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Why we need to call bullshit on the way media reports on violence against women

Emma Joyce
Written by
Emma Joyce

Journalist Jane Gilmore took to the stage at TEDxSydney and didn’t mince her words. She said, “Journalists are failing at their job.” As a longtime reporter on data journalism and violence against women, she called upon everyone in the audience to demand better – to demand the truth – from headlines written about sexual assaults, rape and murder.

“I’ll give you a list of things that don’t cause murder,” she said. “Stilettos. Axes.” She followed with a list of things that do cause murder: “The decision to murder someone.”

Gilmore – who has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Guardian, the Age, SBS, the Saturday Paper and many more media outlets – went on to show a series of headlines that not only ignored the perpetrators of gendered violence but also perpetuate victim blaming and incorrect, often milder, phrases to describe the crimes detailed in the story.

Speaking to Time Out following her TEDx Talk, Gilmore said the problem is systemic across all media. “Some of the gutter press is worse, but I’ve seen examples of it in the ABC, the Guardian, in the Sydney Morning Herald – in papers that you would expect would, that do, know better.” Though she believes some publications would respond better than others to being called out on this issue by their readers, she says, “I have examples from pretty much every publication in the world.”

Gilmore has started a movement, a hashtag called #FixedIt, which she uses to highlight headlines like ‘Axe slashes a family apart’ to more accurately describe the scenario – usually ‘Man kills family with axe’. As she states in her talk, 80 per cent of domestic murders are committed by men. To ignore the gendered aspect of the violence is misrepresenting a social issue and it’s the job of journalists who report on these crimes to “describe society to itself”. In a number of these articles, the victim or a related person such as the mother, is featured in the headline – “drunk teenager”, “stripper” – in a way that taps into myths around who these women were, what choices they made, and how they’re somehow responsible for their own deaths. Usually the killer’s name is found in the third or fourth paragraph.

“I think the media has huge responsibility in how social understanding of violence against women goes,” says Gilmore. “Feminists have been working for decades on this but we’re very, very slowly changing the public perception that domestic violence isn’t not just a series of isolated incidents but a social problem that exists in power imbalance, most commonly found in gender. Not always, but most commonly. We’re certainly not there yet. The media has a real responsibility in the stories that we tell – and I don’t think we’re doing our job very well.”

Gilmore’s vision is that change is possible in the long term and that, along with many others who are challenging the status quo, it’ll come through better representation of all minorities in the newsroom (“You’d get very different news. When it’s so dominated by one perspective there’s too many other points of view that are missed out.”) But also through the opportunity readers have to influence the future of journalism in a time when publications are desperately trying to get audiences. “I think it’s really important for audiences to say to the journalists and to the publications ‘we see this when you get it wrong’ and the impetus of the business model will mean if the audience isn’t happy with this then we have to change it.”

Gilmore is writing a book, expecting to be published next year, on the FixedIt concept that looks at the reasons behind the headlines – why we get them, what are the implicit myths, how do they affect the justice and police systems. As with all of her writing on gendered violence she uses robust data sets (including one taken over 12 years in New South Wales that covered hundreds of cases) as well as police reports and hospital records to understand and relay the whole story. 

“Words really matter. Words describe what we think and how we understand things,” says Gilmore, who, during her talk, said that interchanging the words ‘rape’ and ‘sex’ was like comparing ‘giraffes’ to ‘spoons’. She wants readers to call out the journalists and publications for using incorrect and damaging language as it changes the way people think about these crimes, and “you can start to change their actions and their responses.”

Follow Jane Gilmore’s FixedIt campaign. Keep an eye on the Time Out Sydney blog for more ideas shared at TEDxSydney 2017.

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