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Why report what the victim was wearing?

May 04 2018 By Mary Barry, Our Watch CEO

In the many hundreds of words that have been written about the sexual harassment case involving Fremantle Dockers coach Ross Lyon, there has been a disturbing trend towards blaming the victim, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Football field Image

Why did the media choose to report, for example, claims that the victim typically wore casual clothes to work but on the occasion at which the harassment took place, she had ‘dressed up’? Were any words spared for how Lyon usually dressed or what he wore on the night?

We read also that the woman had not worked after the harassment. How is any of this relevant?

Several stories pointed out that there was no sexual assault, implying that the incident was at the minor end of the sexual harassment scale and reassuring us that Lyon is otherwise a good bloke. In 2018, if reporters writing about sexual harassment are talking about what women wear and telling us the perpetrator is a good bloke, surely alarm bells should be ringing.

In the Fremantle case, as in its reporting on gender equality in general, the media needs to take a step back and examine its own conduct. Many reporters have criticised the club’s policy of confidentiality in this case, with loaded terms such as ‘hush money’ thrown around. But we now know that it was the victim who asked for confidentiality, and the media, not the AFL, who breached this request.

By naming Lyon and relentlessly pursuing the victim and her associates, the media has subjected this woman to unacceptable harassment. Ironically, outing Lyon has also deepened the power imbalance between the victim – who is obviously trying to preserve her anonymity – and the perpetrator.

Readers may have perceived contradiction and judgement also in the reporting on the money paid to the victim. Many stories repeated the line that Lyon was cleared of any wrongdoing. In doing this, while speculating on the amount paid to the victim, the idea was reinforced that the payment was indeed 'hush money'. This in turn may have made readers see the woman as some kind of 'gold digger' when in fact what happened was that she received financial compensation for serious harassment.

Has the media’s reporting on this case in any way helped the victim? Or in their rush to break a story, have reporters caused further pain and anguish as well as potentially deterring other women from making complaints in the future?

Our Watch is the national not-for-profit body established to prevent violence against women by tackling the drivers of this violence. Research tells us that the drivers of such violence include disrespect towards women and male peer relations that emphasise disrespect and aggression. As such, it’s vital that we continue our work with sporting codes, to harness the immense influence they can have both on and off the field in changing these attitudes and behaviours.

Our Watch advised the AFL on its respect and responsibility policy, which took effect last August, and has worked with the league for three years. While there is a real understanding by the AFL of the need for change in this area, gender equality in the sporting context is a complex and serious problem and will not be fixed in a short time frame or by one new policy.

Another key part of our work is our efforts to improve the media’s reporting of gender inequality and violence against women. Through our National Media Engagement Program, Our Watch is working closely with key media organisations on projects including curriculum for journalism students at universities and trainee journalists.

We have also produced a set of guidelines for reporting on sexual violence as part of that work. Journalists can access these easily online when stories like these come up, and actively be part of the solution.

Many of those working in the media today genuinely want to improve reporting on violence against women and there is real willingness to change and update their practices. A vital step in this direction is to stop blaming the victim.