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Victims and Offenders Presented in the Media

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The purpose of this chapter is to analyse the actual reporting of sexual offences and the methods and tactics the media outlets use when reporting these events. This discussion will examine common trends, if there are any, in reporting sexual offences. The primary aspects to be discussed are how the accused and the victims are portrayed and the steps taken by the media in allowing the public to perceive them in this light. An analysis of the consequences of their portrayal will follow, showing the control the media outlets possess when presenting their constructions of victims and offenders.

As referred to in Chapter 1, the basis of many earlier theories of crime and the media is the susceptibility of the public. This chapter will allow us to examine the tactics that the media outlets use in order to exploit this susceptibility and encourage an unnecessary sense of fear which has been embedded in society. There have been studies to suggest that women accept that they must live in fear and can never expect to achieve the personal freedom and independence of men. This could be due to a number of factors. Perhaps the perpetual sense of fear involved in all crime has simply infiltrated women to accept their fears in relation to sexual offences. Or maybe this is due to the poor portrayal of victims of sexual assault which allows women to accept that where they may be sexually abused, their attacker will most likely not face the scrutinization that they are likely to receive, which could deter victims from reporting their abuse. This chapter will analyse the portrayal of both victims and offenders of sexual offences and explore the consequences of the differences between them.

YVONNE JEWKES – “MEDIA & CRIME”

This study critically examines the complicated interactions between media and crime. Jewkes proposes that a sense of progressive development is most certainly evident in ideas concerning crime and the media. The earlier part of this book links theoretical analysis from criminology, sociology, media studies and cultural studies which enables us to have a critical understanding of these areas of study and their contributions to our understanding of the relationship between media and crime. The earlier parts of this book also examine why crime stories are and have always been considered so newsworthy which is important as it shapes our understanding of news values. The next few chapters of Jewkes’ study examine the extent to which crime and justice are constructed according to cultural assumptions and ideologies. The final few chapters of this study examine interesting concepts such as crime in films and their representations, the issues of surveillance culture, and the role the internet plays in crime. Towards the final part of this study, Jewkes rounds off the previous chapters and suggests that without some of the aspects discussed throughout the study, the media would fail in their attempt to sell their representations and keep audiences content with their outputs.

‘CRIMEWATCH UK’

One of the more relevant aspects of Jewkes’ study for the purposes of this dissertation is her analysis of offenders and victims in the media. This particular analysis is based on the British crime TV show, Crimewatch UK. This show is quite often singled out as a ‘significant contributor’ to false ideologies about offenders and victims and its format adheres closely to the news values which skew public ideas about crime. This show makes dramatic reconstructions of events and uses surveillance footage in attempts to gain information from the public. The dramatic reconstructions of these criminal events are influenced by guidelines but it is clear from Jewkes’ study that these are interpreted very loosely. While the producers claim that the events shown are not chosen for entertainment values, they also admit that a journalistic sense has to come into it.

Due to the overwhelmingly negative view of the role of the media in crime portrayal, it is this journalistic sense that concerns many criminological and sociological researchers. There is an extremely fine line between documentaries and dramas which the producers need to be careful when approaching this line.

PORTRAYAL OF VICTIMS IN THE MEDIA

The portrayal of the victim is always something that will play on the public’s emotions. You will often see photographs, video footage of earlier times and of family and friends telling happier stories of the victim. This tactic is something that paints a picture of what a ‘true victim’ is. It appears that one of the tactics the media outlets use is to portray the victim is to display strong family ties and values and it has been suggested that to not be in a family would be to not be a proper victim. While there is still criticism towards the behaviour of even the most ‘deserving’ victims, this association with family values and strong emotional links allows the public to feel a sense of knowing and belonging towards the victim. However, for the purposes of this dissertation, which is to analyse these trends in relation to sexual offences, there is most definitely a large amount of criticism towards the behaviour of victims of crimes of this nature. Jewkes’ study provides an important basis for this analysis, with many other studies having been carried out in relation to victims of sex crimes and their portrayal.

