Removing the criminal

Today in our ongoing discussion of how the culture we live in says that violent crime is something that “just happens” to women, we have the second most important story on removing the criminal from his crime:

According to, women just get themselves slashed

According to, women just get themselves slashed

Here’s a close-up because, frankly, my eyes aren’t that good:

A close up of the story

A close up of the story

Second only to a story about a store offering cheap phones is this: Sleeping woman repeatedly slashed at home:

A woman has been woken by an armed intruder who slashed her head, face, arms and legs with a blade in her western Sydney home.

The intruder is the one who did the thing that is newsworthy. Yet the reporting almost completely removes him from his crime. When you read the first sentence, you notice the woman and her injuries, but the attacker is buried in the middle. It also makes it seem like the worst thing that happened was that she was woken up.

If you want to keep the details of her injuries in the first sentence, it should read something like this:

An armed intruder has broken into a woman’s home and slashed her head, face, arms and legs with a blade.

Or you might want to go with something like this:

An armed intruder has broken into a home and attacked a woman with a blade.

It might seem like a small thing, but it’s really important. And apologies to people who already know this, but we’ve had a few new readers lately. We live in a culture that believes it’s cool to say things like “I’ll make you my bitch” and “you totally raped my eyeballs with that picture”; a culture that uses the threat of being raped in prison as a deterrent (ignoring the fact that people in prison are already being punished for their crimes); a culture that says women should do a hundred things/show common sense/take responsibility for their actions so they don’t get raped; a culture in which journalists remove the perpetrator when they report violence against women. This is known as rape culture. Before you send in comments saying “bullshit, our culture does not say it’s ok to rape”, I suggest you read this first.

Back to why it’s important that journalists start thinking about the words they use. As Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch (2009, p. 3) write:

news shapes the way we see the world, ourselves and each other. It is the stories of journalists that construct and maintain our shared realities.

When every story about violence against women starts with “a woman was” (instead of “a man did”) then, as a society, we believe that violence is something that happens to women. Like periods. Many first sentences don’t even mention the perpetrator at all, giving the impression that violence is just this disembodied thing that will happen all over you if you step too close to it. (And then, of course, what were you doing stepping near it in the first place?)

Unless we personally witness it, everything that happens in our world that is considered newsworthy is filtered through the eyes – and the words – of journalists. But journalists, in general, don’t give a single thought to the words they use. They are just following the pattern, the structure, that they have been taught and that gets replicated over and over in newsrooms and journalism courses. I don’t believe that it’s intentional – they’re just writing the way that everyone else writes.

After I tweeted about it, I got this response from Stephanie Gardiner:

tweet from stephanie gardiner

The power of twitter

The headline was changed to “Intruder slashes sleeping woman in her home”. We call that a win. Of sorts. There is still the matter of the first sentence.

Wahl-Jorgensen, K. and Hanitzsch, T. (2009), ‘On why and how we should do journalism studies’, in The Handbook of Journalism Studies, Routledge, New York, p. 3.

23 responses to “Removing the criminal

  1. _When every story about violence against women starts with “a woman was” (instead of “a man did”) then, as a society, we believe that violence is something that happens to women._

    Also worth noting that your corrected framing still reinforces the myth that violence is exclusively male-initiated, which silences the male, trans and lesbian victims of female initiated violence.

  2. I thought that professional writing taught people to not use passive voice.

    From a sensationalism perspective, it grabs people’s attention to read “person A did X horrible things to person B”. When you read “X horrible things happened to person B” you don’t notice it as much.

    All this quite apart from the fact that society is increasingly separating the responsible party from the action.

    Sure, there is the issue of “innocent until proven guilty”, and that maybe – just maybe – things are not as they seem. But that is no reason to shirk away from at the very least saying that the alleged offender allegedly attacked the victim.

    So many people seem to have lost the knowledge that words are powerful. Immensely powerful. Depending on the circumstance, a single use of a word may not carry much weight. Sometimes a single word can drive people to despair. But certainly the aggregate use of cerain words, in certain ways, across society, has immeasurable power.

    I like to look on things as if every word I use has the power of empowerment or the destruction of others. And to choose my words with great care on that basis. Well, I try anyway. I’d just like others to do something similar. Especially those who write for a living.

    • Strangely, journalism courses don’t teach you how to write. They teach you the accepted structure of a news story – the inverted pyramid, with the most important information in the first sentence. A reader is supposed to be able to get the entire story just by reading the first sentence. Which makes removing the perpetrator even worse.

      And the word ‘alleged’ is usually used in the wrong spot, to indicate an alleged crime, rather than the alleged criminal. The crime isn’t in doubt – the perpetrator is.

