Axe slashes family apart: On the media’s role in domestic violence

A new report shows that up to 15 per cent of articles on domestic violence imply an element of victim-blaming. Can it be a coincidence that roughly the same percentage of people think women are somehow responsible for the violence inflicted on them? Our Watch ambassador Julia Zemiro calls our media to account, in an op-ed originally published on ABC’s The Drum. The Our Watch Awards are open, recognising exemplary reporting that helps end violence against women.

It’s the beginning of June and 31 women have been killed by violence so far this year in Australia. In 2015 there were 79 women murdered, the majority of which by a male family member.

These deaths are just the tip of a grotesque and insidious iceberg full of countless numbers of women and their children living in fear for their safety.

Many of us become aware of this issue when we read or hear about it in the news, another tragic death in the headlines.

The media play a powerful role in bringing this issue to our attention and shaping the national conversation. What’s causing it and what will it take to stop it before it starts.

With this powerful platform comes a great deal of responsibility.

I hosted the inaugural Our Watch Awards last year, an event that promotes the positive role the media play to help prevent violence against women and their children.

Positive, I hear you say? Is there a “good” news story when it comes to violence against women? Yes, It IS possible to prevent this violence. And more importantly, it is vital.

How we interpret a news item affects our feelings and thoughts on domestic violence. How journalists and editors present a story can speak volumes. Who or what is selected to appear in the article and how those individuals and events are portrayed is very important. Language matters.

I’m not a journalist. My job is not to report facts. But surely there’s more to this “story” than clickbait articles that turn tragedies into entertainment.

The Our Watch Awards, administered by the Walkley Foundation, honour those who do exemplary work to help end violence against women. Highlighting the great work these journalists do is a critical part of moving the national conversation forward from one that dwells exclusively on gruesome tragedy to one that starts to unpick the drivers of this violence and a world where women and children live free of it.

But while there is much great work worthy of recognition at this year’s Awards (entries now open for the 2016 Awards) exemplary reporting is not always the norm. Our Watch and Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) today released a new report on the nature of reporting of violence against women by the Australian media. The report stands out internationally in its size and scope.

The research (4,516 items reviewed over four months – February to June 2015) found that there is a large volume of articles about violence against women, and this is a good thing. We are no longer living in the dark about domestic violence. We are talking about it, reading about it, calling it out. But the research found there are still challenges in reporting of it. There is still a lack of social context and an understanding of the underlying drivers of violence.

Distressingly too, few media items (only 4.3 per cent) included information for women on where to seek help. And by help I don’t mean a link to self-defence classes – which, again, implies that the woman should be ready to defend herself rather than her husband understanding that he has no right to harm her.

According to the  National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women survey, one third of people don’t know where a woman can get the crucial help she needs if in a violent situation. It’s hard to believe there’s no correlation here.

Blaming victims is another attitude still present in too many articles about incidents of violence against women. About 15 per cent of articles on the issue included information about the behaviour of women, much of which implied women were responsible for the violence. And the shocking thing is that these attitudes reflect what society thinks; research tells us that as many as one in five people think women are somehow to blame for the violence inflicted upon them if they had been drinking or flirting or out alone. Again, is this correlation between media reports and community attitudes purely coincidence?

The same amount of articles offer excuses for the perpetrator like: he was drinking, using drugs, jealous, seeking revenge; he ‘snapped’ or ‘lost control’.

And interestingly, male perpetrators of violence were often rendered largely invisible in the news; instead, there were headlines such as, “Axe slashes family apart”. Well, that axe should definitely be held accountable for its actions and go to jail.

Jess Hill, the inaugural winner of the 2015 Our Watch Gold Award for her reporting on violence against women, devoted a year of her life to researching and reporting exclusively on domestic violence. Her entry comprised two long-form articles, (one for The Monthly and one for The Guardian); and two radio documentaries for the ABC’s investigative Background Briefing program. A year makes for in-depth reporting.

But no matter the length of any report, care, diligence and balance is essential.

As a reader, I put myself in that woman’s position. I imagine her life constantly on pause, and in danger, as she cannot move through this cycle of violence. I imagine that woman as a teenager when everything was still possible.

These women and their children have already borne so much. As people in the media, we have the power to make it shift with the language we use and the voices we choose to highlight.

Julia Zemiro is a media personality, actor, presenter, writer and an Our Watch Ambassador.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing abuse or violence, or if this article raises feelings of depression or anxiety, support is available from:

1800Respect – 1800 737 732 (24 hours)
Men’s Referral Service – 1300 766 491
Lifeline – 13 11 14 (24 hours)