Femicide & Media

Femicide and the Media

Femicide is neither inevitable nor excusable, though the mainstream media often represents it as such (Fairbairn, Boyd, Jiwani, & Dawson, 2023). Media coverage of femicide and male violence against women and girls (MVAWG) more generally play a powerful role in shaping and reinforcing societal understandings of these forms of violence. While the relationship between media content and public understandings is a complex one, research on audiences suggests that media portrayals foster and reinforce perceptions of, and attitudes toward, violent crime (Anastasio & Costa, 2004; Roberts & Doob, 1990). Media can also influence the political and policy agenda concerning criminal and social justice (Doyle, 2003). For example, a recent review of international literature found that the dominant media template of femicide renders social structures such as patriarchy, misogyny, racism, and colonization invisible (Fairbairn et al., 2023). In doing so, the media enact symbolic violence by presenting femicide as natural, inevitable, and the result of individually driven circumstances. For these reasons, it is important to develop an understanding of how femicide is represented in Canadian news media, including how victims and perpetrators are portrayed.

When reporting femicide, mainstream news media (“the media”) are increasingly recognized as both information sources and active participants in social change (Fairbairn et al., 2023). Internationally, researchers and advocates are increasingly vocal about the invisibility, trivialization, and/or misrepresentation of femicide in the media (see Comas-d’Argemir, 2015; Jilozian & Abrahamyan, 2016), and have demonstrated that media coverage of femicide in its larger context is raced, gendered, and classed. Consequently, media representations must be recognized as a technology of violence (Garcia-Del Moral, 2014).

The Media Template

The media use a template to create narratives and guide the way the public understands femicide (Fairbairn et al., 2022), and such templates are defined by their status as received wisdom and unchanging nature (Kitzinger, 2000). Media templates can enact symbolic and discursive violence by reproducing and perpetuating socially constructed, unequal gender relations (Jiwani, 2009; Özer, 2019). In representing femicide, the media landscape enacts symbolic violence by 1) positioning victims as culpable for the violence they experience, 2) commodifying or naturalizing women’s deaths in racialized categorizations; 3) identifying which women are considered grievable (Butler, 2006) or worthy of being mourned; and 4) allowing the state to maintain limited involvement in addressing the conditions that contributed to the colonial, racialized, and gendered patterns of femicide (Stillman, 2007; Jiwani, 2009; Fairbairn et al., 2023).

Tracking and analyzing media coverage is a first step to understanding how these portrayals work to perpetuate and maintain the risk of femicide for women and girls. For example, important questions include who gets to construct femicides for the public and what narratives are dominant. A recent review of the key elements of the existing media template for femicide demonstrates that the template restricts our understanding of femicide as either an individualized, isolated incident that is largely the responsibility of victims, or as a cultural issue involving racialized ‘Others’ (Fairbairn et al., 2023). These findings are evident in older studies as well (Gilchrist, 2010; Jiwani and Young, 2006). From here, we can work to encourage news coverage that provides insight into the complexity of these events and does justice to those lives lost to femicide.

News coverage of femicide has changed in recent decades, but not enough to represent this violence accurately – as part of a larger social problem of male violence against women and girls rooted in entrenched gender inequalities (Fairbairn and Dawson, 2013). Media coverage is public by definition and can raise the visibility of important issues, shape everyday understandings, facilitate dialogue, and serve as catalysts for change. The media also represent one of the most transparent sites for examination of dominant (and often negative and inaccurate) attitudes and beliefs held by society’s members. Although media coverage of femicide has helped to create public awareness, misinformation (including the selection of only some information for public knowledge) and a heightened focus on some forms of femicide or its victims over others, combined with negative stereotypes about women and girls, continue to be identified.

Increasing the Media’s Role in Primary Prevention

To respond to the above need for further research, one key priority of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability is to identify, highlight and examine how femicides are portrayed in the media and how these portrayals contribute to everyday understandings of femicide as one form of MVAWG. The goal is to confront biases, and the societal silence that surrounds violence against women so that we can begin to improve prevention efforts and increase access to supports and, in turn, safety for survivors. Although media templates often seem natural or inevitable, they are constructed through various mediated processes (Kitzinger, 2000) and, thus, can be disrupted (Fairbairn et al., 2023).

To increase the capacity of the media to act as a primary prevention tool requires work to disrupt the template – to directly challenge the myths and omissions present in existing coverage (Fairbairn et al., 2023). Current media practices need to shift to cover femicides as human rights violations, with a focus on increasing perception of government responsibility (Bouzerdan & Whitten-Woodring, 2018). Shifting the news template requires enabling and encouraging journalists to diversify news sources (Fairbairn & Dawson, 2013; Kamaya, 2018), and incentivizing news organizations to go beyond reporting of individual femicides and publish feature stories and opinion pieces (Easteal et al., 2021).

Transnational activist work, as Stillman (2007) explains, attempts to “resist media narratives that naturalize the deaths of certain ‘kinds’ of women (poor, non-white, precariously employed), while commodifying others” (p. 493). In our quest to expand the boundaries of societal empathy, Stillman argues, the first step should be to name the problem. As such, intervention in femicide media representation requires resisting constructions of “worthy” and “unworthy” victims (Stillman, 2007; Jiwani, 2009).

A second strategy for shifting the media template is to tell stories, which involves expanding the boundaries of societal empathy and drawing lessons from the theatre community to reappropriate symbolic social space (Stillman, 2007; Fairbairn et al., 2023). In Canada, one example of such a strategy is the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability’s annual campaign #RememberMe, highlighting women violently killed in the previous year. This work aligns with Stillman’s objective to imagine each life as “equally worthy of narration and protection,” intertwined with larger political and structural resistance at the intersections of race, class, and gender oppression (p. 497).


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