Intimate partner violence (IPV) is understood as different forms of violence that people employ against their current or former partners in an attempt to control them or punish them for disobedience. Despite all the efforts to prevent and eliminate IPV, the problem remains common in Australia. For instance, in 2016, almost 25% of all female respondents in the Personal Safety Survey said that they had experienced violence from their partners at least once (McLaren et al., 2020, p. 2). A large part of how this problem is addressed by society depends on common people’s perceptions of the prevalence of this type of interpersonal violence, the high-risk populations for it, attitudes to victims and abusers, and so on.
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News media can influence society’s perceptions of IPV, and it is important to understand that journalists can perpetuate victim-blaming by trying to connect incidents and tragedies to victims’ flaws or present abusers as helpless victims of circumstances. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown policies can exacerbate the problem of IPV in Australia even more since citizens are basically urged to spend more time with their potential abusers. The pandemic and people’s resulting uncertainty about jobs and health can have a range of negative psychological effects, thus making conflicts between partners more common and increasing the risks of violence. Due to that, it is of great importance to study how IPV is depicted in recent news articles and what messages about it are delivered to the potential future victims. The paper is aimed at answering the following research questions about online newspaper articles devoted to the cases of IPV in Australia:
- Do they recognize domestic violence as a social and gendered issue?
- Do they report opinions/facts that shape negative attitudes towards victims and positive attitudes towards offenders?
One important tendency peculiar to the representations of violence in the family in Australian media refers to the departure from seeing and representing domestic violence as an issue that is totally gender-neutral. Hawley, Clifford, and Konkes (2018) use the method of close textual analysis to define and examine the so-called “Rosy Batty effect” named after a grieving mother that lost her son due to her husband’s violence. Regarding the rationale for their research, the authors intended to study the effects of Rosy Batty’s campaigning on the media representations of the problem in Australia. According to their findings peculiar to the discursive tendencies surrounding violence in the family, Rosy Batty’s activism and her word choices increased the amount of attention paid to the gender of violence. The discussion of family violence and gender, the researchers suggest, was followed by a more active debate regarding responsibility and punishment, which resulted in meaningful policy changes (Hawley et al., 2018). The authors conclude that the recognition of family violence as a public issue that is heavily affected by gender encourages society to provide victims with the necessary support.
There are other studies to analyze recent news articles to understand whether domestic violence is represented as a large-scale problem that predominantly affects women or as a set of disconnected personal stories. In their mixed-methods research, Simons and Morgan (2018) conducted interviews with journalists and DV service providers and analyzed two Australian newspapers in terms of the coverage of violence against women (VAW) and sourcing practices. Regarding the rationale for the research, the authors suggest that the selection of data sources in the reports of VAW can impact society’s attitudes toward the problem and victims’ trustworthiness.
The findings reported by Simons and Morgan (2018) reveal interesting tendencies peculiar to Australian newspapers, including the increasing recognition of VAW as a social issue and a continuing reliance on police officers as the sources of data. Apart from that, the increasing use of social media sources to tell stories and highlight the perspectives of VAW survivors is another tendency discovered by the authors. Contrary to the feminist critique of the leading sourcing practice (little attention to eyewitnesses’ and survivors’ experiences), the findings suggest that journalists’ reliance on information from police officers can increase society’s awareness of VAW. Additionally, the researchers suppose that these “traditional” data sourcing practices can contribute to better outcomes for VAW survivors by reinforcing the anti-VAW public mood. In conclusion, the authors state that VAW is properly recognized in the media as a social problem, and that data sourcing practices are gradually changing in broadcast journalism thanks to social media.
The print media representations of domestic violence remain a problem in Australia since journalists’ attempts to explain and excuse abusers’ actions are not uncommon. In their content analysis study of popular newspapers in Queensland, Smith, Bond, and Jeffries (2019) explore the ways of how these sources represent IPV. Regarding the rationale for the research, the authors intend to further explore the research-based suggestion that print media contribute to the normalization of VAW committed by men. As for the findings, Smith et al. (2019) report that over nine out of ten articles fail to recognize VAW as a social issue and present similar crimes as isolated cases. Surprisingly, the findings suggest the presence of attempts to rehabilitate abusers or explain their actions with reference to external causes in more than 45% of all media reports (Smith et al., 2019, p. 11). Based on these findings, the researchers conclude that Queensland newspapers contribute to the proliferation of the patriarchal perspective on VAW. According to them, the potential effects of this on the public perception of the problem and policymaking deserve close attention.
