Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Women as "Victims" in the Print Media

This week, my post is going to be dealing with my favorite medium- newspapers!

I've recently read a study that was conducted in 2004 by Phyllis Anastasio and Diana Costa. These women,using college students and big newspapers (Think New York Times, The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer...), researched to see how the newspaper's representations covering "victims" of domestic violence, rape, harassment and murders effected victim blame and victim harassment. After reading 148 articles collected over a 7 week period pertaining to cases of violence, students were asked to give their reactions. Anastasio and Costa's findings were interesting...but require some background to full understand.

Being a Women's and Gender Studies major, the issue of rape victims being identified in the media comes up often in debates and discussion. Recently, in my Media Ethics and Law class, this issue arose. Typically, newspapers and other forms of media keep names out when the victims are female, but identify male victims regardless of the situation. Now, there's two arguments that can be made regarding this.

The first can be made supporting the depersonalization of victims. Some will argue that leaving a victim's (talking about women)name out of the press can help curb future harassment and alienation. In some cases, the victim may be concerned with being embarrassed or shamed.

The counter argument, which Anastasio and Costa's findings prove, is that when names are omitted, the victim is then "dehumanized" and seen as an "object" (Not Sally Jones, a 16-year-old white middle class female, but "victim"). This prevents personal connections from being made between victim and audience therefore causing a lack of empathy for the victim, which often leads to victim blame. Just as advertisements "objectify" and "dehumanize" women, newspapers tend to do the same- and it's usually not a conscious effort.
"As history has taught us, accepting and even engaging in violence is made much easier when the victims are dehumanized, depersonalized, and objectified. Lack of personal information about victims in general, and about female victims in particular, may help to "normalize" violence against women and impede progress towards reducing such violence" (Anastasio and Costa 541).
This is part of the desensitized society in which we live. It takes far too much to even influence a reaction in people especially concerning women's issues. Rape and violence against women has become so common, even the media is enforcing this notion of "normalcy".

In the study, after college students (who were women, by the way) read the articles, a majority of those surveyed laid blame on the female victim (especially in cases of rape and domestic violence). Blame was placed due to the "clothing" the victim wore insisting the victim was "asking for it" or "said something to upset her husband" in a domestic violence case. These statements were made when the victims personal information was omitted from the articles. However, it should be clarified that as long as the victims personal information was included, regardless of gender, victim blame was not placed and all experienced increased empathy for the victim.

Let's focus on the cultural aspects for a minute. Culture, society, it's all influenced by the media in different ways. Whether it's acknowledged or not, it happens. As mentioned earlier, statements were made blaming the victims.If certain information is omitted, but some description is given, people assume their own biases using what stereotypes and cultural myths they may have learned. This is big problem that most reporters don't even realize they're assisting in. "The news may inadvertently support cultural myths about female victims. For example, a description of the attire of a rape victim may imply that she provoked the attack. Mention of the years of abuse endured by a woman who was murdered by her husband may engender blame for failure to leave the situation earlier. Even the mention of a woman's height and weight, if not within the slender dictates of contemporary attractiveness, may serve to trivialize the horror of victimization" (Anastasio and Costa 536). What may seem like pertinent information to a reporter leaves plenty of room for stereotyping and cultural "norms" to slither in...

So, what should be done? The answer isn't a clear one. The media may be doing it's best to present victims in the best light possible, but not all women want to be known as victims. It's not powerful, it's not liberating. It's smothering. To be known as a victim, for some women, is just plain rude. This is a big reason for keeping names out of the print media. Despite findings in experiments and case studies, ultimately, it comes down to what the woman herself wants people to know. As reporters, I think we have a job, a loyalty, to the victim. This could be debated, but that's what we're all studying in Media Ethics and Law, no? :)

Women are enduring gender violence all the time, and yet it's not always presented in the media. Not even rape cases make it to the news unless someone pertinent is involved, and certainly not every case of domestic violence is documented in the New York Times or on CNN. The representations women get in the media aren't always on their side, or for good cause. Usually, because our society is so desensitized to violence against women, their cases are left out while cases against men seem to be "rare" and make the cuts for articles and news briefs. The fact of the matter is, women need to get out there and let their voices be heard!

There's an event Rutgers hosts each year. Take Back the Night! It's on April 23, 2009 and starts at 7PM in front of Cooper Greens (aka the grass of the FORMER Cooper Dining Hall) and then off to Brower Commons!

Check out the Facebook group for updates!

In the meantime, I'll try to search for some POSITIVE stories about women taking a stand against gender violence in the media!

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