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Media told: Don’t glorify abusers
CORRECTION: The print version of this article, originally published on page A6 of the March 14, 2013 edition under the headline "Media told: Don’t glorify abusers", identified Valerie Youssef as "the professor of linguistics and head of the department at the University of the West Indies' St Augustine Campus". She is professor of linguistics in the department of modern languages and linguistics at UWI St Augustine. We are happy to make the correction in the version below.
In reporting child abuse cases the media must be careful, through the use of language, not to glorify the abuser or report from sensational angles but rather simply give the facts. Media houses must also be wary of publishing gory details as they could excite other perpetrators, said Valerie Youssef, professor of linguistics in the department of modern languages and linguistics at The University of the West Indies’ St Augustine campus. She made the call at the final day of the Violence Against Children Conference at the Hyatt Regency, Port-of-Spain.
Emphasising her point, Youssef used examples of reports in the print media, singling out headline and sub-headings. In some instances, she argued, they were all that people read in a report and the media, therefore, had a responsibility to paint a true picture of what really happened without exaggeration or twisting the facts.
“When we write what we write, we have to think how it is going to be publicly received. In instances of child abuse we really need to be conscious of what we put into the paper and how that will affect the victim later on,” Youssef added. One detrimental effect of reporting specific details in child abuse cases was running the risk of “enticing and titillating” the wrong people.
She said: “I have not researched that but this is what I was told when I commented to someone I had not expected to find this level of detail in these reports. “Someone who actually worked in the media did say to me they understand that quite a few people do read these reports, particularly for these details.” Saying enticing the wrong people, including would-be-paedophiles, was not intentional by media houses Youssef appealed for media managers to think beyond selling newspapers.
She added: “It is fine to say it sells but I honestly don’t think that we necessarily are told to think beyond that. The very fact that we have competition among the newspapers is going to create a culture that you want to sell. “But if even one newspaper stood up and said ‘we are not going to represent things in this way,’ I really think it would make everyone else think about it.”
She said it sometimes took years for a court case to be completed and during that time the victim could be a young woman who could also be in a relationship. “She might be in a relationship she is struggling with because of all that has happened to her and that might be ruined by what is being said in the media,” she said.
The way forward, Youssef recommended, was to recognise and ensure that the victim had a voice and it was one which people were interested to hear. She said: “It’s not everybody who wants to hear about violence or the level of abuse...quite a lot of people are really concerned about the position of the victim. “So we can look at the whole angle we take these stories from. There are many different angles as there are many people in the total scenario.”
Youssef said in cases where someone had died as a result of abuse or had gone through a series of abuse, sometimes the perpetrator was represented by the media almost as a “kind of anti-hero.” “There is that in women who are attracted, in a peculiar, self-destructive kind of way, to the man who is violent and abusive and it’s as if that is seen to be at work in little relationships reporters pick up on in a court scenario and they represent it as they are seeing it,” Youssef said.
She gave the example of the case of four-year-old Amy Emily Annamunthodo, who was repeatedly raped, sodomised and beaten to death by her stepfather, Marlon King. Youssef recalled one daily newspaper reported one instance of two women vying for King’s attention while the court case was going on. She said: “For some reason the report chose to report the way in which these two women were talking to him and almost jostling for his attention.
“Why should he get so much attention from the press of that kind? Shouldn’t we be condemning him?” Youssef questioned. King was sentenced to hang for the child’s murder.
...Mahabir-Wyatt cautions about use of language
Chair of the Coalition Against Domestic & Gender-Based Violence Diana Mahabir-Wyatt also urged the media to be careful in the use of language, saying one word could make a huge difference and relay the wrong meaning. She gave an example of a 15-year-old girl from south Trinidad who committed suicide on a beach with a 26-year-old man. The girl was reported to “having an affair” with the man.
“A 15-year-old cannot have ‘an affair,’ because it is statutory rape. He was referred to as her lover, not somebody who had seduced her, which is what he had done. He was sneaking around her home and luring her away. He was a predator.” Mahabir-Wyatt appealed for care in the language used in relation to child abuse, because children were being raped and were not capable of consenting to sexual relations.
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