The media representations of IPV during the COVID-19 pandemic and other critical situations are specifically interesting since emergencies create extra risks for the potential victims of domestic violence. In her study, Parkinson (2019) uses the method of semi-structured interviews to examine the links between disastrous events, such as the Black Saturday bushfires in Australia, and domestic violence rates. The findings from thirty interviews suggest that disasters that shake entire nations are followed by more frequent episodes of IPV against both younger and older women. The study is not focused on contagious diseases, such as COVID-19. However, the author generalizes on her findings and the previous research to demonstrate that exposure to emergency situations is followed by more frequent domestic violence cases all over the world. One of her main conclusions is that the establishment of new services for domestic violence victims is crucial after disasters and emergency situations affecting large numbers of people, but it is not always done.
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The main purpose of the conducted research was to analyze the representations of IPV cases in Australian online news media. Particularly, it was planned to delve into the emotional tone in which such texts are typically written and the degree to which the authors treat IPV as a widespread social problem mainly affecting females. The language that the authors used to describe victims and their abusers were also studied to detect the attempts to attribute blame for offenders’ actions to someone or something else.
The 25 media reports included in the sample were retrieved from four different sources, with the majority of them (n= 22) published by ABC News, which is a popular public news service in Australia. The remaining three sources included The Guardian Australia (n=1), The CNA International Edition (n=1), and The West Australian (n=1). “Domestic violence” was used as a search query to find topic-relevant news articles since “intimate partner violence” did not yield adequate results and seemed to be an unpopular term among reporters. The search results were then analyzed one by one to exclude irrelevant articles. The following inclusion criteria had to be met:
- Publication date (February 2020 – July 2020) – COVID-19 appeared in Australia in late January 2020.
- Communicative goal – to report/analyze new IPV cases/developments in specific IPV cases.
- Crime scene – locations in Australia.
- Victims and offenders – spouses, estranged spouses, ex-spouses, cohabiting partners, ex-partners, alleged romantic relationships.
Sentiment analysis or a simplified type of content analysis was utilized as a research technique. The Parallel Dots Sentiment Analysis API, which is a tool for automated sentiment analysis trained using the text corpora of fifteen languages, including English, was used to determine the overall emotional tone of each news article. Also, for each text, the sentiment scores were determined for the sets of statements referring specifically to the victim and to the perpetrator. Next, each article was treated as a separate unit of analysis and manually searched through to be classified as the message that treats or does not treat domestic violence as a social issue affecting women rather than a set of disconnected cases. Given a relatively small sample size, the key tendencies peculiar to the representations of IPV were analyzed without the use of specialized statistical analysis software.
The case of Hannah Clarke and her three minor children burnt alive by their husband and father is reviewed in seven articles. Rowan Baxter (the offender) stabbed himself to death right after the attack. The report by McKenna and Roberts (2020) focuses on new details related to the offender’s behaviors before the attack and represents the victim and the offender as a good mother and an obsessed man. Blatchford (2020) focuses on criticizing the monster myth and presents the offender and the victim and an ordinary man and a woman that should not be reduced to her motherhood. Robertson (2020) reports new facts about the spouses’ child custody conflict, uses neutral language to refer to Hannah and presents Rowan as stubborn and selfish.
Riga, Kearnan, and van Vonderen (2020) report the opinions of Hannah’s family, and the language is more subjective; Hannah and Rowan are represented as strong woman and evil manipulator. Conifer (2020) reports women’s rights advocacy activities following the incident, use objective language to talk about Hannah, and depicts Rowan as a depraved person. Hayne and Conifer (2020) focus on society’s responses to this case and depict Hannah just as a mother from Brisbane, whereas Rowan is not even called by his name. CNA International Edition (2020) also focuses on the public outcry and depicts the couple as a loving mother and a monster.
