If you read the news regularly, you may have noticed that a lot of women die in ‘isolated incidents’. Between 22 May and June 19, for instance, Melissa Belshaw suffered fatal injuries in an isolated incident in Wigan (a man was later charged with her murder); in Stockport a woman’s body was found in a park following another isolated incident (a man was arrested shortly afterwards); and in a further isolated incident outside Norwich, Gemma Cowey was stabbed to death while walking in the grounds of a disused psychiatric hospital (the police arrested a man who has since been identified as her husband).
The cases I’ve just mentioned are only the first three I found when I searched recent news coverage for the phrase ‘isolated incident’. There have been others: in Britain these ‘isolated’ incidents occur at a rate of 2-3 a week. ‘Isolated incident’ is police-speak, and it’s meant to reassure: ‘don’t worry, this killer isn’t a danger to the public. He only had it in for the woman he killed’. But it’s also shorthand for a larger narrative which frames each killing as a unique personal tragedy–a relationship gone wrong, a man who couldn’t cope, an act of violence that, supposedly, no one saw coming (though it will usually turn out that the victim saw it coming, and not uncommonly that her warnings went unheeded). The existence of a pattern, suggesting a social rather than purely personal problem, is effectively denied.
Feminists have long argued that the narratives a culture constructs around male violence against women are very much part of the problem. This blog has also made that argument several times before–about rape, sexual harassment, domestic homicide and mass killings perpetrated by self-proclaimed ‘incels’. Stories are powerful, especially when they’re constantly repeated. But what I want to ask in this post is, why do the media go on repeating them?
It’s not because no one ever complains. Every so often, the reporting of a case will prompt an outcry. In February, protesters in Mexico targeted the offices of La Prensa after it reported on the Valentine’s Day murder of Ingrid Escamilla under the headline ‘It was Cupid’s fault’. Last year there was anger about the media’s coverage of the trial in New Zealand of the man who was ultimately convicted of murdering the British tourist Grace Millane. More recently, the Sun newspaper’s decision to run a front page story headlined ‘I slapped JK and I’m not sorry’ (‘I’ being JK Rowling’s first husband, whose abusive behaviour during their marriage she had written about on her website) prompted over 500 complaints to the press regulator IPSO. But the effect, if any, is usually short-lived. Even if the media have been forced to apologise for one story, the same narratives invariably reappear the next time around.
The piece I’ve just linked to about the Millane trial offers one explanation:
Sadly, profit is and always has been the solitary pursuit of any given news outlet, and cultural appetites for stories featuring details of violence against women are seemingly insatiable.
But while I don’t dispute the importance of the profit-motive, I think we also need to pay attention to the way news stories are produced, and the way certain narratives get entrenched and normalised through the routine reporting of ‘ordinary’ cases.
To explain what I mean, I’m going to focus on an example I came across back in February. More exactly, I saw the headline which had appeared in the Independent: ‘Teenager pushed woman over balcony after she rejected his advances during houseparty’. The case was in the news because the trial had just ended, and the defendant, 19-year old Yusef Ali, had been found guilty of causing grievous bodily harm to the 18-year old woman he pushed over a balcony (she fell four storeys to the ground, sustaining serious injuries to her back and neck). I decided to look more closely at the way this story had been reported across a range of media outlets.
I chose this example because it was ordinary: a bread-and-butter Crown Court case which was not seen as newsworthy enough to merit blanket media coverage (but for a single ‘spectacular’ detail–the balcony–it might only have been covered in the local press). The sample of reports I managed to compile included items from two national newspapers (the ‘quality’ Independent and the tabloid Sun), two free papers aimed at commuters (the Metro and the Standard) and one local paper (Southwark News), plus the website of one national TV news channel (Sky) and–as an example of non-mainstream coverage–the Christian webzine Joy 105.com.
I also found two other important texts: the statements issued at the end of the trial by the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. They’re important because it was clear they had served as the main if not the only sources for the news reports in my sample. Pressure to minimise costs (which also means staff) has made the news media increasingly reliant on official statements and press releases. Unless a trial is a major news event, they’re unlikely to send a reporter to observe the proceedings directly. That’s one reason why the reports are all so similar: their writers are working from the same sources, reproducing the same information (complete with the same gaps) and not uncommonly recycling large chunks of the text, right down to individual words and phrases.
Before I look more closely at some of those words and phrases, let me outline the facts of this case. In August 2019 Yusef Ali and a friend hired a fourth-floor flat in a building in Bermondsey where they planned to host an all-night party. Word of this event spread, and the young woman who became Ali’s victim was among a number of people who turned up on spec. According to witnesses Ali immediately began harassing her: he grabbed her neck, pulled her hair and slid his hand through a slit in her jeans to touch her thigh, telling her ‘this is what I do in bed’. Witnesses described her as becoming agitated, but they also said she made no direct response. Later Ali got into a fight with a group of men; as it escalated he took a knife from the kitchen and started lashing out indiscriminately. Other guests began to flee, including the woman he had harassed. But as she waited for the lift, he ran at her and pushed her over an internal balcony. He then tried to leave the building, but the police had been alerted and were waiting to arrest him.
