09 Nov 2019 Reporting femicide: A failure of Latin American journalism
“We do not die, they kill us”. This has become a powerful statement that is forcing Latin American media to be more accurate and intellectually able when reporting femicide, writes the author of the following article.
In December 19, 2005 Claudia Neira survived a frustrated femicide and became
witness to the murder of her six year old daughter Javiera. The perpetrator was Alfredo Cabrera, former partner of Claudia and Javiera’s father. The case left the whole country, Chile, shaken to its core and local journalists wondering how to write accurately about femicide.
It was in 1976 when the South African born activist and feminist writer Diana Russell used for the first time the word “femicide”. It was in Brussels, Belgium, when she addressed about 2,000 women who attended the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women. She defined femicide as “a hate killing of females perpetrated by males” (Russell, 2011). Russell’s term sought to find an alternative to the gender loaded, but evidently neutral term of “homicide”.
Marcela Lagarde, a Mexican anthropologist and feminist activist, translated and began using the Spanish version of Russell’s term – “feminicidio” – after the notorious cases of female killing in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez were reported in 1993. The term soon spread through Latin America, a region with an appalling record of violence against women.
Feminicide and journalism
In Latin America, femicide is the most dramatic expression of gender inequality. In this region to be a woman or a girl is highly dangerous. Latin America has the highest rate of sexual violence against women in the world, according to a United Nations Development Program Report. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reported in 2016 that a woman is killed every two hours in the region because of her gender.
In the light of this appalling reality, “violence against women was finally put on the news agenda of the media,” Chilean journalist Paula Comandari told me. Comandari remembers well the 2005 frustrated femicide against Claudia and the murder of her daughter Javiera. It was widely reported in the Chilean media. However, the way it was reported was disappointing. It was reported largely as a “parricide”, as a “crime of passion” and as the tragic result of the “marital troubles” – the media reported – the couple had been experiencing.
The story of Claudia Neira and her daughter Javiera soon reached the media in neighbouring countries. The news narrative pattern was similarly disappointing. Uruguay’s digital news La Red 21, just to cite one example, described the crime as an act committed by a man “out of his senses” and driven by his “unfathomable passion”.
In Chile, an average of 40 women are killed at the hands of men every year. “The journalistic treatment of this type of crime in Chile is dreadful,” Chilean writer Fanny Campos told me. “Journalists trivialize these deaths.” And it is a journalistic approach, she said, that “contributes to reproducing the patriarchal system.” Campos is the author of the book Ruleta Rosa (Rose Roulette).
Published in 2019, the book is a poetic account of the 45 cases of feminicide occurred in Chile in 2015. It was “one of the most painful years” in terms of violence against women Campos said. While researching her book Campos “realized that directly or indirectly journalism tends to attribute blame to the victims themselves” by mentioning, for example, that it would have been unfaithfulness or that the murderer was the victim of a passionate outburst. Although Chile has the lowest rate of femicide in Latin America, the country presents alarming figures that, far from diminishing, have remained constant and have even increased in recent years. In 2018, there were 42 femicides in the country.
Over recent decades the role of the media in the production and reproduction of stereotypes of gender and, in particular, gender-based violence has been the subject of study and concern for feminist scholars (Mattelart, 2003). The importance of the communication media in the promotion of women’s human rights, on the other hand, was placed early on the agenda of the United Nations – at the Beijing World Women’s Conference in 1995.
In Chile, Claudia Lagos, Chilean journalist and academic, conducted one of the leading studies into femicide and the media (2008). She is the author of the 2008 paper “Femicide according to the Chilean press: another form of violence against women”. In the study, Lagos warned that while femicide burst into the Chilean news agenda it has been badly reported. Femicide, she said, is badly covered by a lack of specialization and understanding of the social problem behind these acts of violence.
Stories about violence against women usually lack depth she wrote and the coverage was restricted to mere descriptions. Femicide, she argued, was sensationalist, classist and there was an overemphasis on the dramatic angle. As Lagos points out, the portrayal of femicide as an inevitable drama or tragedy attributed to alcohol or drugs drives the reproduction of stereotypes and also shows the lack of specialized sources.
Blunders in the preparation of news on violence against women in the Chilean press are frequent, according to Lagos. Differentiation of the victims according to their social stratus and academic formation, sensationalist narrations,
errors in writing the names of the protagonists, omission of information, justifying the aggressor with psychiatric pathologies, portraying femicide as an inevitable drama or tragedy, portraying femicide as an act caused by men’s “passion” – or attributing it to alcohol or drugs. What this does, as Lagos argues, is to reproduce stereotypes.