Two articles are focused on Troy Buswell, a former Australian minister accused of multiple assaults on Melissa Hankinson (his ex-partner). Menagh (2020) reviews the charges against him, his bail renewal, and his scheduled appearance in court in May; he is depicted as a controversial politician. In the article printed in May, Gubana (2020) states that Mr. Buswell denies all accusations and is to face a trial allocation hearing in June; Mr. Buswell is represented as an alleged offender and a person involved in many controversial incidents. Both sources mention Melissa just as an alleged victim.
The words in brackets summarize how victims and offenders are represented in the articles. Godde (2020) reports that Baltej Laila (an alleged murderer with an apprehended violence order against him) is accused of killing Kamaljeet Sidhu (a 27-year-old woman who sought protection from her husband). Reddie (2020b) reports the same details about Baltej (an alleged killer and a nursery worker) and Kamaljeet (a full-time student who was abused by her husband).
Other Named Victims
Lewis (2020) discusses Jordan Miller’s (a suspect) first appearance in bail court after the death of Emerald Wardle (a lovely young woman) and his statement that he is his girlfriend’s murderer. Reddie (2020a) reports that Vince Coluccio (a jealous, delusional man), the alleged murderer of his wife Elia (a woman stabbed to death), has been found unfit for trial. McKinnell (2020) reports that Edward Lord (an evil, aggressive, and unfaithful man) is finally jailed after drowning his wife Michele (a nice person that was loved by family/friends). Hendry and Burt (2020) report that Nigel Gilliland (a suspected killer) has been charged with murdering his wife Karen (a loving mother and a caring friend).
Tran (2020) reports that Shea Sturt (a schizophrenic drug user and a murderer) will spend at least sixteen years in prison for choking his girlfriend Caitlin (a nurse who had health issues and was a kind person) to death. Percy (2020) reports that Dannyll Goodsell (a loving mother killed by her abusive partner) was abused and controlled by Scott Cameron (an admitted murderer from a deprived background) during their entire relationship. Evins (2020) reports that Peter Dansie (a violent and unfaithful man obsessed with sex) is sentenced to life imprisonment for drowning his wife Helen (a wheelchair-bound woman who trusted her husband) in a pond.
Other Unnamed Victims
Australian Associated Press (2020) reports that an unnamed man from Sydney (a suspect who allegedly abused his wife) has been arrested after his wife’s (a woman who made domestic violence complaints before) violent death. ABC News (2020) reports the case of homicide-suicide in Sydney, leaving a victim (a young woman) and an alleged perpetrator (a young man who did it quite unexpectedly) dead. Stevenson (2020) reports that Rajkumar Janagani (a violent, controlling man who constantly humiliated his wife) will spend eleven years in prison for attacking his wife (an unnamed severely hurt victim of abuse) with a knife.
Hosier (2020) reports that a man from Hobart (a man having an unhealthy obsession with his ex) has been given a suspended sentence for stalking his ex-partner (a woman who initiated the breakup) and using technology to remotely control her car. Lawrence and Thomas (2020) report that a 32-year-old man (rude and aggressive) from Sydney has been arrested after punching his partner (a 27-year-old woman) in the face and attacking a teenager who tried to intervene. Withey (2020a) reports that an unnamed victim (a woman aged 49) allegedly stabbed to death by an unnamed suspect (a managed 40) in Queensland is a domestic violence case. Withey (2020b) reports that a man from Brisbane (a man aged 29 who contravened a DVO) has been charged with assaulting and depriving his victim (a woman aged 28) of liberty in Queensland.
The Language of the Articles
Every case of IPV is a tragedy for victims and their relatives, which is why the emotional tone with which such cases are discussed is usually negative. Based on the average sentiment score of all texts included in the sample, the online newspaper articles about IPV contain more than 65% of negative content. One potential explanation of this is that such articles actively emphasize the descriptions of bodily injuries and dig the dirt to provide sensational facts instead of giving tribute to the deceased and reporting warm words devoted to them. The content of the source by Evins (2020) is a good example of this. The author does not tell a lot about the deceased victim, whereas the details about the murderer’s “suitcase packed with condoms, Viagra, sex toys and lingerie” found in his home are mentioned (Evins, 2020, para. 4). Tran (2020) does a similar thing by focusing on how the victim’s “half-naked” body (para.4) looked when it was discovered and how the offender ripped her clothes off to understand whether he “still felt anything for her” (para. 15).