PORTRAYAL OF VICTIMS OF SEXUAL OFFENCES IN THE MEDIA

When it comes to the portrayal of victims of rape and sexual assault in the media, it is often dependant on whether the assault is classified as ‘real’ or ‘simple’. A ‘real rape’ is often referred to as a ‘stranger rape’ which, as the name suggests, is committed by a stranger in a public place and often includes physical assaults or the use of weapons. “Simple rapes,” which are sometimes called “acquaintance rapes,” are committed by acquaintances or intimates, occur in private spaces such as the home, and generally do not involve physical assaults or the use of weapons. Simple or acquaintance rapes are generally committed by “normal” men and are common across all socioeconomic and ethnic groups. In contrast to reporting of stranger rape, acquaintance rape is very rarely deemed to have the news values to make the event newsworthy. When events such as these do gain any media attention, the media outlets have a tendency to emphasize the victims participation in activities before the act, which minimises the act of sexual assault. Many victims of sexual assault are often deemed to be responsible for their own attack due to their provocative behaviour that drove their offender to extremes of lust. Many victims will have their previous conduct attacked, whether it related to the attack or not.

A major negative consequence of the media’s contribution to the stigmatisation of sexual assault victims is that it acts as a strong deterrent for victims to come forward and report their abuse. Many young victims fear the worst that their name and conduct will be scrutinised in the public and this is certainly not an invalid fear. Victims fear that while their own conduct is being bashed in the media that their offender will receive less of a public shaming than they will. While an accused sexual offender will also have their name in the media, there most certainly is a difference in how they are constructed in the media.

PORTRAYAL OF OFFENDERS IN THE MEDIA

There is a difference between offenders in general, and offenders of crimes of a sexual nature. As mentioned above, in order to prioritise sexual offence event in the media it is often the dynamic duo of a vulnerable victim and an invulnerable offender who make the cut. Falling in line with this, there have been studies to suggest that the media’s more dominant image of a rapist or sexual offender is that it is a dangerous male who hides in bushes and attacks a stranger. The offenders in the media are often psychotic and dangerous, as opposed to the statistic reality which shows that most sexual offences are committed by “normal” men who are in the same social class as and usually is known to their victims.

As aforementioned, the media will often link the victim to earlier, happier times and display strong family connections in order to make them a ‘deserving’ victim. The same contextualisation is never extended to offenders. The offenders are often displayed as individuals existing on the outside of society and with little or no family connections. In constructing an offender as outsiders and psychotic and presenting their offences as random acts towards random victims, the media create a sense of revulsion towards offenders. This dynamic of constructing an offender of this nature coupled with the construction of an innocent and undeserving victim prioritises events of this nature as newsworthy. However, this portrayal of offenders is usually inconsistent with the portrayal of both victims and offenders of sexual offences.

There has also been some studies around the different scale of reporting between different races. Some media outlets, have been criticised of over-representing crimes with black offenders and under-representing black victims. Another large issue within this area is that many media outlets fail to distinguish between different ethnicities using phrases like “North African appearance” etc.. These insensitive and inaccurate representations are problematic and misleading.

PORTRAYAL OF SEXUAL OFFENDERS IN THE MEDIA

There is no doubt that were the accused is viewed as a more respectable man, the victim receives an unmerciful amount of criticism and scrutiny from the media than the accused. If the accused is seen as an upper-class and respectable person then their previous conduct is not usually attacked. If raised at all, it is usually to showcase them as a bit of a ‘player’ or ‘womanizer’ which leads to an attack on the victim stating that they should have been aware of the events that would follow. It must be asked why, if the accused was such an experienced womanizer, that he would be inexperienced enough not to know that his victim was not consenting to the abuse. However, this is something that is rarely or never queried, in an attempt to scrutinise the victim.

This culture of excusing sexual offenders who are not the typical strangers hiding in bushes is often extended to cases where it is clear that the victims were subject to non-consensual abuse and sometimes violence. There seems to be a reluctance to criticise sports stars in the media, doing everything they can to essentially blame the victim for their abuse. A prime example of this was a case in 2018 in Northern Ireland where a number of rugby stars were on trial for the rape of a young girl. Although this case is not in the jurisdiction of the Republic of Ireland, this is a case which shook the entire country and it would be negligent to omit from a study of this nature.

