Media sensationalism is something we are all collectively complicit in. From the journalists who search for the most dramatic headlines to the readers who voraciously lap up the juiciest stories, we all have a part to play in the melodramatic theatre that is the modern media.
Indeed, exaggerated headlines and yellow journalism are so much a part of our daily lives that we pay its repercussions scant attention. But given its often damaging and irreversible effects, it is high time, we examine the implications of such scandal mongering tactics.
There are of course many cases of irresponsible journalism but in my opinion, there is nothing more tragic than innocuous misogynistic media portrayals that lead directly or indirectly to gross miscarriages of justice.
The Meredith Kercher sagawas one that held Europe and the wider world in thrall. Kercher, a fresh faced twenty-one year old student was found with her throat slashed. Arrested amidst controversy was her beautiful flatmate, Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.
From the get go, the case provided great fodder for the media. Here were two attractive young ladies embroiled in an alleged “sex game gone wrong”. Pictures of the two were splashed across the world and the media dubbed Knox “Foxy Knoxy”. Straightaway, the label created connotations of sleaze and the impression stuck.
In every good story, there had to be a villain and because Knox was good looking and sexy, she was immediately cast as the villainous femme fatale and Kercher who looked wholesome and sweet, the innocent “virgin to the slaughter”.
The media frenzy went into overdrive and in the eyes of many, Knox was irresistibly guilty before a trial date was even set. This subconscious but misleading inference of her guilt must have influenced everyone involved and with the intense media coverage, the Italian police were under pressure to come up with a suspect. Against the backdrop of dubious evidence, Knox was charged and sentenced to 26 years jail. She was later acquitted but in the drama of Knox’s conviction, valuable leads that could have unraveled the mystery of Kercher’s murder were lost.
In our quest for tabloid trash, Knox’s reputation was forever tarnished in the eyes of the world and we are still no closer to unearthing the mystery of Kercher’s death.
In truth, both women were probably just average teenagers who could not be simplified as either all good or all bad but because they were two attractive women, there was great allure in creating a scandal instead of a pursuit for the truth. Had these been middle aged men, would the same furore have ensued?
The sad reality is that both Kercher and Knox suffered under our collective need to typecast women with disastrous consequences – justice for none.
Tragically, there are other incidents where misogynistic manipulations have led to a miscarriage of justice. On August 17, 1980, Lindy Chamberlainsaw a dingo carry off her baby, Azaria on a family camping trip in Australia. However, as a result of the media portrayal of her character, no one believed her and she was wrongfully convicted for her baby’s death.
However in a bizarre breakthrough years later, a routine police search discovered the remains of Azaria in a dingo den together with Azaria’s jacket. Chamberlain was proven to have been telling the truth from the very start but because of the police and the public’s desire to believe that she had to be guilty because she did not appear “sad enough” at the inquest, she had spent years in jail.
At her trial, Chamberlain was criticised for her alleged coldness which was widely reported by the Australian media and her guilt was sealed. Chamberlain subsequently revealed that she had hid her emotions because of the pressure. But as she was a mother, the public felt the need to vilify her because she did not conform to their idea of how a mother should grieve. In our desire to stereotype women, we somehow forgot that Chamberlain was entitled to her own way of mourning. Illogically, we perceived her as unfeeling just because she chose not to tear her hair in public or wail uncontrollably for all and sundry.
In 2007, Chamberlain spoke about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, offering support for her parents, Gerry and Kate. She saw parallels between how she and Kate were portrayed by the media saying “At the heart of it, there is a woman who has failed to play the emotive, feminine role scripted for her in this terrible soap opera”.
When Madeleine McCann went missing in Portugal, her mother, Kate was reviled for having left her children asleep in their bedroom as she had dinner with her husband. Never mind the fact that the restaurant was opposite the bedroom and that she went back regularly to check on them. Kate was by all accounts a good mother but because she fell short of the standards set by a sensationalist media, her image was forever tarred and the world blamed her for the loss of her child. She faced further abuse as she appeared composed despite the loss. Gerry, her husband was equally composed but because he was a man, he was not judged for that.
Where is the justice for a woman who has already lost her child?
Newspapers will always invent catchy headlines to sell their tales so perhaps, we can never fully avoid a trial by media. But, as readers, we can start to turn the tide against unfair stereotyping by being aware of how women are labelled by the media .Otherwise, we will all have participated in trampling justice underfoot on the basis of our subconscious inclination to stereotype women.
A quote from Chamberlain serves as s stark reminder to what is at stake. As a result of her wrongful conviction (of which a misogynistic media contributed to), she lost five years of her life and her marriage collapsed. She was unable to properly grieve and Azaria did not get the justice she deserved. On the 30th anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance in 2010, Chamberlain said “Our family will always remember today as the day truth was dragged in the dirt and trampled upon but more than that it is the day our family was torn apart, Azaria deserves justice.”
Image credits: BBC, Stuff.co.nz, CBS News