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 drawn from 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”.
“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 . . . 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.” — researcher Georgina Sutherland
One of the most significant findings to emerge from the study was the concept of the invisible perpetrator. It found that almost six-in-10 news items that referred to incidents of violence included no information about perpetrators.
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, she added that 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 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 against which future change could be measured.
“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.”
What the researchers found
● A clear link between media reporting and attitudes and beliefs in relation to violence against women, with audiences’ emotional responses and attributions of responsibility affected by how the media frames news.
● The vast majority of reporting was ‘incident based’, covering tragic individual cases, but not exploring the issue in more depth.
● Only 17% included any information that explicitly provided information to aid understanding about the broader ‘social context’ in which violence occurs; that is, what’s driving the violence and what works to prevent it.
● There was a lack of social context in reporting: half of all sources were drawn from police and the criminal justice system while only 9.9% were domestic violence experts and 8.7% survivors.
● Nearly 75.8% of reporting focused on physical intimate partner violence, and 22.5% on sexual assault. Other types of violence, including emotional, threats or sexual harassment were all but invisible.
● Around 15% of incident-based reporting included victim blaming; such as she was drinking, flirting, went home with the perpetrator, was out alone, was arguing, didn’t report previous incidents/did not leave.
● Similarly, 14.8% of incident-based reporting offered excuses for the perpetrator; such as he was drinking, using drugs, jealous/seeking revenge, ‘snapped’ or ‘lost control’.
● Reports had a tendency to render the perpetrator invisible, with 59.8% of incident-based reporting including no information about the perpetrator.
● Choice of language can sometimes be insensitive; for example, 17.2% of newspaper and online headlines were deemed sensationalistic, while 13.3% of incident-based news items used language in the report that was sensationalistic, including detail that was excessively gory/sexually explicit.
● Just 4.3% of news reports included help seeking information (1800RESPECT or other).
● Six-in-10 items contained imagery, which could draw readers to a story. The researchers wondered if the images most often used set the right tone or conveyed women’s full experience of violence.
► A version of this story also appears at Uncovered, an initiative of the Centre for Advancing Journalism in partnership with Domestic Violence Victoria, VicHealth and the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.
► If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For practical information and confidential support visit I-DECIDE, an online interactive tool for women in unhealthy or unsafe relationships.