Hold media to a higher standard on gender-based violence


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

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Every week brings with it new stories about missing, murdered, raped, or assaulted women in Jamaica. The volume of these stories is staggering; the details terrifying. Sadly, the media's representation of these stories too often excuses the perpetrator and blames the victim. How the media tells these stories helps frame the public's perception of the incidents and of women. Therefore, prudence is essential in discussing gender-based violence. That's where we — the citizenry, and civil society organisations like Women's Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) — come in.

WMW Jamaica (formerly Women's Media Watch) and the Caribbean School of Media and Communication (Carimac) recently hosted a forum on “The Impact of Media Reporting on Violence Against Women in the Caribbean” at The University of the West Indies, Mona, as part of a project funded by International Women's Day of Prayer. While women from across the region spoke on the topic, I realised the responsibility I bear as a media-conscious woman to address this issue publicly.

Patrice Daniel, Barbadian psychotherapist and gender justice activist, manages the Walking into Walls Facebook page, which compiles media content about gender-based violence against women and girls. She noted some troubling trends in the reporting of these crimes, including the excusing of perpetrators and the blaming of victims, both subtly and overtly.

For example, refusing to call rape what it is — and instead using words like 'sex' or 'romancing' — and refusing to name sexual abuse of underage girls — by instead referring to the abuser and minor's “relationship” as well as other uses of sanitised language — diminish the severity of incidents.

Daniel also cited news reports that refer to jealousy, temporary insanity, drug/alcohol abuse, or the killer's tears, all of which can evoke feelings of sympathy for the perpetrator and take away from the gravity of their crime.

Articles which question why a woman stayed in an abusive relationship, cast aspersions on her character, suggest she provoked the violence, or which refer to little girls as “young women” shift blame to the victim. Sensationalised headlines which treat sexual assault like juicy gossip make light of serious violations and normalise violence against women. These forms of reporting are the result of cultural beliefs grounded in patriarchy, which points to the force of the gender system in Jamaica. The media has tremendous power to shape public opinion and impacts how people view gender-based violence.

In quoting Jeanne Bourgault, of Internews, Sandra Clenem, social cultural officer of Suriname said, “Media reflects the culture and media can influence what people consider normal. What the media is talking about is often what people are talking about.”

Media can diminish the seriousness of violence or it can paint the picture of lives deeply affected. It can support a narrative in which gender-based violence is permissible or it can hold perpetrators accountable. Media can further entrench harmful, sexist and discriminatory ideas about how women and men should relate. It has the power, nay, the responsibility to interrupt and counter these ideas.

The goal of the forum was to encourage journalists in the Caribbean to report in a manner that acknowledges the equal worth of women and men “so that when situations of violence are being reported, these stories are presented with heart, with a recognition that there is a background to the story”, suggested Patricia Donald Phillips, executive director, WMW Jamaica. It is up to forums like this one, organisations like WROC, and people like you and me to hold the media accountable to a higher standard.

We must press our decision-makers to put funding where it belongs — in empowering women through employment, in providing youth with real opportunities, and in addressing toxic ideas about what it means to be a 'man'.

I've added my voice to the dialogue. Will you add yours?

Alyssa Nebel is the education and outreach officer at Women's Resource & Outreach Centre (WROC) and an intern from Selkirk College in Canada. This column is organised by the WROC as part of efforts to further the dialogue on 'Strengthening the Culture of People-Centred Development'. Send comments to the Observer or @HealthRightsJa.

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