      On a different note, it’s good to see you again. You haven’t blogged in a while, I hope everything is ok.

  3. Ugh… there’s an interesting compare and contrast with this headline on (the website for Fairfax New Zealand newspapers:

    Gay cop hit on murder accused’s mate

    Just for the record, the “gay cop” is the murder victim – and I’ll be damned what possible relevance his occupation or sexuality had in the headline of a report of a murder trial. Unless you’re, once more, passive-aggressively trying to obliterate the offender and minimise the offence.

    • Or if you’re suggesting that a gay man hitting on a straight man is REASON ENOUGH TO KILL HIM.

    • May be a slender thread here but I was watching a US program the other night about Amanda Knox in which the narrator continually referred to her as ‘the pretty American Girl’ as though it would have been ok for her to have been wrongfully imprisoned had she been unattractive. How is the standard of her genetics of any relevance? I get the whole ‘Foxy Knoxy’ thing (I don’t approve but I get it) as that one was cooked up by the Italian media, most of which is owned by Silvio (say no more)
      It reminded me also of the difference in public reaction to the cases of Schappelle Corby and Renee Lawrence. Not only was there a public outcry that the former should receive a ‘lenient’ sentence but people were (without hearing a great deal of evidence) convinced that she was innocent. Not so for the latter and I always believed that was because the former was attractive (to some) and the latter was not.

      • Kimsonof, I get what you’re saying. But in the Corby-Lawrence situation, it’s a lot more black and white. While appearance does play a part in how much attention the media gives you and how the public feels about you (but if you’re too hot, then you must be guilty), the fact that Lawrence had the heroin strapped to her body meant there was no room for doubt.

        • True but I never bought into the whole Idea that Corby never noticed her boogie board weighing an extra four kilos. In any case the point being that it doesn’t appear as though many people care so much about Lawrence and I am sure it is because of her lack of good looks.

          • I think your point relevant in many cases, but I think the Bali Nine is a little different. The general public doesn’t care about any of them because a) they were caught with heroin, and b) they had it strapped to them, so there is no room for doubt.

            The attractiveness thing can turn on you, though. If you’re a model. There was no public sympathy for Michelle Leslie.

            Anyway, this is all off the topic.

  4. If I’m honest I hadn’t ever even considered this. But I avoided gender studies like the plague (I had one sociology unit with the woman who ran most of the gender studies courses and she was bat-shit crazy, I couldn’t cope with any more than one semester of someone yelling at the class for people being loud outside the lecture theatre) so I’m not really primed to notice these sorts of things but now I can’t stop noticing! I wonder if it is partly sloppy writing? For example when a man gets bashed is it “a man has assaulted another man outside a pub” or “a man has been bashed outside a pub” ? It’s not ideal whether the victim is a man or a woman as it does indeed suggest that crime is something that ‘happens’ to people rather than something that is done against somebody’s will.

    I do agree that the language we use tends to frame attitudes that people might not even realise they have. For example, my housemates tend to talk about guys who are irritating as fags, but would consider themselves un-homophobic. Which really pisses me off for the obvious reason and it’s just laziness in terms of finding a good adjective and my best friend is gay and a lovely person and I don’t want him compared to any of the drop kicks these girls are talking about! Wow. Too many ands in that sentence.

    • Steph, I haven’t done any gender studies subjects either. I’m just interested in the way journalists use language. Well, I’m also interested in the gender bullshit that goes along with that, but you know what I mean.

      I think we just need to keep pointing this stuff out.

    • Steph:

      I’d say a little from column A and column B. Sloppy writing driven by a hell of a lot of unexamined gender, race and class privilege up in the room. (Yes, things are a lot better than they used to be but we’re judging media diversity in senior editorial and management off a very low baseline.)

      But here’s the question: Sophie Eliott and Mellory Manning were both brutally abused and murdered. But how many headlines did you see labelling the former “a heterosexual student”; and how many didn’t label the latter a prostitute?

  5. Thanks for writing on this. I read the Shakespeare’s Sister post a while back and have linked as couple of friends to it in an attempt to help them to understand more than my frustrated, disappointed turn of phrase can convey.

    The more people who understand the problem here, both with invisible attackers and with victim blaming and, more importantly, who actually talk about it, the better.

  6. You are my hero NWN.

  7. To take a wider view, it’s also the passive voice that appears to make Bad Stuff essentially random and implacable, whether that be crime, taxes, today’s political or tomorrow’s economic disasters. Just like Nature in fact. It reinforces the abdication of responsibility that rape culture is itself promoting. We have a “everyone’s doing it so chill out” culture that expects the Bad Stuff to happen randomly to someone else. But it’s less random and it affects us all.

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