BELFAST RAPE TRIAL

On the 27th of June 2016, the alleged victim was on a night out in Belfast with friends. This night ended in the home of Paddy Jackson, a young man who was deemed to have a bright future with the national rugby squad. Jackson pleaded not guilty to rape and sexual assault at his home on this night. Stuart Olding pleaded not guilty to rape on the same occasion. Both men contend that the events that occurred on the night were consensual. Blane McIlroy pleaded not guilty to indecent exposure and Rory Harrison pleaded denied withholding information and perverting the course of justice. This case which gripped the country was scheduled to last for five weeks. However, it entered its ninth week. Many witnesses were called to give evidence, including the four Defendants. All four were acquitted. However, the purpose of this discussion is not the trial itself, but the scrutiny that the alleged victim suffered for the duration of this trial.

It did not take long for the conduct of the victim to be attacked by the media. The media circus which surrounded this high profile trial brought to light the reality of rape trials, which caused the Midwest Crisis Centre to receive more calls than imaginable. The young woman told the court that she had consented to kissing Paddy Jackson, but that was as far has her consent went. After this revelation, Counsel for Jackson accused the victim of teasing him, and asked her, “if you didn’t like him, why were you kissing him in his bedroom?” This one question, standing along and not engaging with any other comments of the same nature indicates a culture of victim-blaming and excusing offenders, or at least diminishing their responsibility. Questions and comments of this nature, which were prominent throughout the entire trial, indicate that the victim must have done something to diminish the accused’s responsibility for their own actions. The young woman in this trial was painted as a liar and “loose”, a girl who had eyes on her attacker all night, and out of fear of the events being put online, got nervous and cried rape.

WHY DOES SOCIETY BLAME VICTIMS AND WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF THIS CULTURE?

There have been many theories as to why victim blaming has become as pronounced as it has in today’s society. One of the more widely accepted theories is that we do this in order to preserve our invulnerability. If we can find something in a victim’s conduct that may have created the dangerous situation, we create a false sense of safety by thinking that if we do not act like that victim did, then we will not be assaulted like that victim was. However, the pitfall of this logic, or lack thereof, is that the event did not solely come about as a result of the victim’s conduct. The perpetrator’s choices are in fact what resulted in the assault occurring. There is also a “Just World” hypothesis which is based on the belief that the world is a safe place where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.

The consequences of this sort of culture is catastrophic in deterring young victims from coming forward. Many high-status individuals have made attempts to come forward and support young women and fight this rape culture and victim-blaming. Victim blaming can have effects on the trials of sexual offences and the legal system’s processes. For example, witnesses may be less willing to testify and this culture could have an effect on a jury’s decision to convict. These patterns of victim blaming emerging in the media not only deter young victims from coming forward but they also encourage social acceptance of victim blaming. In doing this, perpetrators are allowed to avoid accountability for their actions.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

The media can be an extremely insensitive platform when it comes to victims of sexual offences, often suggesting that the victim had somehow deserved the suffering they have endured. It is important that the media begin to shift their focus of blame from the victim to the offender, same as they do for perpetrators of crimes outside of sexual offences. There is no logic in treating sexual offenders one way and other general offenders another. It is vital that the media shift their focus of blame to the perpetrator, ensuring that the offender takes responsibility for their actions.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of this chapter is to analyse the portrayal of offenders and victims in the media and discuss the differences between them in relation to sexual offences. We can now see that there is most definitely a difference between how victims or portrayed for crimes outside of sexual offences (which I will refer to as general victims) and victims of sexual offences. General victims are presented as undeserving and innocent people with strong family connections. These ‘deserving’ victims are one of the qualities that make an event newsworthy. However, after the evaluation of victims of sexual offences, it is clear to see that these victims are not shown the same respect or dignity. These victims are scrutinised in the media and their previous conduct attacked, which as discussed has major consequences.

The same can be seen for offenders. ‘General offenders’ are often presented as anonymous, strangers to society. However, sexual offenders are often allowed to avoid taking responsibility for their actions by passing the blame on to their victims. Their sexual history is rarely referred to and even where it is, it is not in a negative light. It can be seen that “respectable” and “normal” men who are accused of sexual offences seem to receive little to no scrutiny while their victims suffer public shaming. This can be seen from the brief discussion of the Belfast Rape Trial where the victim was faced with questions which suggested that she was, in fact, consenting to the events that occurred.

The final discussion in this chapter questioned why the media and society blame victims and the consequences of doing so. It is vital that this culture changes in order to prevent perpetrators avoiding the consequences of their actions and escaping responsibility and also to prevent the deterrence of victims reporting their abuse.

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