The automated sentiment analysis of the statements used to describe perpetrators and their victims demonstrates that the reports are extremely likely to use very neutral language when speaking about unnamed victims. Based on the sentiment scores, on average, the language used to describe the unnamed victims, including any opinions about them from different sources, contained almost 59% of neutral content and was mainly presented by mentioning the victims’ age, country of origin, or other facts. In the cases of unnamed victims, the language to speak about them (not about what has been done to them) rarely included subjective and opinionated statements.
In comparison, the language to describe the identified victims contains 49.2% of neutral content. It implies that statements about victims become more emotional when their names and photos can be revealed – in this situation, it is much easier to make the audience feel sympathetic towards the victims of IPV. Another positive tendency is that the negative representations of the victims are really hard to be found in the sample. The only authors that report (without supporting) obviously negative statements about the victims are Tran (2020) and Reddie (2020a). Reddie (2020a) quotes the perpetrator’s words about his wife’s alleged infidelity. The source of another statement is the alleged murderer of Dannyll Goodsell; he claims that the victim “went off her head” when he failed to provide her with drugs (Tran, 2020, para. 25).
As for the perpetrators, they are typically depicted in a negative light. Just like in the case of the victims, the amount of neutral content increases when the parties’ names are unknown. The language describing unnamed victims’ offenders contains 45.7% of negative content and 34% of neutral content. For the remaining offenders, it is 66.06% and 24% of negative and neutral content, respectively. There were no obvious attempts to whitewash the perpetrators and support them. However, abuser-sympathizing discourses can take the form of mentioning abusers’ issues to attract more attention to their “individual hardships” (Smith et al., 2019, p. 11). Despite showing absolutely no sympathy towards the offenders, 28% of the articles report facts or opinions that could be used to rationalize violence. The reported alleged or confirmed issues of the offenders include psychiatric disorders (Reddie, 2020a; Tran, 2020), cannabis use (Tran, 2020), exposure to physical/sexual abuse as a child (Percy, 2020), and an unhealthy obsession with another person/relationship issues (ABC News, 2020; Hosier, 2020; McKenna and Roberts, 2020; Robertson, 2020).
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IPV as a Social Issue
The next aspect of the conducted analysis is whether criminal cases taking place in Australia are regarded as separate and disconnected or as parts of some larger tendencies. Each article was analyzed individually to be classified as the text that recognized or did not recognize the ubiquitous nature of domestic violence in Australia. In the modern scientific literature, this failure to consider the social context of particular incidents is referred to as the “episodic reporting style” and is regarded as a harmful tendency that distorts society’s perceptions of the risks of becoming a victim of IPV (Smith et al., 2019, p. 5).
In the given research, the markers of recognizing IPV as a social problem included any attempts to connect the reviewed case to other IPV cases, recommend domestic violence support services/crisis lines to the audience, or review statistical trends peculiar to domestic violence in Australia. 60% of all articles (n=15) contained at least one example of the abovementioned tendencies. Three out of these fifteen articles include some recommendations for the potential victims of domestic violence and mention services and hotlines that they can use themselves or recommend to others. Some authors are quite explicit in their attempts to show that IPV is massive and can affect people from different age cohorts. For instance, Lewis (2020) mentions that domestic violence “does not discriminate on age” when reviewing the case of a young woman killed by her partner (para. 14).
Many of these articles recognize the systemic nature of domestic violence incidents by citing authoritative sources. For instance, Tran (2020) cites the commentary by Justice Christopher William Beale, according to which the murder of Ms. O’Brien is not a one-off or a really unique incident. CNA International Edition (2020) mentions the leader of Our Watch and cites her words about domestic violence as a legitimate example of a national emergency. Reddie (2020b) mentions a recent spike in the victims of DV and IPV that need urgent help. As for other examples, Conifer (2020) and Haine and Conifer (2020) connect the sensational case of Hannah Clarke with the failure of the Australian domestic violence support system to prevent this and many similar incidents, thus assuming that the entire problem has to be re-examined. In their article devoted to one intimate partner assault stopped due to an empathic teenager, Lawrence and Thomas (2020) cite a police inspector that encourages people to intervene when seeing domestic violence, which implies that the issue is quite common.
