The Media and Gender-Based Murders of Women: Notes on the Cases in Europe and Latin America

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Violence against women, especially its most severe form, femicide/feminicide, is caused by many factors, such as social constructs and the symbolic violence of what it means to be a man or a women in different societies. In contemporary societies, mass media plays a fundamental role in these constructs due both to the content, language and narrative used, and to audience consumption.

This article analyses the connections between gender-based murders of women and the media coverage of these murders, particularly in Europe and Latin America. What effect, if any, does the broadcasting and coverage of murders of women have on the victims and perpetrators, and on society as a whole? What role can or should journalism and the media play in violence against women? Is regulation necessary and/or legitimate?  

I. Female homicide and gender-based violence
Homicide is a serious crime everywhere. It violates an individual’s right to life and has terrible consequences for society as a whole, in the form of the suffering which the loss of a loved one causes and the feelings of public insecurity that homicide provokes, which in turn erode social and human capital and undermine community development (Ganpat et al, 2011: 10). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC, 2011) confirmed that there has been a decrease in homicides at global level in the last few decades, but this decrease does not apply to female homicides. While they still represent a minority of total homicides, women are the main victims of domestic or intimate partner violence, crimes which are not decreasing over time . Nearly 40% of women murdered all over the world have died at the hands of their intimate partners (WHO, 2013). Despite the significance of the phenomenon, in many countries information on the relationship between the perpetrator and victim is not recorded, or is only partially recorded (WHO, 2013).

Female homicides have gained more social and media attention in recent decades. From the reporting of cases of disappearance, sexual violence and murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the use of the expression feminicide or femicide has been extended in Latin America to refer to gender-based homicides of women, including cases where women are killed by their partners or former partners. These cases, called intimate femicides, make up the majority of female homicides at global level, as indicated by the UNODC.

Europe too, has started to pay more attention to femicides, particularly those committed by partners or former partners, under a variety of official terms: feminicide/femicide, domestic violence, mortal victims of gender-based violence, and male violence against women, among others. Although in the majority of countries there are no regular statistics in this respect, in countries where they have been evaluated, e.g. in Germany, it has been found that half of the women murdered were killed by their partners or former partners . In France, the number of women murdered due to “domestic violence” increased by more than 20% between 2001 and 2012  and in Italy, the feminist organisations that record these deaths have reported a sustained increase in the murders of women in recent years . In Spain, there has been an official record of mortal victims of gender-based violence  since 2003 . These records confirm that intimate femicide is usually the corollary of previous violence by partners or former partners against women, i.e. they are not isolated violent incidents. This underlines the role that policies regarding gender-based violence in intimate relationships may have in preventing femicide and protecting women.
In Latin America, women’s organisations from various countries started to record these cases over a decade ago, and in recent years limited official statistics have also been available. While the real situation in the continent is heterogeneous, several countries present alarming rates of femicide/feminicide . In general, the number of gender-based female homicides in Latin America where the perpetrators were the women’s partners is the third highest worldwide, after Southeast Asia and Africa (WHO, 2013).

Regional differences can be explained by the differences in homicide patterns in general and according to the degree of cultural tolerance toward violence against women.

II. The media and violence against women
 As when talking about violence against women and the cultural contexts in which it takes place, when referring to the media, it should be noted that there are also major differences between the media systems in different countries and regions (Hallin and Mancini, 2012 and 2004; Waisbord, 2000) .  Certain cultural matrices are particularly important to consider and are central to the subject at hand.

Different television cultures can offer differing narratives and propose disparate visions of society. In this way, the narrativity of the news varies depending on the countries and their cultures: in some European countries, there is no room for the narrative techniques of fiction (music, close-ups, reiteration, melodrama), which are central to the narrative structure of the media in more sensationalist Latin America .
The role of the media in the production and reproduction of gender stereotypes, and particularly of gender-based violence, has been a source of concern in feminist studies for many decades (Mattelart, 2003).

This concern has given rise to research into the place of women, and especially violence against them, in areas such as media production processes, gender representations in the media and debates and content in general in the media, among others .

With regard to news production, we can note the low proportion of women working in editorial offices and in high-level editorial positions (IWMF, 2010) . Furthermore, various studies demonstrate that hegemonic news values continue to correspond to a male-dominated culture which permeates journalistic routines in newsrooms (Tsui and Lee 2012; Zeldes, Fico and Diddi, 2012; Ross and Carter, 2011; Zeldes and Fico, 2010; Vega, 2010a and 2012, cited in CNTV, 2013).

