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Natasha Stott Despoja: The way media report sensitive issues shapes our attitudes

April 12 2016 By Natasha Stott Despoja

Sensationalist reporting of domestic violence can perpetuate myths.

Natasha Stott Despoja speaks at the 2015 Our Watch Awards Image

Domestic and family violence is in the headlines again. Apart from the stories, sometimes the actual headlines are a cause for concern.

“A love triangle” was how one TV news report described a Sydney incident in which a woman was stabbed by her former partner and her partner was murdered. As one Tweet said, “When you stab your ex-wife and murder her partner, @channel9 calls it a ‘Love Triangle’. To the rest of us it is domestic violence”.

Even the recent hijacking of an Egyptian airlines flight was alluded to as a man’s desperate act of love as he was demanding to see his former wife (who was in Cyprus, to which he wanted the plane diverted). However, she revealed he was “extremely dangerous” and he “terrorised his family” and beat her and their children.

Obviously, headlines are designed to be sensational. They are supposed to draw in readers, viewers, listeners. But we know that the way we present sensitive issues, such as mental health or family violence, does affect the way we view those issues and address stigma.

For many years, beyondblue and other mental health organisations campaigned for news outlets to carry a tagline with the details of how people could get help.

This is especially important in the mental health sphere as we know that descriptions, or portrayals of mental illness and associated acts can have copycat or trigger effects.

When it comes to family violence and sexual assault, the hotline to call in Australia is 1800 RESPECT.

Increasingly, this number does appear at the end of relevant stories in the media. This is good progress.

Many journalists, such as Lauren Novak at this newspaper, are writing news stories that highlight violence against women in an informed way. It is a far cry from the days when journalists such as my mother struggled to get these issues into mainstream media.

It is great to see these knowledgeable stories outweigh those that might perpetuate the attitudes (such as victim-blaming) and myths that give rise to violence in the first place.

The media also play a role in shaping attitudes and perceptions that allow a culture of silence: the notion that domestic and family violence is a ‘‘private matter’’.

One US study showed that exposure to news articles endorsing rape myths – the idea that it is a woman’s ‘‘fault’’ for the violence inflicted upon her – makes people more likely to side with a defendant and dismiss a woman’s claims of sexual assault.

The willingness of the community to understand and prevent violence is assisted greatly by educated and helpful media commentary.

Natasha Stott Despoja is a former Deputy Chair of beyondblue and is Chair of Our Watch

This article was written by Natasha Stott Despoja and first appeared in The Advertiser on April 11, 2016. 

Our Watch seeks to engage with the media through specific programs and guides for journalists who report on violence against women and their children. 

Media contact

For enquiries or further information: Hannah Grant, Our Watch, mobile 0448 844 930, email Hannah.Grant@ourwatch.org.au

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.”

About Our Watch 

Our Watch’s (previously the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children) purpose is to raise awareness and engage the community in action to prevent violence against women and their children.
Our Watch was conceived of and brought into existence in 2013 by the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of Victoria. The Northern Territory, South Australian, Tasmanian governments have also since become members of the organisation.
Our Watch’s work derives from the government’s commitment to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022 and gives expression to many of the activities in the Second Action Plan 2013–2016 – Moving Ahead.