** Warning: This post discusses male violence against women**
Hey look, it’s a bright new year and journalists are STILL pretending that male violence against women and girls just happens all by itself.
A man attacked two girls in a park toilet. His attack has been described as “horrific”. This is how it’s being reported. (Please note: these are the morning versions of the story.)
Ben McClellan’s story for dailytelegraph.com.au – Family’s fury at horror of young girls being indecently assaulted in a Sydney park toilet – doesn’t mention the perpetrator until the third paragraph, and even then, he just writes that police are looking for a man:
IT is every parent’s nightmare – two young girls enjoying a family picnic at a familiar park wander out of sight for a few minutes and into a public toilet block where they are sexually assaulted.
Guildford’s tight-knit community are angry and shocked that the sisters, aged two and six, were attacked yesterday just 30m from where their family was enjoying lunch.
A police hunt for a man of Middle Eastern appearance has entered a second day after the girls were attacked after they went into the toilet block at Campbell Hill Pioneer Reserve in Guildford about 1.30pm.
McClellan removes the man from his crime, and puts the focus on the actions of the girls. It might seem harmless, but the focus on the victims’ actions is insidious. I’m not suggesting that McClellan is implying that a two-year-old and a six-year-old are responsible for the man’s crime, but when you focus on their actions it feeds into the cultural message that, as a female, your actions influence whether or not someone else commits a crime. That if you weren’t doing this particular thing, or in this particular place, then this horrific thing wouldn’t have happened to you. That’s complete nonsense. And it’s certainly not the way we talk about male on male violence – that the men who are in hospital somehow influenced another man to king hit them.
But I shouldn’t single McClellan out, because most journalists do it.
Online at dailytelegraph.com.au, the standfirst hides the man in the section of the sentence no one really pays much attention to:
If you read quickly, you miss that the man is there.
The story at smh.com.au is unbylined AAP copy – ‘It’s horrific’: Sisters, aged two and six, sexually assaulted in Sydney park toilet – and is only a little better. When it does finally mention the perpetrator, it puts the focus on his actions:
Police have described as a “parent’s worst nightmare” the sexual assault of two sisters, aged two and six, in the toilet block of a western Sydney park.
“The parents involved in this are absolutely devastated and so is the immediate family,” Detective Acting Superintendent Peter Yeomans told Macquarie Radio on Friday.
“It’s horrific, what has happened to them.”
The girls were approached by a man inside the toilet block and he indecently and sexually assaulted them, police said.
Shame the same can’t be said for the online editorial team:
Nope, no mention that someone did it – it just happened.
At abc.net.au, the standfirst focus is on the attacker (even if they did call it a sex assault):
Finally! Someone is reporting this crime the same way other crimes are reported.
The headline is as bad as the others – Girls aged 2 and 6 indecently assaulted in park at Guildford in Sydney’s west – but at least the story itself is better:
Sydney police have established a strike force as they continue to hunt for a man who attacked two young girls in a toilet block in the city’s west.
Police say the girls, aged two and six, went with family members to Campbell Hill Pioneer Reserve in Guildford yesterday afternoon.
Officers say the man approached the girls about 1:30pm (AEDT) and took them into the toilets where they were indecently assaulted.
It is astounding that this still needs to be spelled out to journalists. After all, they spend so much time online that this can hardly be the first time they’ve come across this issue. But what is more astounding is that they show so little desire to think about the words that they use. A while ago I started emailing the journalists who write these stories. Usually my emails are ignored. The one response I got was along the lines of “OF COURSE I don’t remove the perpetrator from his actions, see, he is mentioned in the story”. Yes, but four or five pars in, and never in relation to the actual violence. I even used other examples of that journalist’s crime reporting side by side to illustrate my point, but it obviously went over their head.
Kelly McBride from the Poynter Institute runs a course for journalists on how to cover sexual assault. She says that “in addition to being precise about the language they use to describe sexual assault, journalists need to get a lot smarter about the research in order to describe it in a way that is accurate and that conveys the gravity of the situation,” (interview, 2008, p. 14 – reference below).
McBride uses the example of media coverage of HIV/AIDS – in the late 80s and early 90s, journalists focused on who had it and how they got it, end of story. Then, they went and actually learned about what they were reporting on, and the focus changed to the bigger picture. She says the same approach is needed for media reporting of sexual violence:
“Once you start realising that this story about sexual assault is really meant to hold the court system accountable, and this story about sexual assault is meant to provide some insight into what happens to victims and how devastating it is, and this story is about children and how systems fail to protect children, and this story is about public safety… once you start learning how to figure out the journalistic purpose of individual stories and types of stories, then you can start to apply different tools in different ways. So you become much more precise in your approach,” (interview, 2008, p. 14).
Journalists need to figure out how to cover the rest of the story. (And that means doing more than just tacking on a sentence of statistics at the end. That’s as meaningless as putting the contact details for Lifeline at the end of a story about someone dying from mental illness.)
The story does not start and end with this man’s attack on these two little girls. When one in three girls will be sexually abused before they turn 16, it is not good enough that journalists report male violence against females without any context. It is not good enough that any wider discussion of male violence against women and girls will be left to a single article in the weekend papers that will only be read by the people who are already talking and writing about this stuff online.
Look at the way the alcohol-related violence in Kings Cross is reported. At first the journalists focused on the victims, portraying them as innocent people who were just enjoying a night out with friends. That almost never happens when a man attacks a woman. Then the journalists focused on the perpetrators, and the public discussion very quickly became “how do we stop young men hitting other young men? How do we find a solution to this awful crime?”. One in three girls before they turn 16, but no, let’s keep pretending that these are just random attacks that are not part of a massive problem.
The mainstream media shapes the way we think about our world and shapes the language we use to think about it. As long as journalists keep reporting that “a woman/girl was assaulted in her home/public place”, that will continue to be the language people use. People will continue to think about assault as something that just happens to women and girls who are unlucky. People will continue to think two little girls were attacked, rather than what actually happened: a man attacked two little girls.
The quotes from Kelly McBride come from an unbylined interview, headlined ‘Time to give more thought to how we cover sexual assault’, in the winter 2008 issue of Media, vol. 13, no. 3, p. 14.