Femfacts
02 Nov 2018

Mistakes newspapers make in reporting gender-based violence

Headlines, illustrations and word choice in newspapers fail to protect victims of violence and change societal attitudes. FemFacts took a closer look at bad practices in the Malta press. 

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Malta
Mistakes newspapers make in reporting gender-based violence - NewsMavens
Newspaper Pieces, PixaBay

From a violent fight between an engaged couple described as "a wedding taking an unpleasant turn", to reports of an alleged rapist merely "participating in a sexual activity" with a minor, it is clear that none of the three major newspapers in Malta are doing a good enough job reporting on gender-based violence.

It is easy for legal and court news about gender-based violence (violence perpetrated by intimate partners, clients, or strangers) to be drowned out by the general news flow, but looking exclusively at such stories reveals a  consistent pattern. As presented by these press outlets, this news either uncritically reports the cases from a perpetrator’s perspective ("man denies…") or frames it in passive voice, as if violence was a natural disaster that befalls women.

NewsMavens undertook the tedious task of examining all online news on gender-based violence in Malta from January to July 2018, to see whether this pattern applied to all of them.

The Times of Malta denies trivialising gender-based violence more than its competitors -- that is how the headline would read if it followed the usual reporting standards embraced by Malta’s largest newspaper. In June, The Independent, a competing news organization, published an op-ed condemning the stance of the Times of Malta on gender-based violence.

Its author, Alice Taylor, cited recent Eurobarometer survey results. They read: 47 percent of Maltese believe that women make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape (the highest share in the EU), 40 percent believe violence is provoked by the victim, and 36 percent believe there can be at least one valid justification for rape. Taylor further pointed out that Malta's media reporting likely contributes to this kind of thinking. According to her, the Times is guilty of “misrepresentation of the facts, victim blaming, [making] a joke out of a serious assault, or its misogynistic [...] tone.”

In response to NewsMavens' questions about the accusation, Herman Grech, the editor of the Times of Malta online edition, explains that the paper’s editorial guidelines are based on those from major international organizations like the BBC. Grech claims that the Times is “at the forefront of promoting gender-based issues in recent years, the same way it has been at the forefront of eradicating stereotypes from the media, especially stories related to migrant and LGBTI issues.”

Unlike its competitors, the newspaper makes it a point never to identify crime suspects by nationality in its headlines -- a claim that has been verified by this research. But has it extended a similarly progressive attitude to women suffering from gender-based violence of various forms? Are its competitors doing even worse?

NewsMavens looked into the crime sections in the online versions of Malta’s three top newspapers: Times of Malta, Malta Today, and the Malta Independent. In most cases, crime reporting was illustrated with neutral photos: court buildings, police or ambulance vans, stock photos with objects relating to the court process and similar. Many of the stories were retold from what was said in court, and the reporting was formal, using legal terms (links to all the articles we analyzed are available here). Most of the reporting for the Times of Malta is by court reporter Edwina Brincat, and for Malta Today by Matthew Agius, who is also a legal professional and holds a warrant to practice as a Legal Procurator and Commissioner for Oaths. Court reports in the Independent come without bylines.

There was a consistent pattern in trivializing gender-based violence in all three newspapers, particularly in the Times. In what appears to be an attempt to avoid sounding dry and formal, this paper was the most likely to "spice up" these crime reports, choose insensitive illustrations, or invite sympathy for the perpetrator before the court ruling. This was particularly notable in reporting on intimate partner violence, while reporting on random violence or violence in transactional relationships was more balanced. But, in this context as well, some of the reporting did suggest that a man “just wanted some romance” with his tenant/stepdaughter/masseuse until the woman in question started complaining.

In this analysis, we found that the reporting took the perpetrator’s perspective -- the perpetrator’s feelings, situation (e.g. "poor man will lose his job") and arguments were given more space than the victim’s. By "trivializing", we mean the kind of reporting that downplays the severity of the crime. By "naturalizing", we refer to articles that treat gender-based violence as a mere hazard that sometimes befalls women if they are not careful. Let's take a closer look.

Bad practices in reports on intimate partner violence

From January to July, there were 15 stories of partner violence against women and one threat of partner violence against a man. There were also two stories of men attacking strangers because they either interfered in a couple’s argument, or flirted with the woman. We tag these as "male possessiveness", because there is no hint that the women involved felt threatened by the intervening strangers. While most of the stories were reported formally, we found some particularly bad practices.

In a particularly spine-chilling case, when a man humiliated and injured his partner by violently shoving a chocolate wrapper into her genitals, the Times illustrated the story with the tools of the crime -- paper and foil. It was also the only media to mention the victim’s "attempt at seduction" and her drunken state, assuming this was relevant to the crime:

“An attempt at seduction quickly melted away. A former hotel manager accused of stuffing an empty chocolate wrapper up his wife's genitals after rebuffing her attempts to seduce him has been denied bail.”

In some other cases, e.g. when a partner threatened a woman with a gun, the Times chose to report it in passive voice: “Shots fired at woman’s residence as argument gets out of hand.” This is what we call "naturalizing" in this analysis -- reporting as if violence just "happens" to women, and arguments (or "misunderstandings") have their own agency separate from perpetrators.