Interestingly, the tendency to connect the reviewed incident to the broader social problem is much more pronounced in the articles that are devoted to the most extreme forms of violence, such as intimate partner homicide or homicide-suicide. More than 68% (13 out of 19) of the articles reviewing the examples of these crimes contain at least one statement pointing to the systemic nature of domestic and intimate partner violence. Regarding the articles about the cases in which the victims did not die (stalking, physical assaults, attempted murders, being held hostage by a partner, etc.), only 33% (2 out of 6) of them contained such statements. Considering that murders attract a lot of public attention and can be used to initiate policy changes, just like in the case of Luke Betty (Hawley et al., 2018), this finding does not seem to be counterintuitive. Unfortunately, the previously reviewed journal articles report no information in this regard.
IPV as a Gendered Issue
The gendered nature of domestic and intimate partner violence in Australia and worldwide is well-known and constantly proven, which is why the term “violence against women” exists. However, as the findings of this project demonstrate, many authors simply fail to recognize the gendered patterns of domestic violence. In the conducted research, the signs of drawing the links between the reviewed case and women’s issues included using the term “violence against women,” mentioning statistical research that would differentiate the victims of IPV by sex, or referring to women as a vulnerable population.
In the source by CNA International Edition (2020), the case of Hannah Clarke is discussed with reference to Natasha Jessica Stott Despoja (an Australian politician) and her words about an epidemic of VAW in Australia. Blatchford (2020) and Conifer (2020) discuss the murder of Hannah Clarke and her kids and mention a statistical study conducted in 2018, according to which one Australian woman dies due to domestic violence every week. Riga et al. (2020, para. 9) highlight the gendered nature of domestic violence by quoting Hannah Clarke’s relatives who wish to help other “women who are in this situation.” Blatchford (2020) also delves into the problem of victim-blaming against females by citing the shocking findings of a survey conducted in Australia. According to them, 1 in 3 respondents agrees that a woman becomes “responsible for the violence continuing” when she does not leave her aggressive partner (Blatchford, 2020, para. 8). McKenna and Roberts (2020, para. 53) quote the leader of Our Watch and what she thinks about “the drivers of VAW.”
Even though every single article in the sample reviewed cases with female victims and male perpetrators, the problem of VAW was recognized only in 20% of the sources. All five of these articles were devoted to the high-profile homicide-suicide case of Hannah Clarke. In other cases of women murdered, tortured, or assaulted by their male partners, the gender aspect of the problem was never mentioned at all. These results find partial support in the previously reviewed journal articles. For instance, in their study of newspaper articles about IPV in Australia published between 2008 and 2013, Smith et al. (2019, p. 10) found that the broader problem of VAW was ignored in more than 90% of cases. The statement that the gender of victims and perpetrators is often overlooked in the media is evaluated by Hawley et al. (2018). Based on their analysis of search queries, they conclude that the problem of family violence became “increasingly gendered within the news discourse” in 2015 (Hawley et al., 2018, p. 2312).
One important limitation affecting the study is the inability to draw definite conclusions about the representations of domestic violence in Australia when using a relatively small sample. However, there are similar previous studies with more extensive samples. Due to that, it becomes possible to compare the main tendencies in representing IPV in Australia and make suggestions regarding whether people’s perceptions of the issue have changed recently.
In summary, the conducted analysis indicates that articles about IPV in Australia recognize domestic violence as an important social issue in more than half the instances, but its gendered nature and impact on women are mostly ignored. In these articles, victims and offenders who cannot be named are usually presented in a neutral and objective tone. However, when more details are available and can be revealed, the language to describe the involved parties becomes more positive for victims and more negative for offenders. Despite reporting controversial facts and opinions in some instances, the authors do not use them to blame victims or excuse abusers. Regarding the implications, the increasing but still inadequate recognition of IPV as a common problem affecting many women might indicate the need for media reporting policies and practices that would encourage the readers to recognize the warning signs of IPV and seek help if necessary. For example, it is possible to develop policies to limit the sensationalist reporting of IPV or use Web banners for advertising educational resources on how to recognize IPV.
ABC News (2020) ‘Two dead after stabbing in Western Sydney’, Web.
Australian Associated Press (2020). ‘Sydney man arrested over stabbing death of wife had been issued domestic violence order’, The Guardian, Web.
