Vanessa Simpson is phoenix-like. For seven years, she felt eyes follow her as she left the house. She was locked in dark rooms and was told she was worthless. She was thrown down stairs while pregnant. She was kicked in the head and suffered massive internal bleeding. She was strangled until her face turned a deep blue.
That was until she found a way to leave a relationship that was destroying her.
“If you can think of every case of physical and emotional violence, bar death; that’s what she experienced,” says her husband, Sean Simpson.
Today, Vanessa Simpson still finds it difficult to tell her story out loud. Her voice breaks, the tears come.
Instead, she finds writing her experiences down to be therapeutic and Sean acts as her voice – Sean, and the world of new media.
Social media has given victims and advocates of domestic violence, as well as mainstream media, a safe avenue to tell a story, to affect attitudes and to reach a wider audience. It has given Vanessa Simpson the chance to rise from the ashes of her previous, destructive relationship.
Mrs Simpsons’ story is a common one. In Australia, a woman is killed, on average, every week by their partner or former partner, while one-in-three women who have had an intimate partner have experienced some form of domestic violence.
The Simpsons have set up a charity – aptly named the Phoenix Foundation – with the hope of reducing the incidence of family violence. The Foundation’s Facebook and Instagram accounts are used to offer up snippets of Mrs Simpson’s past experience, articles of interest, quotes that offer hope and support, as well as seeking donations.
New research coming out of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism is helping to understand these dialogues that have been made possible through new media. Headed by the Centre’s director, Margaret Simons, a research team is looking at how domestic violence is being discussed by both old and new media – such as Channel Ten’s The Project, the self-proclaimed “women’s website” Mamamia and the more traditional print publication theHerald Sun.
Dr Simons recalls the “old days”, when as a young cadet journalist at The Age, she would sit and listen to police scanners, searching for a story. Domestic “disturbances” would come through the wire constantly, she says, but were ignored.
“Mostly because it happened all the time, but also because it was seen as a private issue and so wasn’t considered a story,” Dr Simons says.
“Compare that to today – when people like Rosie Batty are on the front page of newspapers, when it’s a regular story for the Herald Sun and The Project and there is a lot of discussion about it on social media as well. What we are trying to look at is how it has changed; why it has changed; how does a news agenda change like that?”
The Project’s story on the issue of ‘revenge porn’, broadcast earlier this year, drew an overwhelming response on social media and revealed how it can drive news agendas.
The story discussed the publishing of risqué photographs by ex-partners without a person’s permission, with one-in-10 ex-partners threatening to release private photos. In almost 60 per cent of cases the threat is carried out, according to a 2013 study by cybersecurity company McAfee. The Project’s stories drew on personal experiences recounted by its growing Facebook community.
“I think, generally, people are more willing to speak about [domestic violence] – to see it as a crime and as a public issue, rather than something that takes place behind closed doors. But I also think that social media has enabled the community to be heard on issues that have been hidden before.” — Dr Margaret Simons, researcher
Dr Simons says social media can prompt mainstream media to spend more time talking about domestic violence.
“It [social media’s response] has a clear influence or effect in saying that this is clearly something people want to talk about and that people are ready to talk about and we should do more on this,” Dr Simons says.
“I think, generally, people are more willing to speak about [domestic violence] – to see it as a crime and as a public issue, rather than something that takes place behind closed doors. But I also think that social media has enabled the community to be heard on issues that have been hidden before.”
Dr Simons says that social media also offers journalists alternative sources, by enabling journalists to speak directly to victims such as Mrs Simpson, rather than just experts.
“People go again and again to police, to men’s groups, to other official spokespeople and vary rarely go to victims or survivors of family violence,” Dr Simons says.
“Social media creates the opportunity for people to speak about issues that affect them even when there isn’t an official gate-keeper or spokesperson that is willing to talk.”
Dr Simons’ research will also look at the quality of media coverage around the issue of domestic violence and the ways improved coverage can help change community attitudes.
Past research has shown that such attitudes are a major cause of domestic violence. A study by VicHealth in 2010 indicated that, at an individual level, “the most consistent predictor of the use of violence among men is their agreement with sexist, patriarchal and/or sexually hostile attitudes.” How men think, in other words, informs how men behave.
A corollary is what informs these attitudes. Media, news and current affairs programs are where people get information that shapes their understanding of the world: it is where the community’s values and ideals are reinforced or challenged. So, which ideas are presented, how often ideas are presented and the language used to present these ideas are significant determinants of community attitudes, the research shows.
According to Vanessa and Sean Simpson, the public and the media’s tendency to blame the victim, rather than the perpetrator, of family violence is an example of “bad journalism”, underpinned by negative community attitudes.
“We have to change the mindset of putting the onus on the victim to putting the onus on the perpetrator,” Mr Simpson says. “Too often we tell women to change their habits – to not do this, to not do that – but we just need to stop the actions of males.”
This accords with Dr Simons’ research, which focuses on how the power of social media can begin educating journalists so that they, in turn, can educate the public on the issue of family violence.
“I think it’s important that victims read the personal touch. That they feel they aren’t alone – that I’ve been through it, that lots of women do go through it, but that it’s not normal behaviour and that you can get out of it.” — Vanessa Simpson, the Phoenix Foundation
“We also want to employ a journalist to build a social media presence that directly addresses journalists on this issue,” Dr Simons explains. “Both by congratulating them on good coverage and calling them out on not-so-good coverage and making resources more available to them.”
Through the Facebook page and website that Dr Simons plans to create, journalists will be able to see examples of appropriate language and story angles used to discuss domestic violence. It will critique inappropriate family violence articles, encouraging mainstream media to speak about family violence in a more mindful and thorough way. It will offer up-to-date statistics and information, as well as providing journalists with alternative sources, including victims like Vanessa Simpson.
Dr Simons says it will be an experiment in how media can create meaningful change in the fight against family violence and other complex social issues.
“We know very little about how journalists can positively contribute to an issue that impacts just about every aspect of Australian life,” she said recently, after securing more than $100,000 in grant money to help fund the project.
“It’s great to be able to provide a useful contribution to such a vital topic.”
But for Vanessa Simpson, her Foundation’s social media accounts simply offer a source of comfort, while providing information for others.
“I think it’s important that victims read the personal touch. That they feel they aren’t alone – that I’ve been through it, that lots of women do go through it, but that it’s not normal behaviour and that you can get out of it,” she says.
“Mine was fairly extreme and severe, but if I can survive then anyone can.”
► 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 more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.