Trigger warning – this post discusses sexual violence.
It’s tough being a woman. We just walk down the street and then, out of nowhere, an assault happens to us. We need to be particularly careful of these disembodied assaults that just hang around until they can happen at someone. At least, that’s the impression I get when journalists report on violence against women: men don’t assault women, it’s just that women have assaults happen to them.
Today’s story is awful. On Sunday morning, a group of men kidnapped a woman and raped her. I can’t imagine how terrified she must have been and how much it must have hurt. I can’t imagine how any victim of a crime like this copes in the weeks, months, and years afterwards. I really hope that this post does not add to her trauma because that is not my intention at all. My intention is to make journalists think about why they report violence against women in a way that almost removes the perpetrator from the crime.
AAP was the first to report the story. On dailytelegraph.com.au they headlined it Sydney woman abducted and gang-raped by group of men, police say. On smh.com.au they headlined it Sydney teen abducted and sexually assaulted by gang. They are both passive sentences – generally frowned upon in journalism. But it becomes more sinister when you consider that passive sentences are usually used to deflect blame, to be vague about who is responsible, or because the person responsible is unimportant.
Four hours after they published the AAP copy, smh.com.au had an updated version (with two bylines and an additional nine words): ‘I don’t think it gets more serious': woman gang-raped after men ask for directions, police say.
Call me crazy but I think the men did something more serious than ask for directions.
The journalist (Rachel Olding) even includes this sentence at the end:
The victim, who was not affected by alcohol at the time, has been receiving intense counselling and is being supported by her family, Detective Superintendant Kerletec said.
Now, I don’t know if Olding asked the alcohol question, or if another journalist asked it and she reported the answer, or if Kerletec anticipated the question, or if Kerletec believes it’s important, but how is it relevant to a story about other people committing a violent crime? What do journalists think it actually means if she had been drinking? That the crime those men committed is less of a crime? That it’s somehow her fault? That it’s ok for a group of men to assault someone who has been drinking? What? They obviously think it means something important, otherwise they wouldn’t have asked. I’d really like a journalist to let me know why they asked the alcohol question – why they always ask the alcohol question – because I’ve been a journalist and it never occurred to me to ask it.
Here’s the story on smh.com.au:
Standfirst reads: Teen allegedly gang raped after being forced into car by group who asked her for directions.
The men who committed the crime aren’t even mentioned.
Compare that to another crime story below it:
Standfirst reads: Four men attempted a brazen armed robbery near a Sydney shopping centre, witnesses say.
If the robbery story was reported the same way as the assault story, the standfirst would read: “AN Armaguard van was attacked early this morning while parked on a street in Glebe.” It might even include this sentence: “The van, which was not affected by alcohol at the time, had previously been at a bank where it collected a large amount of money.”
But wait, there’s more.
In one story, ‘I don’t think it gets more serious': woman gang-raped after men ask for directions, police say, the criminals are barely mentioned in the first two sentences:
Police say an alleged gang-rape attack on a teenager in Sydney’s north-west is “as worse as it gets”.
The 18-year-old woman was abducted and sexually assaulted by a car load of five men after leaving a house party in Baulkham Hills on Sunday morning, police said.
In the other, Shot fired at Broadway: gang attempts to rob van, the criminals are the main part of the first two sentences:
Four men have attempted a brazen armed robbery of a cash-in-transit van outside a Sydney inner-city shopping centre, witnesses say.
A witness to the incident said three of the men approached the Armaguard truck armed with firearms outside Broadway Shopping Centre at 8:30am on Monday.
Two crime stories, both involving gangs of men, but reported very differently. Why is that?
Here’s the story on dailytelegraph.com.au:
Standfirst reads: A YOUNG woman has been abducted and sexually assaulted by a gang of men after leaving a house party in Sydney’s northwest.
The bit mentioning the gang of men is tucked into the middle of the sentence so you don’t really notice it.
Now, compare it to the story below it on the homepage:
Standfirst reads: TWO priests are under investigation by church authorities in Australia and the UK amid allegations they abused two boys in the 1960s and 1980s.
The focus of sentence is the alleged criminals, not the victims. Again, the opposite of the way journalists report violence against women.
We get this constant stream of “a woman was abducted on the way home, a woman was sexually assaulted while drunk, a woman was assaulted in her home, a woman had something bad happen to her because she was somewhere late at night” because journalists pretend that assault just hangs out on the street waiting for a woman to walk past so it can happen at her. Assault is not something that’s just part of being a woman, like periods or a squirty bot bot after eating three-day-old takeaway that was a bit iffy. Assault is a crime committed by another person. Yet it’s reported as though that other person doesn’t exist. There are two options here: one, journalists don’t bother to think about the words they use; or two, they want us to believe that men aren’t to blame for the majority of assaults against women. So, journalists are either stupid, or they’re arseholes. I don’t know which is worse.
Update: The smh.com.au story now has video. The caption reads: NSW police are warning women to be cautious on the street after an 18-year-old woman was abducted and sexually assaulted by five men after leaving a house party in Baulkham Hills.
No mention yet about NSW Police warning men not to rape women.