Misogynistic journalistic narratives
For Chilean journalist Andrea Arístegui the journalistic language used to narrate cases of femicide was the most troubling problem. Arístegui points out that certain behaviours by men in terms of violence against women tend to be normalized. At the same time, she said, the figure of women is caricatured.
To achieve accurate language when reporting violence against women became one of the tasks of Javiera Olivares, the former president of Chile’s Journalism College. During her tenure as head of the College, Olivares had to deal with one of the most dismal femicide headlines published in the last few years.
On March 10, 2016, the Chilean tabloid newspaper La Cuarta (The Fourth) published a femicide story with the following headline: “Love and jealousy killed her”. It was the story of Yuliana Aguirre Acevedo, a young Colombian woman, who was murdered and dismembered on March 9, 2016 by her partner, Edwin Vásquez.
The implication of the headline and the way the story was reported attracted the ire of feminist organisations and their supporters. Fanny Valladares, a Chilean feminist activist, hit the nail on the head when she said that newspaper coverage took away the man’s responsibility and blamed the woman for the crime.
In the context of La Cuarta’s headlines, Olivares, the former president of Chile’s Journalism College said, “Again we reject this type of publication and insist on the urgency of regulating contents that attack the basic rights of people and fail to fulfil the social role of responsible journalism that contributes to the strengthening of democracy.”
In his book “How to report on sexist violence” – published in 2016 – Spanish journalist and academic Jose Maria Calleja provides a conclusive assessment of the journalistic treatment of violence against women. He said that the media in general do not treat femicide as a serious social problem. “The murders of women by men with whom they have a link are not treated in proportion to their seriousness in the media,” he wrote (2016). “Choosing the right words, the images that best inform, offering testimonies from experts, avoiding the morbid, not treating macho crimes as if they were events, is the job of journalists,” he said.
One of the criticisms that both the author and feminist groups make of the media is the informative treatment of sexist murders, especially in the headlines. It is common to see in the Latin American media headlines where journalists write that women “simply died” or “died at the hands of their husbands” when the reality is that “their husbands killed them”. Frequently Latin American journalists fail to understand that women do not fall from the fourth floor, they don’t die suddenly or they don’t die from stabbings. They are killed.
In the light of the seemingly unstoppable and ever increasing cases of femicide in the region, numerous media projects and a network of journalists with a gender perspective have been established. Norma Loto is a journalist and correspondent for the Women’s News Service of Latin America (SEMlac) and member of the International Network of Journalists with a Gender Perspective in Argentina.
One of the key tasks of the network is to deal with the “vocabulary that is used in the press’ when it comes to reporting fundamental aspects closely associated with women’s rights.” Loto cites, as an example, the word used to report abortion – a major women’s demand in a region where it is legalised in only four out of the 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries. The Women’s News Service of Latin America, Loto said, recommends using concepts such as “safe
abortion or termination of pregnancy”.
Distintas Latitudes (Different Latitudes), a Latin American based news media digital platform, has identified the existent of at least 30 “feminist media” platforms in the region. One of these publications is “Estereotipas” (Stereotypes). Its co-director and co-founder is Catalina Ruiz-Navarro. A journalist, Ruiz-Navarro thinks that the “regional media have failed properly to cover the issues of gender violence suffered by millions of women and girls in Latin America.” She is concerned that “the tone of much of the current coverage of such violence is sensationalistic.” She argues that the mainstream and commercial media have “served to normalise gender violence”.
Journalist Patricia Orozco, from Nicaragua’s radio station “Onda Local” (Local Wave) describes gender violence as a “social problem”. And journalists, she said, “have to be on the side of women and not on the side of power”. For Orozco the “side of power” is the patriarchal nature of Latin America society. In stories about femicide, she points out, women are “a source of information” and not “simply a victim”.
In this process of media’s construction of women as powerless victims they are “reduced to objects,” said Francisca Quiroga, a University of Chile political scientist and director of “El Desconcierto” (The Perplexity). “El Desconcierto” is a Chilean digital media platform that – since its foundation in 2011 – has published a series of articles based on promoting women’s rights.
Impunity for crimes against women
According to Mexico’s National institute of Statistics and Geography, on average five women a day were killed in the country between 2000 and 2015. And according to Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office between 2016 and 2018 the City of Mexico witnessed the murder of 134 women.
Samantha Páez Guzmán is a Mexican journalist. “On the issue of violence against women, authorities often minimize cases of aggression,’ she said. She argues Mexico lacks a journalism that takes seriously violence against women. In many cases the media construct violence against women as “isolated cases” perpetrated by the actions of machismo.
Far from been “isolated cases”, violence against women in Mexico, and in Latin America, has a pattern and behind this, a behaviour. Páez Guzmán has been exploring the use of data journalism to find “certain patterns and certain behaviours” behind femicide. Data journalism, she said, is able to “profile” perpetrators and shed light on why femicide occurs. Using data, Páez Guzmán said, allows journalists to go beyond the statements and information issued from authorities and it serves to avoid commonplaces and prejudices.
