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Domestic violence fraught content for media: UC research

Marcus Butler

1 August 2016

The Australian media's handling of domestic violence has been under scrutiny and according to University of Canberra experts it still has a long way to go in addressing the issue appropriately.

Funded by a grant from Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety (ANROWS) grant, the University of Canberra's professor of law Patricia Easteal AM and the News & Media Research Centre's Michelle Dunne Breen and Kate Holland worked with colleagues from the University of Melbourne to produce a report for ANROWS and Our Watch.

The report Media representations of violence against women and their children: Key findings and future directions is one of the largest analyses into media reporting of domestic violence around the world.

The research examined more than 4,500 news items covering issues of violence against women. Approximately 41 per cent of items collected were from radio, 29 per cent online news articles, more than 20 per cent were newspaper articles and about eight per cent were from TV.

The UC team conducted qualitative research for the project critically analysing three case studies of media reporting. They identified the perpetuation of mythology about violence against women, sensationalism, a shifting of blame and agency and a lack of social context in the reports of these three stories.

The report found that physical and sexual violence, particularly fatal events, were reported far more frequently than other forms of gender-based violence, such as emotional abuse, threats of violence and sexual harassment.

Professor Easteal said that among the outcomes of the research was the tendency of the media to reference women's behaviour, which infers mutual responsibility in the abuse.

"Many journalists continue to shift responsibility for the violence onto the victim, sometimes by the way they construct the story or through the words they choose," she said.

"Explicit victim-blaming and misconceptions around gendered-violence were uncommon, which would suggest that journalists are trying to present an accurate picture of the situation.

"Misconceptions around why violence occurs and who is to blame continue to be reported in subtle and perhaps unintentional ways, such as referencing 'the party-life of King's Cross' in Sydney implying that the victim shouldn't have been there."

Co-author and media expert Michelle Dunne Breen added that the coverage is often focused on incidents, rather than covering the systemic issue of violence against women.

"The news media typically do not follow up on these stories after an initial, usually brief, mention in the news pages at the time of the incident," Dr Dunne Breen said.

"News items of violence against women seem to achieve 'running-story status' only where they contain some element of 'notoriety', which news outlets focus on for its perceived news value.

"Ordinary cases - and there are SO many of them, as evidenced by the sheer volume captured in the data collection, are soon forgotten about by the press.

"Domestic and family violence is often rendered invisible in the news and information media in Australia. Sadly that cultivates and sustains its place as a private issue that happens 'behind closed doors'."

The researchers also examined how many reports included information for those experiencing gender-based violence to seek help, finding that less than five per cent included telephone contacts for help lines.

"Take for instance the media's established convention to include support numbers in stories about mental distress; that came about by raising awareness among journalists about mental health issues," Dr Dunne Breen said.

"It's probably a matter of shifting the newsroom thinking to see them added as a matter of course to domestic violence stories too," she said.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line is available 24-hours a day – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)