Blatchford, A. (2020) ‘Rowan Baxter murdered his family and it is the act of a man and his domestic violence, not a senseless monster’, ABC News, Web.
CNA International Edition (2020) ‘Man suspected of killing wife, three children in Australia car fire’, Web.
Conifer, D. (2020) ‘Hannah Clarke and her children were failed by Australia’s domestic violence prevention system, Scott Morrison declares’, ABC News, Web.
Evins, B. (2020) ‘Peter Dansie sentenced to life in jail for murder of wife Helen after pushing wheelchair into pond’, ABC News, Web.
Godde, C. (2020) ‘Alleged Sydney wife killer faces court’, The West Australian, Web.
Gubana, B. (2020) ‘Former WA treasurer Troy Buswell denies repeatedly assaulting partner, damaging door’, ABC News, Web.
Hawley, E., Clifford, K. and Konkes, C. (2018) ‘The “Rosie Batty effect” and the framing of family violence in Australian news media’, Journalism Studies, 19(15), pp. 2304-2323.
Hayne, J. and Conifer, D. (2020) ‘Domestic violence inquiry set up after Hannah Clarke murder ends early, without submissions or hearings’, ABC News, Web.
Hendry, M. and Burt, J. (2020) ‘Estranged husband charged with murder of Rockhampton woman Karen Gilliland’, ABC News, Web.
Hosier, P. (2020) ‘Hobart man given suspended sentence for cyberstalking ex-girlfriend’s car via app’, ABC News, Web.
Lawrence, E. and Thomas, S. (2020) ‘Police praise 14-year-old boy who stopped alleged domestic violence attack in Sydney’, ABC News, Web.
Lewis, M. (2020) ‘Man facing murder charge over death of 18-year-old girlfriend in Maitland tells court ‘I’m a murderer’’, ABC News, Web.
McKenna, K. and Roberts, G. (2020) ‘Brisbane car fire killer stalked wife Hannah Clarke and used ‘scary’ controlling tactics before final evil act’, ABC News, Web.
McKinnell, J. (2020) ‘Gold Coast man jailed after killing wife by deliberately driving car into NSW river’, ABC News, Web.
Menagh, J. (2020) ‘Former WA treasurer Troy Buswell faces court accused of repeatedly assaulting his partner’, ABC News, Web.
Parkinson, D. (2019) ’Investigating the increase in domestic violence post disaster: an Australian case study’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(11), pp. 2333-2362.
Percy, K. (2020) ‘Ballarat woman told friend ‘I’m scared of Scott’ just before he killed her, court hears’, ABC News, Web.
Reddie, M. (2020a) ‘Merrylands man accused of murdering wife mentally unfit for trial, Sydney court hears’, ABC News, Web.
Reddie, M. (2020b) ‘Western Sydney woman allegedly fatally stabbed by husband in suspected domestic violence attack’, ABC News, Web.
Riga, R., Kearnan, J. and van Vonderen, J. (2020) ‘Hannah Clarke’s family speak out after horrific murder-suicide, said she suffered burns to 97 per cent of body in car fire’, ABC News, Web.
Robertson, J. (2020) ‘Rowan Baxter ‘couldn’t move past the relationship’ with Hannah Clarke despite shared custody arrangement, a source reveals’, ABC News, Web.
Simons, M. and Morgan, J. (2018) ‘Changing media coverage of violence against women: changing sourcing practices?’, Journalism Studies, 19(8), pp. 1202-1217.
Smith, A.L., Bond, C.E. and Jeffries, S. (2019) ‘Media discourses of intimate partner violence in Queensland newspapers’, Journal of Sociology, pp. 1-16.
Stevenson, A. (2020) ‘Man jailed for 11 years after escalating domestic violence led to stabbing attack on wife’, ABC News, Web.
Tran, D. (2020) ‘Man who confessed to murdering nurse, who was recovering from surgery, sentenced to 22 years’ jail’, ABC News, Web.
Withey, A. (2020a) ‘Police say woman killed in Townsville in north Queensland was a case of domestic violence’, ABC News, Web.
Withey, A. (2020b) ‘Woman held captive in Ipswich, police say’, ABC News, Web.