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Is The Media Failing Victims?

TW - Mention of sexual violence and victim-blaming

Bernard Cohen aptly defined the media’s ability to influence public opinion and agenda-setting as such: ‘[the media] may not be successful (...) in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about’.

The media’s propensity to influence public opinion and governmental agenda-setting should not be discarded or ignored. How (and why) media companies or journalists choose to frame a story, or cover it at all, has a massive impact on the overall progression of issue awareness (AKA salience) and action from governmental bodies.

The influencing power that the media holds has been especially present in the past month. The case of Sarah Everard has recieved an incredible amount of coverage in the media and has sparked a moment of national reckoning. Yet, the murders of women from marginalised communities (such as Blessing Olusegun, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman) remain largely uncovered in the media, and often fall victim to common tactics in media coverage.

Surely the colour of one’s skin, creed, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, or choice of fashion should not bear a significant influence on a case’s outcome in the public’s eye.

While researching for this post, I was able to identify five key trends seen in the media’s coverage of sexual violence: commercial interests, sexualised rhetoric, vacuum reporting, victim-blaming and silencing, and perpetuation of the ‘ideal victim’. Each trend continues to be dominant across media organisations in the UK (and abroad), often regardless of its political affiliations or leanings.

Traditional media’s coverage of stories of sexual violence has been complicit in enabling an environment where survivors and victims are shamed and silenced while perpetrators are excused.

We must recognise and address these trends to promote positive policy change and protect the public from undue influence. See below for more on these trends and how they work to promote and perpetuate the very things Reclaim the Campus is set to address: concealment, lack of accountability and lack of transparency.

  1. Commercial Interests

The media, especially social media, operate within a space dominated by the so-called attention economy (To read more about this phenomena, I suggest reading Wu (2017) The attention merchants: the epic scramble to get inside our heads). In other words, to stay operational, media companies and journalists rely on profits gained through views, clicks and readers. As a result, media organisations often push stories that are misleading, fallacious, sensational, or just pure ‘click-bait’. Scholars such as Kitzinger (2004) and Mendes (2015) argue that stories containing sexual violence are attractive for media organisations to cover as the stories ‘are often sensationalized and prompt outrage, fear, sadness and anger - emotional draws which are used to shift papers and make money’. In the age of expanding social media networks threatening legacy media organisations’ (Legacy media is a term often used to refer to traditional forms of media). These include newspapers, television, etcability to stay financially afloat, media organisations have been found to be reporting more stories containing sexual violence in an attempt to attract audiences. The commercialisation and prominence of sexual violence in the media ecosystem has arguably numbed the greater populace to the issue, as many see the stories as everyday instances.

  1. Sexualised Rhetoric

Multiple studies have highlighted the highly sexualised rhetoric used to describe victims and survivors of sexual violence. Helen Benedict, in her book entitled ‘Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes’, notes that survivors of rape are often categorised into a strict typology: where the ‘Virgin’ was innocent and a victim, the ‘Vamp’ was ‘asking for it’. Such rhetoric dehumanises the victim, belittles the experiences of those who have experienced abuse and endorses victim-blaming.

  1. Vacuum Reporting

Vacuum reporting refers to the tendency for media organisations to report on sexual violence as a singular occurrence or as occuring in a vacuum. Karen Boyle notes that rape is often portrayed in the news as individual cases, thereby ignoring the notion sexual violence on the macro/societal level. Additionally, this framing is often reinforced both in the news and in entertainment - with an emphasis on ‘self-help’, thus placing the blame firmly on the survivor. Portraying sexual violence in this light diminishes accountability from the perpetrator and the larger system that enabled such violence to occur in the first instance.

  1. Victim-Blaming and Silencing

The persistence of victim-blaming culture is widespread throughout media. As noted previously, there is a tendency to report on victims as being the ‘Vamp’, and to focus on what the survivor did, wore or said. Thus, the survivor is framed in the media in the eyes of the perpetrator. Narratives such as these legitimise scare tactics commonly used to prevent reporting - ‘nobody will believe you’, ‘you asked for it’.

  1. The ‘Ideal Victim’

It has been commonly observed that the ‘ideal victim’ of sexual violence that Western news tends to illustrate is ‘white, middle-class, educated, well-behaved, young, and conventionally attractive’. These victims garner attention in the news cycle, often described as being courageous. In contrast, survivors or victims who do not meet the standards of an ‘ideal victim’ (i.e. race, education, socioeconomic conditions) are often are met with a lack of acknowledgement in the media or condemnation (AKA ‘Vamp’).

Media organisations and journalists alike hold a great amount of responsibility when it comes to issue salience and forming public opinion.

Media organisations need to take an active role in changing the conversation. They can do so by focusing on educating their audience, applying pressure to appropriate government officials to encourage positive policy change, and amplifying equitable and just reporting of sexual violence.

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