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The misogynistic coverage of violent crimes against women

By Katie McKay

So far, 2023 has been dominated by violence against women, and shameful press coverage of these crimes. Why are women not respected by the press, even in death?

Throughout the first two months of 2023, the news has been dominated by stories of violent and unspeakable crimes against women. From the disappearance of Nicola Bulley, to the shooting of Emma and Lettie Pattinson and the stabbing of Brianna Ghey, we have already seen our fair share of female-targeted violence. What I found to be perhaps even more disturbing than the crimes themselves was the press coverage which followed. Misogyny runs deeply throughout the journalism, which relies heavily on victim-blaming, male apologists, and theatrics. Media coverage has sensationalized the death of real women, and highlights age-old questions about the ethics of journalism, as well as how deeply misogynistic the society we live in is.

The press coverage of Nicola Bulley’s disappearance was sickening, written to be exciting for readers. With aspects of Nicola’s life being gradually revealed by various news outlets, the case felt more like a television drama than an active police investigation. Details of Nicola’s disappearance, death and personal life which did not need to be in the public sphere were revealed by The Sun. The depersonalisation and disrespect laced throughout much of the coverage of Nicola’s death forces us to question how we treat missing and dead women, and why their privacy is rarely respected. Bulley’s family feel they were ‘misquoted and vilified’ by the press. Why do journalists not have the common decency to respect female victims and their families in coverage of horrific crimes?

Coverage of the murder of Emma Pattinson and her daughter Lettie by husband George has been eye-opening to how much of an issue misogyny is in journalism and news. MailOnline was leading in damaging and shameful coverage of this tragedy. One headline read, Did living in the shadow of this high-achieving wife lead to unthinkable tragedy? This article detailed the failure of George Pattinson’s business and how this somehow meant the shooting of his wife and daughter was justifiable. Disrespectful journalism is shameful to the industry and normalizes violence against women and casual misogyny in society. This is dangerous to impressionable readers, but most importantly, it makes a mockery of the tragic deaths of Emma and Lettie Pattinson, who were real people living real lives, cut short by hateful violence.

The tragic murder of sixteen-year-old Brianna Ghey and its transphobic coverage I have found to be unsettling and upsetting. Some media outlets misreported her gender identity, and referred to her using her deadname, denying Brianna dignity even in her death. Moreover, the murder of this teenager has been politicised and weaponised by the press beyond imagination. Brianna’s family should be allowed the time to grieve in private and process the unimaginable death of their daughter. The media coverage has used Brianna’s image and tragic death and turned it into a political argument. Little respect has been paid to the memory of Brianna and her grief-stricken family.

This is not a phenomenon unique to 2023. Coverage of crime against women has been sensationalised since the beginning of journalism. Following the death of Dawn Sturgess in 2018 by poisoning of the nerve agent Novichok, media reports were vilifying, disrespectful, and frankly disgusting. Dawn’s parents spoke of their anger and hurt at the media portraying her as a ‘homeless drug user. Dawn was not treated with the respect she deserved following her tragic death. The disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann is perhaps the most discussed crime of the millennium. Nearly two decades later, the case remains in the headlines on an almost monthly basis, to the extent that the press nearly always fails to consider the scared toddler who experienced something no child should ever have to go through.  

The peak of disrespectful news coverage of violent crime against women is perhaps the Jack the Ripper murders, whose damaging legacy is lasting today. Journalists at the time portrayed the female victims as simple prostitutes, and there was little sympathy for the real women who were brutally murdered and mutilated. The case was majorly sensationalised, and these womens were not treated as real people and victims – a legacy that remains today. Still known as the “Jack the Ripper” murders, these cases will never be viewed as the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. 

Press coverage today and throughout time demonstrates our intense desire for brutal and gruesome stories, as well as how deeply embedded misogyny is within journalism. Coverage of crime against women is often disgusting and unreadable. To suggest less freedom of the press to combat this would be irresponsible and reckless – we live in a free country, where freedom of speech is a cornerstone of society. Despite this, I don’t believe that it is too much to ask for journalists to have more sense of respect and integrity.

Media coverage of violent crimes against women should not be characterised by blatant misogyny, transphobia and sensationalism. Journalists should have respect for the victims and their families. While we hope for these crucial changes in the industry, we remember the lives of Nicola Bulley, Emma and Lettie Pattinson, Brianna Ghey, Dawn Sturgess, Madeleine McCann and every other woman and girl whose death has been used to boost website traffic for the press. 


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