With more than two women dying per week as a result of an intimate partner or family member, there is no doubt that domestic violence is an epidemic in Australia. The media has a crucial role in perpetuating certain beliefs as domestic violence generates daily media coverage in Australia. The media has an important role in transmitting and shaping social norms and beliefs as well as ‘inform[ing] the perpetration of this violence, shap[ing] victims’ responses to victimisation, and influenc[ing] community responses to violence against women (McGregor 2010,p. 15). Studies have found that Australian news media fail to report incidents of domestic violence in an ethical manner, which can negatively undermine the stories and experiences of victims of domestic violence. A number of characteristics have been identified in the way in which news organisations report domestic violence. These include:
‘Events-based’ News Reporting
News reports on domestic violence primarily focus on individual incidents located at specific places and times. Such reports fail to provide statistics and expert analysis to address the extent of this social problem. For example, between 1986 and 2008, only 2% of the newspaper articles provided information about victim help services (Carlyle, Slater and Chakroff, 2008). While news reporting is improving on this issue, it nevertheless falsely gives the impression that domestic violence is an individualistic, private responsibility as opposed to a social responsibility, and thus does not warrant State intervention. This contributes to a culture of silence whereby victims of domestic violence do not report it.
Misrepresenting the Realities of Domestic Violence
Majority of news reports on domestic violence fail to present the violence and murder within the context of intimate partner violence. For example, many news reports would not specify if there was a current or pre-existing relationship between the perpetrator and victim (Morgan & Politoff, 2012). This falsely perpetuates the view that the greatest threat for women comes from strangers.
Furthermore, news reports tend have a ‘murder-centric’ focus as they usually report on homicide between intimate partners as opposed to other forms of violence against women (Our Watch, 2015). Such stories are considered newsworthy but are statistically unlikely. This is problematic as it may result in assumptions that violence against women often ends in death.
Use of Language which Indirectly Alters Blame and Responsibility
News reports of domestic violence often include certain language which portray victims as partially or entirely responsible for the transgressions committed against them. For example, providing background details of the victim’s sexual life, use of drugs or alcohol can convey the message that victims were reckless and thus placed themselves at risk. This contributes to one in five Australians believing that an intoxicated woman is partly responsible if she is sexually assaulted (Ferrier, 2014).
The National Media Engagement Project
As a means to improve the quality of news reporting on domestic violence, Our Watch has developed a government funded project called the National Media Engagement Project (NME). The project aims to achieve a more informed, balanced, helpful and ethical media commentary which will contextualise the social issue and help achieve a community-wide message of respect, equality and non-violence. There are a number of initiatives within the NME Project to help achieve this goal:
Training for Both Future and Practicing Journalists
Our Watch is working with the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia to develop training curriculum material for both university journalism students, and practicing journalists. In fact, in March 2016, the Press Council introduced an advisory guideline on how to report incidents of domestic violence.
A National Survivors’ Media Advocacy Program
Our Watch has collaborated with VicHealth and Women’s Health Easy to develop training packages that will empower survivors of domestic violence to become more effective media advocates to raise awareness of the issue.
A National Awards Scheme to Recognise and Encourage Ethical Practices
An Awards scheme has been developed as an incentive for media organisations to engage in more ethical and factual reporting practices.
Strengths & Limitations of the NME Project
While the Project has developed a number of useful mechanisms, they have not been enforced by a regulatory body. For example, the Press Council’s Advisory Guidelines are merely guidelines and thus journalists are not legally bound to follow these. Thus in pursuit of a ‘juicy’ news story, journalists can easily ignore these guidelines and continue with unethical practices. However the extent of effectiveness of changing media practices is questionable. It would be more effective if the Project also directed its cause to the community to educate them on how unethical news reporting on domestic violence can cloud our perceptions on the issue. By gaining community support on the cause, media bodies are more likely to succumb to community pressure. After all, the community is their readership and target audience. Nevertheless, such guidelines will encourage a shift in newsroom cultures and practices around reporting on domestic violence.
A second issue with the Project is that it fails to identify the media’s tendency to report on domestic violence committed on Aboriginal women, women of different ethnical backgrounds and sex workers. A victim hierarchy exists within the media which also must change. For example, Aboriginal women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence than women in the rest of the community (The Conversation, 2016). Yet such incidents receive little coverage (Gilchrist 2010). By failing to recognise this issue, the Project is failing to represent the voices of all victims of domestic violence. This can inadvertently lead to the ‘otherisation’ of these women and undermine their experiences.
While news reporting on domestic violence is improving, there is still a long way to go. The effect of the NME Project is still yet to be observed.
Carlyle, K, Slater, M & Chakroff, J 2008, ‘Newspaper Coverage of Intimate Partner Violence: Skewing
Representations of Risk’, Journal of Communication, vol. 58, no.1, pp.168-186.
Ferrier, S 2014, ‘One in Five Australians Believe Drunk Women ‘Partly Responsible’ For Rape: Survey’, ABC
News, 18 September, viewed 17 August 2016, < http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-17/one-in-five-believe-drunkwomen-
Gilchrist, K 2010, ‘“Newsworthy” Victims?’, Feminist Media Studies, vol.10, no.4, pp.373-390.
Jenny Morgan & Violeta Politoff 2012, Victorian Print Media Coverage of Violence Against Women — A
Longitudinal Study, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne.
Kiah McGregor 2010, National Survey on Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women 2009: Changing
Cultures, Changing Attitudes – Preventing Violence Against Women, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation,
The Conversation 2016, ‘FactCheck Q&A: are Indigenous women 34-80 times more likely than average to experience violence?, The Conversation, July 4, viewed 17 August 2016, < https://theconversation.com/factcheck-qanda-are-indigenous-women-34-80-times-more-likely-than-average-to-experience-violence-61809>.
Our Watch 2015, ‘Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety to Reduce Violence against Women & their Children’, Report, November, viewed 17 August 2016, < https://www.ourwatch.org.au/getmedia/339a9055-16fb-4d57-8cb3-3d2a2f9c5fa1/Media-representations-of-violence-against-women-state-knowledge-paper.pdf.aspx>.