Furthermore, different studies in various countries have noted an over-representation of violence and discrimination against women and girls in news content , especially news that is broadcast on television (Rovetto, 2013, on CNTV, 2013: 25).

Possible effects of news coverage of femicide/feminicide:

  • a) Presenting violence against women as an individual or relationship problem:

Four frames have been identified in the media coverage of femicide/feminicide and violence against women: 1) a police frame or “just the facts”; 2) a frame indicating that these events happen to people who are different to “us”; 3) a frame that blames the victims and/or excuses the perpetrator; 4) a frame that implies shock at how “normal” the perpetrator identified appears (Gillespie et al, 2013).
Police frames or “just the facts” favour a sensationalist view, where gruesome details – such as the number of times that victim was stabbed - or other specific details of the attack are highlighted. This frame is frequent in Latin America but it also exists in Europe . The media often refers to jealousy  or the use of drugs or alcohol, uncritically justifying the actions of the perpetrator of the crime, or including expressions like “from love to murder” or “crime of passion”, portraying the homicides as “love stories” .

These frames maintain a critical disconnection between femicides/feminicides, presented as isolated, individual cases, and domestic violence as a broader social problem (Gillespie et al, 2013). A recent study carried out in Sweden shows that the majority of news studied describes violence as the result of imbalances in the family system, placing the focus of the problem at individual level, which prevents violence being considered a social problem (Halili, 2013).

In Italy, feminist organisations recently reported the inappropriate treatment in the press of femicide/feminicide cases, for instance, cases that are described as family tragedies and not as violence against women, or that indicate depression due to the loss of a job as a justification, or that insist on interviewing neighbours only to show that the murderer was a good man .

In the United Kingdom, as a result of the Leveson investigation , various women’s organisations presented information on news coverage of violence against women in 2012 described as either “intrusive, inaccurate, which misrepresented or which were misogynistic, victim-blaming or condoning of VAWG”, giving several examples .

  • b) The copy-cat effect

A particularly significant aspect in the field of mass communication research is whether the media can affect individuals’ behaviour. There is evidence that this has occurred in cases of youth suicide (Malmuth and Briere, 1986).

The copy-cat effect is mentioned in various reports in relation to cases of women burned with acid in countries like Bangladesh, India and Cambodia, where it is maintained that the increase in cases of women burned in this way may be due to the copycat effect (Kalantry and Kestenbaum, 2011: 10).

The case of Cambodia is of special interest: on 5 December 1999, singer Tat Marina was attacked with acid and the case was highly publicised . Before this case, the number of acid attacks recorded was relatively low, but since then there has been a sharp increase in these types of attacks (Kalantry and Kestenbaum, 2011). Between December 1999 and May 2000, there were 15 attacks, six of which also took place in December (LICADHO, 2003: 5). The Tat Marina case stirred up great media attention as did the fact that the alleged perpetrator and accomplices were not arrested or sentenced. While it is possible that the number of cases of women burned has not increased and that it is just that the media has shown more interest in reporting each case, it is also possible that the Marina case contributed to the increase in attacks, in the sense that more people might think that throwing acid was not a crime that would be punished by law and would therefore end in impunity (LICADHO, 2003: 6). Concern that media coverage of these cases may lead to other acts of violence is also present in countries like Uganda (Acid Survivors’ Foundation Uganda, 2011: 16).

In Spain, the risk of a possible copy-cat effect was brought into debate especially by forensic doctor Miguel Lorente , who stated that seeing a violent reality confirmed may encourage many perpetrators and fuel the fear that many abused women experience (Lorente, 2010: 19). Aware that men only consider homicide as a last resort, probably when violence does not have a controlling effect, he stated that seeing how another man had killed his wife in the media could reinforce his decision to commit the crime as he would be able to find aspects in common and identify with the feelings.

A study carried out in relation to media news on cases of intimate partner femicide in Spain allows us to identify a certain copy-cat effect when we compare the days when there are news on femicide cases and days that there are not. The conclusion is that televised news on cases of intimate partner femicides would appear to increase the possibility of death by femicide by between 32% and 42% (Vives, Torrubiano and Álvarez, 2009).

One case that proved the copy-cat effect in Latin America in recent years was the case of Wanda Taddei in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, on 10 February 2010, Wanda Taddei suffered serious burns caused by alcohol set alight by her husband, Eduardo Vázquez. She died after 11 days of agony and Vásquez remained at liberty until 4 November of the same year, because for months the justice believed his version that it was a domestic accident. On 14 June 2012, Eduardo Vásquez was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the crime.

