Blame the victim? Domestic violence as covered in The Sun and The Guardian – Michele Lloyd and Shulamit Ramon

26 11 2016

image-20161122-11012-15asg9rDomestic violence is an enduring problem in the UK: an average of two women a week continue to be killed by their current or former partner. It’s a widespread and important story, and – like all news media – newspapers make a decision about how to report this issue.

But, unlike television and radio broadcasting, the print media in the UK is not required to be impartial. And although newspaper content is not necessarily absorbed uncritically by readers, the way editors and journalists frame news stories can influence the “take home” message communicated to readers.

We explored how The Sun and The Guardian reported domestic violence in 2001-2 and 2011-12 to evaluate evidence of change over a ten-year time span. The rationale for selecting these newspapers was based on their contrasting formats: The Sun is the biggest-selling newspaper in the UK, tabloid in style and traditionally right-of-centre politically, while The Guardian is a left-of-centre broadsheet with a far smaller circulation but a far larger online readership.

We studied both online and hard copy articles of the two papers: these included analyses of victims (predominantly women) and perpetrators (predominantly men). While The Guardian adopted a respectful position towards women victims, the textual and visual techniques adopted by The Sun reveal a tendency for victim blaming and, in some cases, giving character references for the perpetrators.

The stimulus for investigating newspaper reporting of domestic violence was a European Union funded project led by the University of Hertfordshire with partners in Greece, Italy, Poland and Slovenia, which researched the well-being of women experiencing both domestic violence and mental health issues.

The expressed guilt of the women participants made us consider what leads victims of this type of violence to accept guilt, blame and shame instead of holding perpetrators accountable. Given the influential role played by the media in both shaping and reflecting public opinion on issues such as domestic violence, this second project examining newspaper coverage of such violence was undertaken.

Laying the blame

The most commonly identified theme derived from our newspaper research was how The Sun appears to hold women responsible for their own abuse. Replete with descriptions of men who have killed their partners as “spurned lover”, “jilted lover” and “jealousy-crazed”, The Sun seems to be insinuating that the woman is culpable, partially at least, for her victimisation.

How The Sun reported the story.
The Sun

A key case in point was a story reported from the island of Jersey where a man called Damian Rzeszowski killed his wife, Izabela, two children and his father-in-law as well as a family friend and her daughter. The Sun described how he “slaughtered six people at a family barbecue after he flipped over his wife’s affair”. This gave the impression that it was the woman’s alleged infidelity that triggered the bloodshed. The Sun describes Rzeszowski as a “doting dad” and Izabela as “cheating on him”, again denoting her as a blameworthy victim.

Similarly, when a father, Jean-Francis Say, fatally stabbed his two children, The Sun observed that his wife had left him for another man two years earlier, taking the children with her.

All his wife did was sleep and go to work’.
The Sun

A neighbour was quoted saying that Say had told her he was always the one who did things for the children while “all his wife did was sleep and go to work”. The use of this quote appears to disparage a woman whose children have been killed.

When women kill

This contrasts with the description of “evil” Tracie Andrews, convicted of killing her boyfriend and subsequently in preparation for release from prison. Entitled “Evil Andrews serves up cuppas in a church cafe”, The Sun article juxtaposes her evilness with the sanctity of a church café and having a “cuppa”. Compare “evil”, redolent of internal, innate characteristics, with the descriptions of men who “snapped” or “flipped” and whose actions were “out of character”, thus suggestive of external, qualifying triggers.

Female killers treated differently in The Sun.
The Sun

The Guardian does not tend to engage in a victim-blaming narrative, which is a key issue when trying to understand the reporting of domestic violence which ends in the death of one of the partners. Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge – who has been a prominent advocate on this issue – states that domestic violence cases are not about one partner “losing [their] temper” or “flipping out”, they are about systematic control and abuse.

Domestic violence

When it comes to covering domestic violence as an issue, we found that The Guardian had consistently outnumbered The Sun in relation to the amount of articles published over the whole of our survey period.

How the two papers compare on domestic violence.
Michele Lloyd and Shula Ramon, Author provided

A closer inspection also revealed that The Guardian’s coverage had far more in-depth analysis of domestic violence overall, while The Sun tended to report on individual cases in a sensational manner.

Domestic violence in the news is seldom framed as a societal public health issue – but rather an individualised problem or somehow precipitated by victims. Our research, book-ended by the years 2001-2 and 2011-12, found that the ten-year passage of time has diminished neither the medium nor the message of The Sun in terms of blaming victims, and reinforcing society’s normalisation of privatised violence as “just another domestic”.


To see a YouTube video about the article based on this research please click here.

The ConversationMichele Lloyd, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire and Shulamit Ramon, Professor, Mental Health Research, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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4 responses

26 11 2016
daveyone1
26 11 2016
Carrie Reimer

Reblogged this on Ladywithatruck's Blog.

26 11 2016
My Inner Chick

**this issue – states that domestic violence cases are not about one partner “losing [their] temper” or “flipping out”, they are about systematic control and abuse.**

Excellent. You hit the nail on the head.

28 12 2016
martin brighton

Unfortunately, coercive control – a form of domestic violence – continues to be inflicted upon the exploited vulnerable women refugee Muslim demographic group, who state that their five main reasons for not reporting abuses are, in order, family, ( pressure not to bring shame on the family ) community, ( who will perceive the woman and husband as inadequate ) husband ( or partner – who will be humiliated in his peer group ), local authority ( who might take their children because they are seen as incapable of protecting them ), police ( who simply relay the accusation back to the abuser, who abuses them more to prevent further reporting of the abuses ).
In addition, in a patriarchal community, there is no religious support, especially where a religion ‘allows the man to “correct” the woman’s behaviour if she displeases him’ – even though this is ‘haram’ in the Koran
The tendency then is for the these victims to post-reconcile the abuse, to blame themselves, and to quietly put up with the abuses, even outwardly praising the partner, until such time as the abuses escalate and can no longer be hidden, by which time PTSD is entrenched, with long term physical, emotional and psychological harm to the victim and the family, especially children.
In law, as well as domestic abuse and coercive control being criminal offences, further Hate Crime offences contrary to the Equalities Act are committed, i.e. misogynistic, and Islamophobic ( even when the abuser is self-ascribed Muslim ), and perhaps more if the victim is disabled, or elderly.
There needs to be a societal change of attitude to both the reporting and processing of knowledge of such abuses, for example, taking away the compulsion for the victim to make a formal complaint, i.e. if the abuses are presented, prosecution automatically follows, and publicity also becomes automatic.

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