The Impact of Biases in Media Reports of Gendered Violence

Keenal Majithia is a content creator and marketing lead at the Brown Therapist Network. She is a writer and you can read more articles by her here.

Sarah Everard. Milly Dowler. Madeleine mccann. Gabby Petito. You know these names. They’re etched into the public consciousness. They make your heart weep and reinforce the need to do a double take when you walk alone at night.

Sabina Nessa. Blessing Olusegun. Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. These women were brutally killed and abducted in similar cases of gendered violence like the above, but their names were slower to be reported on. Do you know what the difference might have been?

Public empathy. Our journalistic institutions have always decided whose story from the local news breaks the mainstream media. Certain factors like your socioeconomic background, age, and skin colour, have always come into play when it comes to deciding who is deserving, in death even, of several lines on page 6, or a front-page spread.1

Back in March 2021, Labour’s shadow domestic violence minister, Jess Phillips, read the names of all 118 women murdered in the past year, where a man had been convicted or charged. Over 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline in the first three months of the lockdown in 2020.2 These instances of violence can in many cases be a precursor to more extreme actions, highlighted by the findings in the 2009-2018 femicide census. They found 62% of all women killed by men (888/1,425) were killed by a current or former partner. Women are being tormented by men in such horrific numbers, that we can’t even feel safe on a short walk.

Whilst many of these cases do not break the headlines, what makes us more empathetic to some victims of these misogynistic murders than to others? What gives them the front page of the paper? In 2004, the late Gwen Ifill coined the term ‘missing white woman syndrome’ Gwen responded to another journalist who brought up the fact that in 1994 two figure skaters, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, had received more coverage than a million genocide victims and survivors. Ifill playfully jibed “If it’s a missing white woman, you’re going to cover that, every day.” ‘Missing white woman syndrome’ is used to describe the disparity in media coverage that missing young, conventionally attractive white women receive over missing Black and brown people.3

From the moment these cases are even reported, the families of Black and brown people are more likely to face additional obstacles. They may receive little initial attention like Sabina Nessa did. Social media hashtags such as the #sayhername campaign were accredited for bringing her case increased recognition. Due to less attention, police face less pressure to seek justice for the victim like with Blessing Olusegune’s case whose death is being treated as ‘not suspicious’, yet Madeleine Mccan’s case is still ongoing over a decade later. Assumptions made by people within law enforcement simply become further entrenched by the media and it becomes a vicious cycle. If you don’t fit a certain narrative, the media will highlight your background as if that’s relevant to your murder.

These biases then go on to shape public opinion, empathy and outrage.

Race and skin colour is not the only factor as class and economic or social standing plays a huge role too. In 1979, a senior detective told reporters the Yorkshire killer “has made it clear he hates prostitutes, many people do, but the Ripper is now killing innocent girls.”4 Police had categorised Sutcliffe’s victims as “innocent” and “non-innocent” based on class and lifestyle. They only began to care when it was women who fit their view of what is a blameless victim.

Not too dissimilar to the police officer who had recently labelled Sarah Everard as a ‘blameless victim’. They just didn’t constitute what would make a victim blameworthy. Sarah had followed all the unspoken rules women are indoctrinated with from a young age to stay safe and understandably large swathes of people leapt to her defence. #SheWasJustWalkingHome was trending. Collective empathy and outrage had ensued. She was a woman walking home and did not deserve to die. We can all agree on this.

Sabina Nessa was a teacher and a pillar of her community. She was also a woman walking home and did not deserve to die. Social media posts trying to galvanise the public to listen to what had happened to this woman, made sure to include how unworthy she was of her fate, by highlighting her contributions to society. A subtle observation, but it highlights how we had to fight harder, almost have to prove that Sabina was worthy of our collective grief, our remembrance. Would as many people have listened if Sabina was from a rural town in the midlands, if she wore a hijab or if she was on benefits? Would different circumstances in addition to her race have just made her yet another ignored statistic?

Race and diversity expert and founder of Pearn Kandola, Binna Kandola, explains a possible reason behind the insidious racial bias. ‘One of the issues here is that we feel more empathy towards people who are like us…We see them as individuals, think more positively about them and are more likely to be helpful towards them. If the media is more dominated by people in the majority group, then their sympathies will reside more naturally with them’.5

He goes on to say, ‘If they have less knowledge of and contact with minorities, they are likely to empathise with them less. Members of minority groups are more likely to be stereotyped and as a consequence may be deemed to have brought their misfortune upon themselves.’

This can have a damaging psychological impact on minority groups. Witnessing members of your community go missing and then ignored by the police, is devastating. Members of the British Bangladeshi and wider south Asian community would have felt unsupported and fearful after seeing what happened to Sabina Nessa. Her family shouldn’t have needed social media to fight for the British media to highlight her story. Women who attended the vigil for her, particularly Bangladeshi women, mentioned worries their families would be dismissed if they were to disappear.6

There is already a lack of reporting in domestic violence cases in the south Asian community, so these biases are only likely to discourage south Asians reporting cases of gendered violence and crimes to the police. Silence seems to be a staple of a south Asian woman’s suffering at the hands of men for decades. Women, as well as children suffered the most during the Partition of India where sexual violence, rape and murders were rampant. Many of these women, the ones’ who survived, never spoke of the trauma and if they did, it wasn’t until decades later.7

Since the days of Partition, women’s bodies have never truly had autonomy in the south Asian hemisphere. The violence enacted upon them by various communities is rarely spoken about, let alone the violence enacted by their own families during that time, in many cases. A woman was no longer allowed to occupy space if she had been violated, abused, raped or abducted. Society’s obsession with purity meant facing a real death was seen as more acceptable than a ‘social death’8 or having your purity tarnished. Although everyone knew this widespread violence was occuring, living in a patriarchal society meant men would absolve themselves of any guilt by defending their actions and controlling the narrative. 