In Peru, studies about femicide and the media show that violence against women is approached with sexist prejudices and subjective evaluations. They tend to decontextualize the news; putting the attention on the true problem of domination exercised by men against women.
Natalia Sánchez is a Peruvian journalist who exposed the scandalous forced sterilisation of indigenous Peruvian women under the 19902000 regime of Alfredo Fujimori. “It is one of the largest and most systematic crimes against Peruvian women,” she said. “There are approximately 300,000 women who were sterilized against their will.” This is a story, she said, of “impunity”.
Impunity for crimes against women has
been one of the driving forces behind the work of the Association of Social Communicators Calandria, a Peruvian civil society organization founded in the city of Lima on May 10, 1983. For this organization, the media do not have a clear stance against the violation of women’s rights. And for the most part – as this Peruvian association says – they do not show that they disagree or do not raise a critical opinion that contributes to building a culture of rejection of violence against women.
The problem behind the lack of critical actions to deal with femicide in Peru is due in part – according to a study by the Centre for Peruvian Women’s Flora Tristán – to the exacerbation in the media of stereotyped views about women, and the sensationalist coverage of the violence they suffered. The study points out that the newspapers analysed showed a pejorative language that tends to tolerate gender violence.
While it is not enough, Peru has made substantial progress on how to improve the reporting of femicide. Until a decade ago, it was common to see in the Peruvian press headlines such as “I killed her for infidelity” or “she rejected me and I killed her”. In 2017 the Peruvian Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations published a guide for journalists: “How to address news of violence against women?”
The guide points out that “violence against women is an attack on human rights”. It also said that “attributing this to jealousy, to outbursts of anger, to crimes of passion, to sentimental drama, to low instincts” was a way to hide the main causes of problem: domination, discrimination and machismo. The guide recommends covering the story “without blaming the victim, or justifying the aggressor”. The guide also emphasises avoiding phrases and adjectives that “encourage morbidity, such as: bathed in blood, stabbed, graceful young lady (for sexual abuse), the aggressor gave free rein to his low passions”.
Despite some positive action taken – such as in Peru – to improve the news coverage of violence, the problem persists due to a discourse that sustains the idea that the submission of women is natural. This idea is very much part of the daily representation of women in the news narrative of Latin American journalism argues Professor Aimée Vega Montiel.
Montiel is an academic at Mexico’s UNAM University. Media representation of gender is one of her areas of research. She points out that this news construction keeps relegating “women to traditional roles which emphasize their supposed vulnerability, their submission and ascription to the domestic space, or represent them as sexual objects or as consumer groups” (2014: 15).
In a study on Mexican media and violence against women, Montiel points out, “In the case of news that deals with gender violence, coverage tends to sensationalism and drama. Basically, women are represented in two ways: as victims and without the power to trace their experience, or as provocative to the violence of which they are object” (2014: 19). Most articles, she said, tend to excuse the aggressor with phrases such as “I was obsessed”, “I was in love”, “I was under the influence of drugs”. The underlying reason for the aggressors’ action is the unequal distribution of power that exists between men and women.
The reporting of femicide in Latin America is still “a pending task”. It is a task that calls journalists to treat femicide as a social and political
problem, and in addition to treat it as a human rights violation against women and young girls. The Latin American media, in general, tend to present violence against women as an individual problem or a problem the couple is experiencing. These approaches maintain a disconnection between femicide as a broader social problem in the region.
Most research done on this problem shows that Latin American journalism persistently represents cases of gender violence from a merely “informative” perspective, with little contextualization and with an excessive use of adjectives that only seek to over dramatize the crime. At least 2,795 women were murdered in 2017 because of their gender in 23 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, according to official data compiled by the Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean (GEO) of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
It is in this disturbing context that Latin American women are reminding local journalists: “We do not die, they kill us”. This has become a powerful statement that is forcing Latin American media to be more accurate and intellectually able when reporting femicide.
Calleja, Jose Maria. 2016. How to report about machist violence, Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra
Lagos, Claudia. 2008. Femicide according to the Chilean press: another form of violence against women, Santiago: University of Chile
Mattelart, Michèle. 2003-2004. “Women and the media. Back to a problematic”, Réseaux, No.120, pp 23-51
Vega Montiel, Aimée. 2014. “Media treatment of violence against women”, Communication and Media No 30 pp 9-25.]
Antonio Castillo, PhD is a Latin American journalist and a senior journalism academic at RMIT University, in Melbourne, Australia. Antonio’s research includes political journalism; journalism and activism; and narrative journalism.