The case had huge media coverage due to both the cruelty of the attack and because Eduardo Vázquez was a member of a rock band involved in a nightclub fire where nearly 200 people had died in 2004 for which all the band members were declared responsible and sentenced in 2012 . As a result, the case was talked about extensively in news programmes and magazine shows.

According to the reports of the “La Casa del Encuentro” organisation , there has been an increase in the number of femicide cases in Argentina in recent years, reaching a peak in 2011.

Furthermore, the number of cases where women are set alight have become more common since 2010, when Wanda Taddei was murdered, rising from 2.6% of the total number of femicides in 2009 (6 women set alight) to reach 10.28% of cases in 2011 (29 women set alight).

Since Wanda Taddei’s death in 2010 until the first half of 2013, 66 women have been burnt to death in Argentina . However, in addition to these cases of femicide, there have also been numerous cases of women attacked with fire: in the three years following the death of Wanda Taddei, 132 women were set on fire by men in Argentina, and nearly half of these women died .

By September 2010, women’s organisations  and some media were already warning about a repeat pattern in attacks on women and the far lower media interest in those other cases . Refererence to the “Wanda Taddei effect” is currently generalised at media level in Argentina to refer to the multiplication of femicide cases committed by burning since that case .

  • c) Increase of fear in women

The connection between violent narratives in the media and fear of crime has been studied in recent years and is the major focus of the cultivation theory (Morgan and Shanahan, 2010, cited by Custers and Van den Bluck, 2013: 99). The cultivation theory understands that the representation of crime and violence in the media may constitute a threat to democracy, as frightened people are more dependent, and more easily manipulated and controlled.

The media plays an important role in the level of fear of crime in general, and in particular in women. The press tends to over-represent women as victims (Greer, 2003; Reiner et at, 2003; Peelo et al, 2004, Custers and Van den Bluck, 2013) and homicides are more often reported in the press when the homicide victims are women (Peelo et al, 2004). News that focuses on the body of women who suffer gender-based violence is built on the concept of victims that need protection and assistance, and women from other cultures are linked to prostitution and gender-based violence (Martínez-Lirola, 2010, on CNTV, 2013: 25).

It is necessary to recognise that “violence against women and girls is both an extreme manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination and a deadly tool used to maintain women’s subordinate status” (UN Women, 2011: 32). In this way, fear of becoming a victim of violence, often fuelled by the press , is a mechanism that contributes to ensuring the subordination of women.

  • d) Protective effect

The news has also been found to provide a protective effect when it focuses on initiatives against violence towards women and femicide (related to laws, statements from and interviews with politicians and key figures in the field of violence against women, or public acts that condemn this type of crime) instead of focusing on the crimes themselves. In the case of Spain, this effect was noted during the period when there was an increase in this type of news due to the passing of a new law on violence against women while the study was being carried out. (Vives, Torrubiano and Álvarez, 2009).

Similarly, when the Law to Penalise Violence against Women was passed in 2007 in Costa Rica, there was a significant drop in the number of femicide cases, nearly half that of previous years, which can only be explained by the entry into force of the Law and the extensive media attention it received .

III. Regulatory and self-regulatory proposals
With regard to regulatory aspects, various international instruments – such as the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belem do Pará) , the Beijing Declaration and its Platform for Action  and the Convention of Istanbul, at European level - have stressed the need for guidelines related to the treatment of violence against women in the media in order to contribute to its prevention and eradication.

In national legislation, however, laws do not expressly lay down how the media should address news on violence against women. In some laws regarding the press as well as in initiatives under discussion , there are related general provisions to prevent discriminatory content  or content that incites discrimination based, among others, on gender. . Additionally, some national laws on violence against women include general references to the role of the media .

The Spanish Law on Gender-based Violence has been more specific – possibly due to cases where the media has played a role in triggering attacks on women -, and it states that “reports concerning violence against women, within the requirements of journalistic objectivity, shall do the utmost to defend human rights and the freedom and dignity of the female victims of gender violence and their children. In particular, they shall take special care in the graphic treatment of such items” .

These regulations, however, do not impose direct obligations on the press which, under the principle of freedom of expression and press freedom, is subject only to the self-regulation of professional camera people, of business associations and specific media. In the case of Spain, for example, legal regulations have resulted in the creation of media observatories in some autonomous regions, news writing guidelines and recommendations on the treatment of gender-based violence in the media . These mechanisms depend, however, on the willingness of the media itself to apply the guidelines. For example, the annual reports of the Asociación de Mujeres Periodistas de Cataluña [Association of Women Journalists of Catalonia] show that the media persists in presenting cases of gender-based violence from a merely “informative” perspective, with little contextualising and an excessive use of adjectives that only seek to further dramatise the facts .

