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The Emperor’s New Clothes

lmarshalls Icon Posted by Lucinda Marshall

April 15th, 2006

Writing about media coverage of violence against women (VAW) is a bit like reporting on the Emperor’s new clothes. Relative to other forms of violence, VAW gets much less coverage than it should. To illustrate the point, try this little piece of math—consider how many people died on September 11, 2001 and how many soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and just how many column inches/on air minutes have been devoted to those deaths.

Next, consider how much coverage has been given to women who have died in this country as a result of intimate violence during the same period (upwards of 1000 per year). Framed in that light, the discrepancy is glaringly clear.

This point was brought home to me recently when I published 2 articles within a week of each other. One was about the inappropriate media coverage of the Cynthia McKinney incident, the other about the urgent need to fully fund the Violence Against Women Act.

The second piece barely received any attention. The McKinney piece however resulted in my inbox being flooded and an invite to appear on “Hannity and Colmes” (I declined the honor). My local paper, operating on similar priorities as my readership, ran one editorial, three Op-Ed pieces and a cartoon about McKinney. I wish I could say the same about coverage of VAWA.

Now if I were an editor reading the McKinney story off the wire, my first gut reaction would have been to allot it a column inch tops go on to cover more pressing news. In the scheme of things, it should never have been a major story.

But that isn’t what happened, and one of the most notable things is how much coverage has been devoted to Rep. McKinney’s reaction once the officer tried to restrain her. We hear repeatedly about her punching him, but her comment that she was inappropriately touched has been uniformly discounted.

I have no idea what exactly happened that day in the halls of Congress, but as a reporter I would wonder how loudly the officer tried to hail McKinney before taking physical action. I would wonder how noisy the halls of Congress might be and whether McKinney was engaged in a conversation with those around her and might possibly not have heard the officer.

I also know that if I was unexpectedly grabbed from behind, pacifist training aside, my instinctive reaction would probably be to lash out with my arm and whatever happened to be in my hand at the time, a cell phone for instance. If I were to deliberately set out to slug someone, my guess is that I’d ditch the cell phone before forming a fist.

But all that assumes we take seriously McKinney’s allegation that she was touched inappropriately. Unfortunately all too often that is not what occurs. When women report incidents of personal violence their claims are frequently discounted or ignored. It becomes fair game in the media to comment on their looks or question their ethics, even to the point of trotting out Tom DeLay as the chief accuser.

And in the meantime, where are the stories about VAWA and about the every day inappropriate touching that women experience all over the world? A quick search of NexisLexis for VAWA related stories reveals a paucity of articles. A Google search turns up mostly statements by men’s rights groups. All of which points to the urgent need for all of us to be media activists on this issue and insist that violence against women be taken seriously by the media, otherwise we’re just decked out in the Emperor’s new clothes.

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For those of you reading my work for the first time and who want to know more about my background, here is some bio information. I also want to invite you to visit the Feminist Peace Network’s website which offers a wealth of information about the global pandemic of violence against women that is occurring every day.

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