OPINION: Findings from UN Women, KNBS-backed study on how media frames GBV, femicide are worrisome
By Rachel Ombaka
“Mainstream media is still very patriarchal in nature and can be characterised as ‘an elderly man’ chastising ‘errant women; by implying that murder [of women] is a consequence of errant behavior.” This is one of the damning conclusions of a new study that was backed by UN Women Kenya, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) and the State Department for Gender.
From pre-examined headlines of articles in Kenyan media, it was found that 39.7percent used sensational language such as ‘A man, his dead wife and a daring mistress’.
According to the authors of the study — Nicole Wasuna and Dr. Lanoi Maloy from the University of Nairobi — this kind of reporting is misplaced as it downplays the magnitude of taking a life, regardless of the victim’s actions or behaviour prior to the crime. Their study — Framing of Intimate Partner Femicide in Mainstream Media — indicates that femicide is still largely invisible from institutional record and memory.
Their research is part of a manuscript that was launched on Friday in Nairobi titled UN Women (2021). Gender Statistics for Evidence-Based Policies: Women’s economic empowerment, health and gender-based violence.
The authors found that coverage of stories mostly bordered on the dramatic, especially in the case of younger (below 30years) victims or survivors. Stories about university students and women from urban areas tended to be longer and had more details about their lives while stories of those above 30 years and from rural areas tended to contain little or no detail beyond the summary of the crime. Additionally, pictures were most likely to be included in the story when the victim/survivor is under 30.
The victim/survivor is often sexualised and characterised as hedonistic rebel, suggesting that somehow they brought violence upon themselves. For example, one headline reads ‘A 24-year-old beauty queen prison warder found murdered with several stab wounds’ and another one reads ‘beauty queen who loved partying….’
Such reporting, the researchers aver, draws the audience’s attention away from the important details of the crime, focuses on the victim’s behavior, perpetuates the myth that women with ‘bad reputation’ bring it on themselves and attempts to humanise the perpetrator with statement that point to 1) economic hardships that render men unable to fulfil their role as providers so they take it out on women and 2) men’s mental health issues that lead to violent acts and outbursts.
This has been attributed to the socio-cultural issue of who and what is considered important in society as well as the priorities of a largely male-dominated government (both in terms of representation and psychology).
The term fourth estate was coined in the medieval times in reference to public press that had an unofficial but often great influence on public affairs. Centuries later, the media continues to wield significant power and influence in capturing the attention of its audience and determining issues most important to society. Consequently, when it comes to framing of sexual harassment, gender based violence (GBV), intimate partner violence and femicide, reportage that is centred on victim blaming is bound to enable and reinforce the status quo.
As several other studies have shown in the past, reportage that excuses perpetrators for criminal acts makes society dehumanise women; have decreased empathy for survivors and victims; and shifts gender norms, leading to victims/survivors’ increased tolerance for GBV, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence and femicide.
There is a need for Kenyan media to be gender sensitive in their reporting and re-assessment of effects of their reportage on women. This can be achieved through regular training with partners who focus on these areas and creation of awareness among reporters, editors and media owners.
Rachel Ombaka is an online journalist in Nairobi, Kenya and an alumni of the Women in News (WiN) leadership program. She is currently partnering with the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK), Article 19 and Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) to address sexual harassment in newsrooms.