hours to respond and right of reply is a central tenet of journalism.
And it was badly reported because the writer, Katie Way, didn’t grapple with the nuance of the issues “Grace” experience raised. When challenged to do so by broadcast journalist Ashleigh Banfield, the same Ashleigh Banfield who spent 22 minutes reading the Stanford rape victim’s impact statement live on air, Way resorted to name calling and stoking the fires of intergenerational feminist warfare, telling Banfield in an email that she was a “burgundy lipstick, bad highlights second wave feminist has been”.
For me, the most significant failing is how Way and Babe.net published the story as what writer Jill Filipovic described as a “bizarre hybrid of reported piece and personal essay, with editorial comments”.
Many moons ago, well in 2015 (in this new digital age of journalism that seems like a very long time ago), writer Laura Bennett wrote an article for Slate entitled the “First Person Industrial Complex”, which sparked a debate about the internet’s bottomless appetite for harrowing, personal essays, which some have expressed concerns had particularly infected online feminist discourse, where the price of entry was to mine personal trauma for “good copy”.
The approach to reporting “Grace’s” experience is a new twist on this trend, not using one’s own experiences but drawing on someone else’s and shoe horning it into a first person driven genre popular on the internet, dripping with sensationalistic details and likely to get clicks.
Compare Babe.net’s cavalier treatment of “Grace’s” experience to the months reporters like Jodi Kantor of the New York Times and Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker spent developing relationships of trust with Weinstein’s accusers and their clear understanding of the risks these women faced in speaking out. Compare it to the year the producers of Sarah Ferguson’s epic documentary on domestic violence, Hitting Home, spent developing a duty of care statement outlining their responsibilities to the women at risk featured in the series. I rest my case.
I was not surprised to read that Babe.net’s tagline is “for girl’s who don’t give a fuck”.
Call me a (insert chosen derogatory stereotype here) third waver, but I do actually give a fuck how women’s experiences of trauma are handled by both old and new media gatekeepers, who have the power to bring women’s voices into the debate and the responsibility to do so with great care.
Recent events suggest we still have a long way to go. The momentum and scale of #MeToo should prompt us to look at this issue as a matter of urgency.