23rd May 2014
By Stefanie Chernow

Hatred in the News: Understanding Stereotypes and How to Avoid Them

The following speech was given by EJN Director Aidan White during the Turning the Page of Hate Conference in Kampala on May 23rd, 2014.

Although journalism can do good, it is not its main purpose. Ethical journalists will always tell you they are not about advocacy for one political objective. But good reporting can be a progressive force when it provides useful, reliable and accurate information that builds public confidence and helps people overcome their problems.

However, when it comes to dealing with the crisis of violence against women and girls media are often part of the problem rather than being an important potential agent of change.

Often media perpetuate common myths that excuse and normalise violence against women.

These include the belief that a woman is wholly or partly responsible for being sexually assaulted or raped if she was out alone late at night, or if she wears sexy or revealing clothes. Sometimes it can be suggested that it’s acceptable in certain circumstances for a man to hit or slap his female partner in response to her being dressed provocatively.

At the same time there are constant concerns raised over the issue of sexism, with evidence from research which suggests that sexualised messages from media provide a conducive context in which violence flourishes. Across all media content – advertising as well as editorial – we have manufactured and distorted images of women and notions of beauty and style that put pressure on women and girls (and men, of course) to conform to impossible ideas of what it is to be young, sexy, cool, male and female.

The sexual objectification of women and girls, often dismissed as innocent or playful behaviour by media insiders, in fact may cause real harm.

These problems require serious attention from ethical journalists if media are to play a part in ending and preventing violence against women and girls by challenging and changing the deeply held attitudes in many African communities which condone and tolerate it.

Journalism can be a critical creator, mirror and enforcer of narrow and prejudiced attitudes in society. It is essential that people in media are conscious of the consequences of bias in the newsroom and the impact of distorted images from the media/advertising world.

But too often journalists and editors are not sufficiently aware. In fact, their lack of understanding of stereotypes and their influence on popular culture means that media often make matters worse.

As a result there can be a massive loss of sensitivity leading to intrusive reporting on victims and their families and often a narrow sensationalist selection of violence against women stories.

There is often unclear media messages that sometimes suggest certain violent crime is ‘cultural’ or religious (domestic violence or honour killings, for instance) and is therefore less serious or somehow inevitable. Such reporting amounts to victim blaming which dehumanises women and girls and adds to their suffering.

This can have both an immediate and a cumulative effect. Over time it subtly shapes the way the whole community perceives certain crimes.

Rape myths are a prime example. The idea that ‘real rape’ is committed by a stranger with a weapon, and that this crime is sometimes ‘provoked’ by women who are dressed in a certain manner can distort everyone’s view on who is the ‘real’ victim, who is the perpetrator, and undermines the capacity to achieve justice for victims in the courts.

This sort of reporting by certain sections of the media undermines those who believe media should be more victim-focused , more respectful of the experience of those who have suffered and survived, and more searching in their interrogation of what must be done to combat the epidemic of violence against women both inside and outside the home.

Undoubtedly newsroom pressures are to blame for many of the problems. Deadlines, a lack of resources, competition between different media, and the rush to publish in a frantic 24/7 news environment all conspire to make the journalists’ job more difficult than ever.

Just as challenging is the problem of low ages and poor working conditions inside journalism. Journalism is badly paid everywhere, and where conditions are corrupt journalists cannot be relied upon to produce challenging and risk-taking.

But in the end that is still not an excuse for ignorance of the law, or a failure to show humanity in the way we tell our stories, or to provide context which is not necessarily part of the newsroom formula of framing issues in terms of two sides to every story.

When it comes to rape and violence against women journalists might do better to recognise that in most cases there is only one side to the story.

And the challenge is to work with women survivors of violence, to give them access to the media and to focus on the facts and argument which must be heard if society is to better understand and prevent further crimes.

The choice to discriminate is a political one and media must ensure that the issues are fully debated. In particular, they should provide information which illustrates the dangers facing societies that sacrifice the rights of women and girls’ rights or lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender equality amid claims that they are not part of Africa’s cultura; experience.

Media have to test everyone, including policy makers and legislators who advance the “not in our culture” argument. Many conveniently forget that 20 years ago South Africa made international legal history by passing a constitution in 1994 that eliminated apartheid and that specifically named sexual orientation in its clause on equality, a commitment built out of the lessons of a struggle against racial and gender-based oppression.

Too often media do not give space to the different individual and African collective voices that actively support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as part of creating inclusive, democratic societies. In doing so, they deny the legacy of women’s bold and imaginative activism and contributions to progressive transformation in all African societies.

Media concerned with the economic, political and social future of Africa have to consider what actions are needed to confront the rise of close-minded, discriminatory, anti-democratic thinking dressed in the language of politics or religion.

They must provide leadership in providing critical thinking and debate, a separation of religion from state policy and law-making, the strengthening progressive social movements, and the bravery to stand up in defence of the marginalised in our societies. Above all, it requires media to be more assertive in defence of women’s rights.

So what can be done?

  1. As a start it will help if all journalists receive mandatory training on:
    1. the law on the reporting of violence against women, including the absolute and clear rule that victims of alleged rape have anonymity;
    2. international standards and human rights of women and girls;
    3. the scale, nature and causes of violence against women in Uganda and the region, with some emphasis on common myths about the subject and the phenomenon of victim blaming and its consequences.
  2. Media enterprises should:
    1. Establish internal systems to deal with internal issues related to discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment;
    2. Encourage women in roles of responsibility;
    3. Have internal guidelines to deal with acts of discrimination;
    4. Open in-office debate and discussions: on use and moderation of user content; use of images and pictures; news agenda and identification of gender dimension in all sections;
    5. Engage with the audience and use all sources of information to further discussions;
    6. Review editorial and encourage editors to remove editorial which blames victims for crimes committed against them or which promotes common myths about violence against women (on rape and domestic violence for example).
  3. Media support groups and civil society groups should engage in public dialogues about the apparent contradiction between the portrayal of sexualised images of women and girls in editorial and advertising alongside the reporting of violence against women.
  4. Self-regulators at enterprise and national level should apply more sanctions to address the most egregious ethical lapses in reporting the rights of women and girls.
  5. The EJN and African partners should develop training materials and guidelines for journalists and media to raise awareness of the challenges in reporting violence against women and the need for tolerance in reporting on sexual minorities
  6. Above, across all platforms we should use every opportunity to tell stories and use the best of stylish, informed and fact-based journalism to focus on these issues.

All of this can help create the atmosphere for public discussion that will lead to progressive change. That may not be the explicit purpose of journalism, but it is a relevant and necessary objective of everyone who values democracy.

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Photo credit: Flickr CC CIAT