Women were pressured into suicide to avoid living and facing sexual violence from men of different religious backgrounds – this was to preserve honour as a dead woman was deemed ‘better’ than an impure woman. Can coercive violence get any more devastating than this? The men had deemed this act as ‘heroic’9, a far cry from the second hand murder it truly was. These circumstances echo the honour killings we have today just like the accompanying silence around it due to the fear of preserving family honour.

You might wonder why there is a lack of reporting if violence against south Asian women doesn’t reflect some of the extreme violence they face. Some of the contributing factors include the following:10

  • Duty and tradition means being taught to respect authority figures
  • A woman is taught to be a perfect mother, a perfect wife and a perfect daughter-in-law
  • Girls in particular,  are taught from an early age “Don’t take your problems outside the home” 
  • Fear of breach of confidentiality, particularly in case the family find out 
  • Threats of being sent abroad
  • Fear of bringing shame to and going against the family tradition and cultural norms because of the concept of izzat/honour
  • A woman can lack support from her own family as well as her extended family
  • Lack of confidence in dealing with statutory organisations
  • Erroneous assumptions, such as viewing Asians as a “model minority” and overlooking the occurrence of domestic violence

Research has demonstrated that delayed reporting is a common (and natural) reaction to trauma of this kind.11 Women may downplay and minimize the abusive behaviour, blame themselves or fear the perpetrator. The criminal justice system however, discredits victims for this. How will we encourage our community to speak up, if the media isn’t on our side as well, amplifying our voices, our stories? The fear of being ignored or dismissed will just further entrench the idea that we are not worthy enough. We don’t matter. We’re not as grievable and they won’t help us.

Like they did in the past, when they stayed out of domestic violence matters, under the guise of it being ‘a cultural or family matter’. Our own silence has been complicit in covering the violence we’ve faced, much like the media’s ignorance of it, but now that we’re fighting back, we need the media to shine a light on incidents more than ever. We cannot report our own stories if brutal murders against our own only have fleeting mentions.

There was anger within the south Asian community, with even Jameela Jalil tweeting that she wanted to see the same empathy for Sabina as there was for Sarah. People were justifiably frustrated that it took longer for Sabina’s case to be more widely reported in the first 48 hours. This is the critical period after a disappearance when key witnesses are more likely to come forward. There are real consequences to racial bias. Although Sabina’s killer was found, many other victims won’t receive this justice.

The collective outpour for victims also propels Met commissioners or the government to speak out. After the sentencing of Wayne Couzens, Sarah’s killer, occurred, women were told to essentially resist arrest if they felt uncomfortable with a male police officer. Imagine how quick the handcuffs would be around you if you tried this as a woman of colour, especially if you had a hijab or were black. Whilst this is terrible advice in response to Sarah’s death, other women who’ve received similar levels of empathy, in part due to their privilege, have been more instrumental in being a symbol for change. We’ve had Clare’s law and Helen’s law, both key in fighting gender violence, but I request Sabina’s law. The right for all gender-based violence cases to be treated equally by the media, and law enforcement, regardless of race, or background.

How can we take care of our mental health?

The news and social media may have impacted how you may have been feeling recently. It is understandably overwhelming, frustrating and may make you feel fearful about leaving your house at night. So how can you protect your own mental health after these difficult few weeks?12

  • Take a news break. Your energy shouldn’t be entirely focused on reading everything related to the cases at present so let yourself timers on any social media or news apps.
  • Chanel your anxiety into campaigning for change. You can join Women’s Aid groups and do something more productive with your anxiety. We can reduce our feelings of helplessness and create real change if we campaign to reduce gender based violence in any way we can.
  • Ground yourself. Bring yourself into the present by using all five of your senses. Name one thing you can taste. Two things you can smell. Three things you can hear. Four things you can touch. Five you can see.
  • Attend or organise a vigil for people who have passed away from gendered violence. Make sure people of colour are remembered and honour them. This may bring a sense of community for people who knew the victim personally or empathised with them.
  • Talk to other women about their experiences and your own.

Dr Tina Mistry, Brownpsychologist and founder of BTN, recommends “you give yourself time to grieve collectively. South Asians are used to being with others at a time of mourning. Think of ways in which you can talk about your feelings of loss with others, maybe friends and family. However we also know that parents may also be feeling a sense of fear, which may result in heightened protective behaviour for example parents not letting you go out when it is dark, when they may have previously let you or that they want you to be chaperoned.

This overprotective instinct is natural and understandable, however it is a huge pain for us women and girls. It may be possible to speak to your parents about how you feel and of ways in which you can keep yourself safe, but also provide some space to encourage them to learn about this is a bigger and complex issue around patriarchy and race. I know this is difficult for many of us to have these types of conversations with our parents and sometimes we can only control our actions. I believe that parents will be thinking this way, to control and protect. However you can engage and be part of systemic change too.”