When the case came to trial the court heard that the young woman had been lucky to survive. Six months on, she was no longer in a wheelchair, but she was still unable to work or study. Clearly she had suffered a very serious, unprovoked assault. Yet that wasn’t quite how the media told the story. The way they told it reflects some troubling assumptions about men and women, sex and violence.
For the purposes of this post I’m going to concentrate on the headlines. Research has shown that headlines are important (they’re also one thing news outlets don’t generally copy from press releases). It’s not just that for many readers (those who scroll through without clicking) the headline effectively is the story; even for those who do read on, it’s been shown experimentally that headlines prime us to read what follows in particular ways, and that the presence of clarifying details in the story doesn’t always dispel assumptions based on the initial reading of the headline. With that in mind, let’s look at the headlines in my sample.
- Teenager pushed woman over balcony after she rejected his advances during houseparty (Independent)
- EVIL REJECT: Teenager pushed girl, 18, off luxury flat’s 40ft balcony after she spurned his advances at a party (Sun)
- Man found guilty of pushing teen who rejected his advances off fourth-floor balcony in south London (Standard)
- Party host pushed girl off balcony after she rejected his advances (Metro)
- Man pushed woman from fourth-floor balcony in SE1’s Long Lane after making inappropriate advances to her at a party (Southwark News)
- A man has been convicted after pushing an 18-year-old woman off a fourth-floor balcony after she rejected his advances and stabbing two people at a party he was hosting (Sky News)
- This 19 year old boy was flirting with this 18 year old girl: she declined and he pushed her off a balcony (Joy 105)
These headlines show some variation, but there are also some striking similarities. Most strikingly, four out of seven include the formula ‘rejected his advances’, while a fifth, the Sun’s, offers ‘spurned his advances’. Southwark News has ‘inappropriate advances’. Only Joy 105’s headline avoids the term ‘advances’ (though the word does appear in the story, along with ‘spurned’): instead it describes Ali’s behaviour as ‘flirting’ and tells us that the victim ‘declined’.
The fact that so many reports converged on the same or very similar formulas suggests that the writers were working from the same template–the CPS statement, which contains both ‘rejected his advances’ and ‘inappropriate advances’. It doesn’t have ‘spurned’, but it does describe Ali as ‘scorned’ (‘a scorned man who pushed a girl off a balcony after she rejected his advances’). It also describes him as behaving ‘disrespectfully’ towards the victim, and that word too appears in several reports.
The first objectionable thing about this is the mismatch between the language and the acts it describes. In what universe does grabbing someone you’ve never met or spoken to by the neck, pulling her hair and sliding your hand underneath her clothing constitute an ‘advance’, or ‘flirting’? Those terms belong to the lexicon of courtship: they denote ways of signalling sexual interest using words, gaze, posture and perhaps innocuous forms of touching, as part of an initial negotiation that may (or may not) lead to more intimate physical contact. What Ali did was far more aggressive: ‘inappropriate‘ and ‘disrespectful’ don’t begin to cover it.
The second objectionable thing is the use of ‘rejected’, ‘spurned’ and ‘scorned’ to describe the woman’s response to Ali. Even the more neutral ‘declined’ suggests a level of engagement that’s at odds with witness testimony that the woman’s resistance was entirely passive. It’s a stretch to equate her non-response with actively ‘rejecting’, let alone ‘spurning’ or ‘scorning’ her assailant (verbs which imply that she set out to humiliate him). And that equation is significant, because it’s the basis for a narrative in which his later attack on her was payback for the earlier ‘rejection’.
I don’t think this is deliberate victim-blaming. All the reports are unsympathetic to Ali: the story ‘he pushed her over a balcony because she rejected his advances’ is told to explain his behaviour, not excuse it. But that’s still a problem, because it depends on an assumption that does get used to blame victims, and more generally puts the onus on women to prevent or contain male violence. It assumes that men will ‘naturally’ feel aggrieved when women don’t reciprocate their sexual interest. That’s one of the axioms of rape culture: it’s something every girl is taught she must manage. She must learn how to ‘let him down lightly’, in case he treats her lack of interest as a provocation. Men’s inability to tolerate rejection is also a common trope in reports on domestic homicide, where perpetrators are often said to have ‘snapped’ after a woman ended a relationship.
Can these narratives be changed? Feminists have tried: in 2018, for instance, the campaign group Level Up produced new guidelines for the British media on the reporting of domestic homicide, and in 2019 they succeeded in getting them endorsed by the press regulators IPSO and IMPRESS. Though newspapers are not obliged to follow them, the regulators’ endorsement does establish them as recommendations for ‘best practice’, and in theory that should strengthen the hand of anyone who complains about a breach.
But complaining isn’t always a solution. It’s probably most effective in a case like the Sun’s ‘I slapped JK’ story, when the issue is a single newspaper overstepping the mark on a particular occasion. It’s not so useful when whatever you’re complaining about appears in every paper’s version of the same events.
Formulas like ‘isolated incident’ and ‘rejected/spurned his advances’ are not unusual or sensational: rather they are normalised and taken for granted. You can’t complain that they ‘overstep the mark’, because they are the mark; they’re clichés writers reach for (or copy and paste from other sources) because they’re seen as the obvious way to tell a certain kind of story. Of course it’s important to keep trying to raise awareness; but when even the CPS, the institution responsible for prosecuting crime, talks about ‘scorned men’ and ‘inappropriate advances’, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.