Reporting on a violent quarrel, which resulted in a woman requesting police protection, Malta’s largest paper focused on the "jeopardy" of the couple’s wedding plans:

“The couple’s plans took an unpleasant turn following Wednesday’s incident when an argument between the future spouses escalated and turned violent, prompting the woman to seek help from the police”.

“When a headline is deemed to be in erroneous or in bad taste, we have no hesitation in rectifying it at once,” Grech of the Times wrote in his response to NewsMavens. However, at the time of the analysis, all the troubling headlines were still online.

According to Eurobarometer No. 449, a quarter of Malta’s population believes that domestic violence is a private matter and should be handled within the family. The Times’ report of a man attacking two passers-by who tried to stop a potentially violent situation between him and his partner is therefore particularly disconcerning:

“The accused and his girlfriend had been having a lovers’ argument inside his car, parked inside the parking area, when a stranger had suddenly flung open the passenger door at his girlfriend’s side.”

The report is given from the perpetrator's perspective and the conflict is described as a “lovers’ argument”, as if it was trivial and silly for strangers to intervene when a case of possible partner violence was unfolding (it was described as intervening “to break up an argument” in the Independent).

Another case of a man attacking other men was described in Malta Today as a "fight over a girl", also from the man’s perspective. The article says that the man, who has previously been “accused of breaching bail and grievously injuring a woman”, attacked two men “after they attempted to seduce his girlfriend”. None of the papers gives any insight into the woman’s view of either situation, nor do they report on whether partner violence was involved.

When family matters become crimes

In the time period observed, reports about girls and women who suffered at the hands of close and distant family members, and of a flatmate, were published. While some cases were treated seriously, especially when children were involved, the same cannot be said about the man who secretly filmed his female flatmate in the shower. Malta Today and the Independent called him, almost jokingly, "peeping Tom", rather than using terms that make it clear why he was charged.

In another rather shocking case, Malta Today and the Times used wording implying consensual sex to describe the repeated rape of a 14 year old girl by her 46 year old stepfather. While reporting that the victim finally reported abuse to her mother when she “could no longer tolerate the situation”, these papers still chose to describe it simply as participating in “sexual activity” or “having sex”.  

It happens -- trivialized reports on violence in transactional relationships 

There were far fewer cases of assault of or by service providers, so it is more difficult to compare the newspapers. Each of them trivialised a crime of this sort at least once.

When a client assaulted a masseuse, Malta Today illustrated the story with massaging hands. Meanwhile, reporting on a case when a landlord sexually harassed a tenant, the Times was the only online newspaper that chose to illustrate it with wine and candles, and consistently called the assault "romantic". Where Malta Today used the wording "sexual assault" in the case against the landlord, the Times described it as him "making a move", whereas the Independent focused on the action -- “touched the girl’s breast”.

By using these descriptions of the relationship between the parties, newsrooms risk feeding into stereotypes that gender-based violence is a mere transactional hazard -- it can befall a masseuse, a barista or a tenant when they go about their business.

Since three out of four perpetrators were foreign, they were less likely to be eloquent in court and win the sympathy of the reporters, so the perpetrators’ perspective was to some extent taken only in the landlord’s case, when his "misunderstood" intentions were reported.

Reports on stranger violence more often black and white

This type of gender-based violence rallies the greatest amount of support for victims in society. Even those who downplay domestic violence are likely to see fewer grey areas when a stranger assaults a woman in public.

In this area, the Times actually exhibited more ethical practices than its competitors. The latter, furthermore, often focused on the suspects’ nationalities and even noted them in headlines.

It may appear that when suspects are foreign, newspapers rarely take their perspective, as if gender-based violence is an imported crime. However, when perpetrators are local, newspapers focus on grey areas more heavily.

Many of these disturbing examples of reporting on gender-based violence have to do with the habit of retelling what happens in a courtroom as it unfolds, often in the first hearing, without following up later. According to Grech, his newsroom has one court reporter who is responsible for all court reports.

“Court reports are carried out without comment, we merely report what is said in the court room. If the prosecution or the defense uses words in open court which could be possibly construed as discriminatory it is up to them to carry the responsibility,” the online editor wrote in response to questions from NewsMavens.

Although there were factual reports using wording that does not stigmatize victims or trivialize crimes, we found none that would offer a broader context, cite actual laws, consult experts, or inform the readers where to get help -- as they do with suicide reporting.

Newspapers routinely retell what is being discussed at conferences on domestic violence and interview activists, but these narratives and crime reporting exist in parallel worlds that never touch.  

All in all, many of the headlines across the three papers often narrated crimes from a perpetrator’s perspective: what did he have to say to the accusations? Was he released on bail? What will happen to his life (in one case the Times mentioned how a repeat offender was flanked by his “tearful relatives”).

Instead of analysis or context, the three newspapers -- to varying degrees -- opt for sounding witty and adding emotional details that would either shock the public or humanize the suspect. Although most court reporting reads as rather formal, there are still numerous attempts to "spice things up" with illustrations or wording -- to the detriment of the victims themselves.

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