At international level, various bodies have developed minimum standards to address the production of content and development of cultural industries from a gender perspective. In this regard, national and international guides have been prepared with suggestions on how to produce content with a gender perspective, to avoid stereotypes and to extend the type and number of specialised news sources that the media usually uses (IFJ, s/f; Alberti et al, 2010). There are also projects within the media itself  that have driven gender policies, which include style guides (IPS, 2010; RTVE, 2002) .

For example, in the case of Radio y Televisión Española, there is a full section with recommendations on how to cover issues related to violence against women. Among others, it includes respecting the victim’s identity and pain, identifying the perpetrator, not confusing morbid curiosity with social interest, taking special care in the use of sources and the use of adjectives and providing useful information . In the case of Inter Press Service, a global news agency, it has a section specially dedicated to covering gender-based violence , as well as a style guide and a glossary of terms on gender, development and equity which now has various editions .

UNESCO has also promoted actions to encourage this debate and to implement actions on different levels, in association with various stakeholders. In December 2013, the Global Forum on Media Gender  was held in Bangkok, as part of the Global Alliance for Media and Gender.

These tools, however, face some obstacles: they are often international, local or association regulations promoted without the participation of the media and/or media professionals, which leads to low level of uptake: compliance monitoring is non-existent or poor and they lack specific  regulatory entities.

In terms of self-regulation, it is important to point out that the business associations that make up the media, for example, as well as professional journalist and communicators associations have formulated codes of news ethics and treatment. Furthermore, there are projects in relation to media or in particular media group style guides . In general, these refer to issues regarding sources, sensationalism, violence and sexual crimes and minimum standards (of the least damaging possible, for example, or respect to victims) which are relevant to covering violence against women and femicide (Taufic, 2004).

One of the problems of codes of ethics and style guides, however, is that in some countries these are not made public and have restricted access. Therefore, it is not possible to know the commitment of the media to its audience, thereby hindering the monitoring of the role of the media and journalists .

To the above-mentioned, we must add that various professional organisations and women’s organisations have edited and promoted news coverage guides in these matters (Alberti et al, 2010; PAR, 2008; IJF, s/f) . Nevertheless, the impact and specific application of the guides is unknown and depends on the culture of accountability of the media industry in each specific society, as well as its journalistic culture.
III. Conclusions
Media coverage of violence against women and femicide/feminicide is one of a multiplicity of social factors that affect these phenomena. Although it is difficult to conclusively determine the extent of the effect or how it relates to other factors, its impact is nonetheless undeniable.

The studies analysed in this document at least enable us to establish that media coverage in these cases can have an impact on violence against women. This may occur in cases where, added to other factors, the media can influence potential perpetrators, women – the potential victims of violence – and society as a whole, through both male and female symbolic constructs as well as constructs regarding the relationships between men and women, thereby possibly contributing to consolidate a higher or lower tolerance to violence against women.

With regard to the obligations of states to prevent and eradicate violence against women, the influence of the media, even if it is relative, needs to be taken into consideration, and therefore the mechanisms that promote and favour appropriate information must be consolidated.

With regard to mass media, good practices need to be promoted that contribute to improving quality standards when covering violence against women, coherent with corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies which are slowly being incorporated at global level.
With regard to the press, journalists and communicators, high ethical and professional standards need to be put into practice when covering violence against women. For both the media and the press, these ethical, professional and social responsibility challenges need to be included in association and institutional instruments that provide guides to address this problem which, as we have seen, has an enormous impact on women’s rights and public health at global level.

Even though these instruments such as legislation, guides, directives and guidelines exist to a greater or lesser extent in both Latin American and European countries, it is essential that they have the appropriate mechanisms to ensure their effectiveness. Communication channels and monitoring devices are necessary so that these frameworks first reach those who have to implement them, and then are complied with. This means that the media and press themselves have to be involved, both in their own specialist media and in their professional associations. Additionally, civil society actors can supervise the international and legal obligations and/or agreements examined here.

More progress is needed in the debate, formulation and dissemination of these types of legal (obligatory) or editorial and ethical guidelines. Finally, it is essential that the gender perspective, especially raising awareness of violence against women, is included in graduate and post-graduate journalism and communications courses. In these areas, however, there is still a long way to go.

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