The media’s coverage of violence against women is improving – but best practice reporting isn’t always the norm, according to the findings of a landmark study.
While problematic reporting was in the minority, improvements still needed to be made, particularly around victim blaming, the use of expert sources and survivor voices, and in promoting family and sexual violence helplines.
Jointly commissioned by Our Watch, the national body established to prevent violence against women, and Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), the study is the first of its kind and gives a detailed picture of the media’s coverage of an issue that has been supercharged in recent years by a series of high profile cases including the murder of ABC staffer Jill Meagher.
The researchers examined a randomly selected sample of 4516 stories that were broadcast or published more than 15,000 times. These ranged from 30-second radio news stories to lengthy magazine feature articles.
The findings are contained in their report, Media Representations of Violence Against Women.
Lead researcher Dr Georgina Sutherland, of the University of Melbourne, said the volume of coverage was surprising.
“We found that journalists are reporting on this frequently and it’s not necessarily an easy space to work in,” she said.
The study found that 61 per cent of all media coverage focused on individual incidents of violence. Most of these related to instances of physical violence perpetrated by men. Only 17 per cent of all coverage explicitly contextualised violence against women as a wider social issue, despite most media guidelines for reporting on the issue recommending journalists do so.
More than half of all sources quoted or paraphrased in news items were police, lawyers or magistrates. Domestic violence advocates featured in less than 10 per cent of news reports. The research drew attention to this disparity and pointed to the “value of [the advocates’] perspective”.
One of the most significant findings to emerge from the study was the concept of the invisible perpetrator. It found that almost 60 percent of news items that referred to incidents of violence included no information about perpetrators whatsoever.
Dr Sutherland said that while violence is usually committed by a man a woman knows, it’s often reported as though he doesn’t exist.
“Stories that lead with, say, ‘Axe slashes family apart’, which was an example of a headline we found – there is nobody in that sentence that is responsible. There’s an act and there’s a victim, but often there is no perpetrator in the way stories are framed,” she said.
Dr Sutherland said this was the first time the concept of the ‘invisible perpetrator’ had appeared in international research.
The study also found that some stories provided misinformation about the nature of violence against women and why it occurs. However, Dr Sutherland said those stories only made up a small percentage of coverage overall.
“I think that a lot of the main issues that we were looking out for – myths, perpetrator excusing, sensationalism – overall, anything that was of concern was in the minority. That’s really encouraging,” she said.
However, Dr Sutherland said she was disappointed by reporting that focused on the behaviour of victims of sexual violence.
“Reporting on sexual violence, rape and sexual assault continued to blame women by including information about what they were doing, or wearing, or looking at their behaviour before, during and after victimisation,” she said.
Around 15 per cent of stories about incidents of violence included information about the behaviour of women.
“It’s in the minority, but the fact that it’s still happening is a bit disappointing. That rate was higher than I perhaps thought it would be, at a time when you would hope those sort of attitudes were changing,” Dr Sutherland said.
Dr Sutherland said there were some simple steps media outlets could take immediately to improve their reporting – one of which would be to include contact numbers for family and sexual violence helplines.
Less than five per cent of stories included any information for women about where and how to get help.
“It was in the tiniest proportion of media items. Yet we know that most people don’t know where to get help. So there’s a role for media in help promotion,” Dr Sutherland said.
“The media now more than ever includes help information when reporting on suicide or mental health. And I think it would be of benefit to see perhaps the 1800-RESPECT number being more routinely included in these reports.”
Dr Sutherland said the study provides a baseline picture of Australian media reporting that future change can be measured from.
“Now we can actually go back at certain points in time and redo this and look at what’s going better, and what haven’t we quite got our heads around yet,” she said.
“We really welcome media to now come in and have their say. We want to start a conversation about the role media can play in creating positive social change.”