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Media Culpability In The Continuum
Of Violence Against Women

By Lucinda Marshall

30 September, 2004

Violence against women isn't news. Or at least that is the logical implication one might draw from the lacking and skewered coverage given to the subject by the media. Unless of course it involves a famous sports figure like Kobe Bryant or O.J. Simpson, or a beautiful mother-to-be like Laci Peterson, violence against women is a seriously under-reported story. Stories about violence in the home are routinely trivialized as domestic matters and misogynist violence such as female genital mutilation and honor killings are dismissed as cultural norms.

Inasmuch as violence against women is a global pandemic, the consequences of this ignorance and bias are horrific. In November, 2003, UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) published a report stating that one out three women are likely to be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes. In this country alone, 588,490 women were victims of non-fatal intimate partner violence in 2001 and in March, 2004, Amnesty International mounted a global campaign to end violence against women. One would think that when violence of this magnitude terrorizes half of the world's population, it would be front page news.

But as Carolyn Waldron points out in an article published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), "Media implicitly tell us how to rank the importance of the public issues according to the amount of press coverage devoted to an issue." In other words, lack of appropriate media coverage of an issue leads to the implication that the topic is not important. And obviously, if a story is not reported, public awareness is significantly lessened.

Most disturbing is the disproportionate coverage of sensationalized violence. Invariably, rape stories get far more coverage than domestic violence stories. In all likelihood, this is because rape stories usually focus on one individual woman. If she is attractive, and particularly if she is white, she is a very marketable victim.

As Jennifer L. Pozner (former director of the FAIR Women's Desk) makes clear, controversy rather than facts sells in a "media climate that considers news a "product" and readers and viewers "consumers"." As an example, female genital mutilation affects millions of women worldwide, yet you rarely hear about this. By contrast, the Kobe Bryant rape trial, Laci Peterson's murder and the Simpson case were staple front page headlines for months.

Rape is without doubt the most titilating crime there is. It is no accident that rape is a frequent theme in pornography. The sexual brutilization of women is a highly marketable business, bringing in some $10 billion in profits in the U.S. every year. As lucrative as the portrayal of rape is in the adult entertainment industry, it stands to reason that it is also a profitable story for the news media as well. It is interesting to note that the very same cable companies that broadcast news shows also broadcast pornography. In fact one of those companies, Time Warner, is the parent company of CNN.

Another barometer of the economics involved is a recent Viagra advertisement that has been shown extensively on the nightly news. It shows a man exhibiting his devilish impulses by being turned on by very revealing women's lingerie. That the networks see fit to advertise male sexual lust and what a turn-on women's underwear is during the evening news says much. Clearly the objectification and trivialization of women's lives and bodies in the cause of satisfying the male need for sexual power mitigates any possibility of appropriately addressing violence against women.

It is also important to note that the worst sensationalizing occurs when women commit sexualized violence, you can count on that to be the day's top story. Witness the Lorena Bobbit case (she cut off her husband's penis but was found innocent by reason of insanity caused by the abusive behavior of her husband). More recently Abu Ghraib, where the actions of a few women such as Lynndie England were huge news, but the abuse of women prisoners in the same prison has been totally ignored by the media or dismissed as 'just porn' provides another stunning example of this sort of sensationalism.

As Frieda Werden of the Women's International News Gathering Service (WINGS, points out, "Men's violence against women is treated like a "dog bites man" story, and women's violence against men as a "man bites dog" story. Thus the amount of coverage in mainstream media is inversely proportional to the actual prevalence of these kinds of violence, and gives a false impression". In fact, according to the U.S. Justice Department, 89% of sexual violence is committed by men and 99% of the victims are women.

As I began writing this piece, we passed the benchmark of 1000 American deaths in Iraq. It was anticipated by the media for weeks, and its significance pondered at great length on the airwaves and in print. Yet more than 1000 women are killed by intimate partner violence in this country alone every year. Hundreds of thousands more are raped and hurt by sexual violence. But that is not front page news.


Postscript: There are many women-run efforts to report violence against women. The following list is not meant to be a complete compendium, just a starting point.

Awakened Woman

Off Our Backs




Women's Enews

Daily Feminist News

Ms. Magazine

In addition, there are several excellent sites that list comprehensive statistics about violence against women:

Stop Family Violence

Family Violence Prevention Fund

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network


Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, which publishes Atrocities, a bulletin documenting violence against women throughout the world. Her work has been published in numerous publications including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, Progressive, Rain and Thunder, and Zmag.

* Domestic Violence is a Serious Widespread Social Problem in America: The Facts. Family Violence Prevention Fund,

** Feminists, Prostitutes and Nazis by Carolyn Waldron. FAIR, November/December 1998.

*** In Rape Debate, Controversy Trumps Credibility by Jennifer L. Pozner. FAIR May/June 2000.

**** Porn in the USA segment of 60 Minutes. CBS, September 5, 2004.







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