Why does the media downplay sexual assault? - Women's Agenda

Why does the media downplay sexual assault?

The other day a newspaper headline screamed ‘Hunt on for tram sex pest!’ in a story about a man who’s been sexually assaulting women on Melbourne trams for months.

I felt unsettled thinking that any journalist, or subeditor, thought the word ‘pest’ was fitting. (Not to mention the fact that ‘sex’ implies a consensual encounter.)

Is ‘pest’ really the right word to describe such a man? A pest is someone or something that’s annoying or a nuisance. Peak hour traffic, yes; an unruly child, maybe.

But surely a sexual offender is not a pest? A man once exposed himself to me on a train and I can tell you that ‘pest’ was not the phrase that sprung to mind.

It’s tempting to describe these offenders as scum of the earth but in news reporting that can be tricky. Why not ‘perpetrator’, or ‘sexual offender’, as the Institute of Family Studies suggests in its media guidelines on sexual assault reporting?

Sexual assault, and violence against women, is a considerable public health issue in our country. Yet in much the same way that our politicians often seem to be out of touch with everyday issues, there’s a significant disconnect between the reality of sexual assault and violence against women and the way it is reported.

Yesterday a Melbourne woman was found murdered in what police are saying is a suspected murder suicide. The Age reported that Detective Sergeant Tremain said this: “These are just shocking circumstances of two people who couldn’t work out their differences and it’s ended in a tragedy like this.”

Is murdering a person and then killing yourself, really a matter of not being able to “work out your differences”? That language seems woefully inadequate in conveying the brutality of what actually occurred here.

Why are we so wedded to minimising or trivialising these issues?

The state of reporting

Our Watch’s Hannah Grant says that whilst violence against women and their children has almost daily media coverage in Australia, it rarely demonstrates an understanding of the links between sexism, gender inequality, community attitudes and this violence.

She says in the worst case scenarios, some reporting or commentary actually perpetuates or excuses precisely the kinds of attitudes and myths that give rise to the violence in the first place.

“According to a recent report on Victorian print media, 83% of coverage is ‘events based’ rather than ‘thematic’. This means single incidents of violence against women are covered without information on the magnitude of the issue,” she says. “And one third of women in the general community did not know where to go for outside help to support someone about domestic violence. This is hardly surprising given only 2% of articles included information about where to go for domestic and family violence services.”

Reflects community views

Perhaps the language the media uses reflects our community’s attitudes on violence towards women, as unearthed in the National Community Attitudes Survey on Violence Against Women.

Among the survey’s most worrying findings, was the fact that Australians still excuse, trivialise or justify acts of abuse towards women.

Grant says there are many examples of reporting which reinforce rigid gender stereotypes and make out a victim is somehow to blame for the violence inflicted upon her.

“In the case of the brutal murder of Mayang Prasetyo in Brisbane for instance, Ms Prasetyo was disgracefully described as a ‘she male’ or ‘transgendered prostitute’ – implying her profession or gender somehow influenced the circumstances surrounding her murder.”

“Like the emphasis on Kim Hunt’s disability in reporting after Geoff Hunt murdered her and their three children, the emphasis on Ms Prasetyo’s gender and profession cements the notion that certain characteristics of a victim’s life somehow makes their murder more excusable and the perpetrator less culpable. This is victim blaming and it must stop.”

How can we do better?

Journalists are surely required to commit to a higher moral standard than anyone who thinks a slap is OK, or that no might actually mean yes.

Grant says the media has an important role to play in helping shape attitudes and perceptions that give rise to a culture of silence; traditionally domestic and family violence was considered a ‘private matter’. In effect this minimises violence against women and children.

“There need to be more articles explaining the links between sexism, gender inequality, community attitudes and this violence,” Grant says.

“It’s also essential that every article published about domestic and family violence includes a sentence about where to get support – call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. With small changes such as these, media have the power to help many women and their children get much needed support and assistance.”


What do the outlets say?

I asked News Limited and Fairfax about their accountability in this regard but received nothing.

The Australian Press Council, which is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice, was more forthcoming, saying it’s concerned about the use of euphemisms in media reporting of facts or expressing opinion in relation to sexual assault.

And its Chair, Prof Julian Disney is considering engaging in discussions about media coverage of violence against women and children with Natasha Stott-Despoja, Ambassador for Women and Girls.

Hardly a giant leap for womankind, but better than nothing.

A journalist’s role is a privilege and journalists should be accountable. Without accountability, how can we have trust in the fourth estate? We really need to at a time when the other three estates are so wanting.

Have you seen a media report that plays down sexual assault, or judges the victim? Let’s call them out.

* If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit http://www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox