Media coverage of the Robert Pickton case
The following is a discussion of scholarly articles that may be of relevance when considering media coverage of the Robert Pickton case. Two articles concerning, respectively, sex trade workers in Vancouver and historical representations of aboriginals in Canada are discussed, before turning to several articles concerned with women, violence, and the media.
By Heather Peters
Feminist Media Project
John Lowman’s 2000 article “Violence and the Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution in Canada” provides an interesting, if brief and largely quantitative overview of newspaper stories about prostitution in the Vancouver Sun. This overview forms part of a larger project concerned with the increase during the 1980s in the murder of (predominantly street-based) women working in the city’s sex trade. Lowman’s article is therefore useful in providing a backdrop of patterns of coverage against which one can situate coverage of the Pickton case, although he does not provide an in-depth, discursive analysis of even one example article. However, he does make interesting connections between the media discourse, homicide statistics, and activities of both the police and citizens’ groups.
Lowman first reviews statistics of murders of sex trade workers in British Columbia from 1964 – 1998, and describes the various “strolls” in Vancouver. He also discusses battles of both neighborhood residents to have street-based prostitution moved out of their areas, and of others (such as family members) to have the disappearance of many women involved in the trade investigated.
It is in attempting to account for the increase in murders in the 1980s that Lowman suggests looking at the local news coverage of the sex trade, specifically in the Vancouver Sun from 1983 – 1998. Lowman suggests that the majority of articles in the early 1980s contributed to a “discourse of disposal” in the public arena that may have facilitated the rise in homicide by creating the impression that prostitutes are unwanted – and thus easy targets (1003). That is, coverage focused on the nuisance caused by street prostitution and the efforts to “get rid” of the trade. Lowman finds an increase in reporting of violence against sex workers only after the 1985 law against communicating (for the purposes of prostitution) was enacted, and some off-street venues were shut down, which pushed more sex trade workers into the streets (and thus rendered them more vulnerable to crime). However, he asserts that news articles were never “crime wave” style, instead treating incidents as individual occurrences. Lowman thus offers a general, “pre-Pickton” sense of reporting about the sex trade in Vancouver.
Whereas Lowman pays scant attention to issues of race, Robert Harding’s 2006 article “Historical Representations of Aboriginal People in the Canadian News Media” points out some frames that have been used historically and more contemporarily in newspaper stories about aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations. While Harding does not consider issues of gender, much less of sex trade workers specifically, the frames that he discusses may be relevant if the aboriginal heritage of some of Pickton’s victims is persistently being mentioned.
Harding considers two incidents in the mid-19th century and two in the mid-1990s that generated press attention to aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations in British Columbia. Using critical discourse analysis alongside frame analysis, Harding identifies two common frames in press coverage in the 1860s. The first follows the news’ tendency to dichotomize groups into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, as stories were often framed with the notion that “aboriginal people (are) inherently inferior” (208 emph. orig.). This framework then justified, or even obligated, white settlers’ actions to control ‘Indians’. The second frame that Harding identified was that of the “heroic white man saving primitive aboriginal people”, a frame which included the suggestion that aboriginals’ susceptibility to “corruption” rendered them a particular challenge for the humanitarian efforts of white settlers (210 emph. orig.).
Harding goes on to discuss how the subtler, “sanitized ethnocentrism” replaced biological racism in the 1990s (206). Nonetheless, he argues that traces of the first two frames are discernable in stories in the 1990s that still dichotomized between a presumed white audience (“Us”) and the aboriginals (“Them”) (206, 214). In discussing coverage of the results of a land claim, Harding suggests a third frame: the “triumph of reason over emotion”, whereby overly emotional aboriginals are forced to succumb to the reason of Euro-Canadians’ judgment (217 emph. orig.). He notes that the sole story written by an aboriginal author is also the only one connecting the land claims judgment with Canada’s colonial history, whereas many others raise the specter of violence through references to, for example, the Oka crisis. As Harding suggests, “associating aboriginal people with violence and criminality is an argumentative ploy that has been used historically to discredit aboriginal people and causes in news discourse” (221). Harding thus argues that the press coverage of issues related to aboriginals clears the way for government actions “that “reproduce material and social inequality between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people” (206).
Similarly, the authors discussed below that consider the news media’s reporting of crime usually at least gesture to the interactions between news and the broader social context, while some also attempt to measure effects of reporting conventions on audiences. The results of some studies that have attempted to identify common features in reporting of violence against women and how these features impact readers may be of particular interest in making the argument against common means of reporting such violence, and thinking about how one might make changes.
For example, Phyllis A. Anastasio and Diana M. Costa’s 2004 article “Twice Hurt: How Newspaper Coverage May Reduce Empathy and Engender Blame for Female Victims of Crime” provides interesting evidence, if only from a small study, of how the portrayal of crime victims can influence empathy for them, particularly with regard to gender. After noting literature that asserts that news coverage of crime often increases victim blame, particularly when victims are female, the authors analyzed 148 articles about violent crime during a seven-week period in 2000, from three national, American newspapers, about violent crime. Sex crimes were excluded, as the authors were particularly interested to see how victims were identified. They found that %21 of stories with male victims included personal information (name, background info, etc) about the victim, in contrast with only %14 of stories about female victims. Moreover, a small audience analysis using eight versions of a crime story read by Undergraduates found that the presence of personal information did increase empathy for the victim when the victim was female. Personal information did not change empathy for male victims. For both genders, however, the inclusion of personal information decreased victim blame. The authors therefore suggest that the lack of personal information could decrease the apparent importance of the crime and threaten to normalize, for example, violence against women. Attention to such issues of personal information may therefore be of particular use when conceiving an intervention into coverage of the Pickton case.
Nancy M Henley et al’s 1995 “Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence: Agency and the Passive Voice” provides a somewhat more in-depth consideration of another specific feature of crime news stories: the verb voice used in describing the crime. From a psychology of language standpoint, the authors seek to consider how active vs. passive voice affect readers of crime stories in terms of, for example, victim blame. The authors therefore first outline how the literature concerning the effects of verb voice supports “the common assertion that the passive voice directs emphasis or salience toward the object rather than the subject of a sentence” (62). Henley et al. then review “discourse studies” with regard to how apparent agency depends on verb voice – i.e., how the passive voice and “agent deletion” (in truncated passive voice) render it easier to attribute welfare dependency to personal characteristics of African Britons as opposed to systemic racism. The authors then conducted a content analysis in the Boston Globe to explore the frequency of passive voice use in reporting violence against women, particularly with regard to rape. They found that the passive voice was more frequent for describing “male sexual and nonsexual violence, whereas the active voice predominated for positive and neutral acts” (69). And, although they also found that passive voice was used even more for nonsexual than sexual violence, they argue that the “frequency of passive voice and truncated passive usage in writing about rape is great enough for concern if it is true that these forms tend to minimize the perception of agency in the mind of the reader” (71).
The second study saw the authors ask Undergraduates to rate the positive/negative valence of various verbs (for ex; rescue, rape, thank, murder for ex). The authors did find that the more negatively the students rated a verb, the more frequently the verb had appeared in the passive voice in their first study.
Finally, Henley et al conducted another audience study to see how verb voice in cases of violence against women impact assessments of harm to victims/survivors, victim blame, and whether readers exposed to stories in the passive voice would “be more accepting of rape myths, interpersonal violence, and battering, and have more negative attitudes toward rape victims” (73). Overall, their hypotheses that active verb voice would increase attributed harm, and perpetrator responsibility when reporting sexual violence was found to be true. However, this effect of verb voice was contingent on the gender of the reader, affecting male readers only. On the other hand, all readers of stories in the passive voice demonstrated on a survey afterwards a greater acceptance of battering of women and rape myths (such as the woman provoked the attack). The authors therefore suggest that becoming more conscious of verb voice could help writers who seek to avoid perpetuating such myths when reporting on violence against women – another specific suggestion that may be of use for the intervention with regard to the Pickton case.
Marian Meyers’ 2004 article, “African American Women and Violence: Gender, Race and Class in the News” and Paula Wilcox’s 2005 article, “Beauty and the Beast: Gendered and Raced Discourse in the News”, also examine issues of representations of violence against women. While both authors have concerns that are somewhat comparable to those of Henley et al, Meyers and Wilcox are more explicitly interested in considering the complicated intersections of gender, race and class in representations of violence against women. As such, I think that both the literature reviews in these articles and specific findings of their case studies may be of interest when considering the Pickton case.
Meyers provides a discourse analysis of Atlanta’s local TV news coverage of violence experienced by African American women during Freaknik. From 1982 until 2000, Freaknik grew from a small event for students in Atlanta to a huge annual weekend of partying every spring. Meyers notes that, even allowing for a tendency for sexual assault to go unreported, by the mid-1990s rape crisis centres were experiencing a dramatic rise in visits from African American women during the Freaknik period. She argues, however, that the “convergence of gender, race, and class oppressions” meant that this violence was minimized in the press, and the victims were stereotyped as either Jezebels or naifs. She notes in her literature review, for example, that Black women tend to be stereotyped as Jezebels, welfare cheats, matriarchs, etc. These stereotypes then combine with views of “Africanist sexuality”, and the press’s tendency to blame women for violence against them, to create a public discourse in which people are not predisposed to take violence against black women seriously.
Interestingly, Meyers found that despite the above-mentioned increase in violence against women during Freaknik, this issue was only reported by the TV news if cameras happened to be there during an incident or shortly afterwards. Women who complained of having been groped by random men were framed by shots of short skirts, for example, suggesting that the women’s clothing somehow provoked or justified the harassment. Another attempted rape was described as a “tense moment”, minimizing the seriousness of the attack. Meyers thus suggests that by “blaming the victim” the news both warns women against “the dangers of transgression while reaffirming middle class values and behaviors as the antidote for the male violence against women” (113). The latter part of this equation is borne of Myers’s observation that the press emphasized that most acts of violence were perpetrated by local young men (inner-city, lower-class, African American), who were contrasted with the students (middle-to-upper-class, predominantly white) that just wanted to have a good time.
Wilcox is similar to Myers in her interest in examining gender, race, and, to a lesser extent, class. However, Wilcox also introduces the idea of “the moral framework of the myth” as a means of considering the normalization of “gendered and raced discourse” (516). That is, Wilcox focuses on considering how ideas of innocence and guilt are connected to the social constructions of gender, race and class as she examines newspaper coverage of a drive-by shooting of two young women in Birmingham, England.
Wilcox first provides a useful overview of newspaper representations of violent crime, noting the tendency for a focus on “interpersonal violence in public space, focusing most often on victims rather than perpetrators” (516). A main point of Wilcox’s subsequent analysis is the press’s insistence on the girls’ innocence, noting the numerous quotes from locals and authorities insisting that they were innocent bystanders. In contrast, Wilcox suggests, male victims are most often simply described as victims. Wilcox suggests that this emphasis is required to move the young, black women away from the image of the black woman as “always-already guilty” into a space more akin to the implied “benchmark” female (white, middle-class, sexually innocent, etc.). Wilcox also argues that the guilt was spread to the entire black community, as black men are similarly positioned as always-already guilty. She notes, for example, the repeated assertions that the men came from a “notorious” (lower-class) neighborhood, thus implicating the entire community (one dominated by ethnic minorities). Wilcox also suggests that the press focused on the exceptionality of this crime, avoiding a consideration of systemic discrimination experience by black men, echoing Harding’s comments about the press’s reticence to address historical and contemporary contributors to Aboriginal communities’ social problems.
Finally, a citation Wilcox includes from Carol Smart may be of interest: “In legal discourse, for example, ‘the prostitute is constructed as the bad woman, but at the same time she epitomizes Woman in contradistinction to Man because she is what any woman could be and because she represents a deviousness and licentiousness arising from her (supposedly naturally given) bodily form, while the man remains innocuous’” (Smart in Wilcox 528). The implication is that the most innocent women are sexually innocent. Associated is the idea that men are guilty only to the extent that the woman is innocent, an issue which may be of relevance when considering the Pickton case, even if Pickton is being demonized.
Because of the number of aboriginal women victims in the Pickton case, and the likelihood that their aboriginality will figure at least in some manner in coverage of the trial, it is useful to briefly consider another article from which Wilcox drew when discussing the construction of innocence and guilt in relation to race, gender, and class. Anne Cossins’s 2003 article “Saints, Sluts and Sexual Assault: Rethinking the Relationship Between Sex, Race and Gender” is an exploration of various means through which to think about the experiences in the legal system of Australian aboriginal women who have made sexual assault complaints.
Cossins’s interest is to consider how “legal cultures create different categories of Woman according to race, ethnicity, religion, age, class”, and how these legal cultures are experienced by aboriginal women in sexual assault cases (78). Before delving into these theoretical concerns, Cosssins outlines a large study conducted on sexual assault trials in Australia. She notes that when taking into account their proportion of the population, aboriginal women were ten times more likely to be a complainant. Moreover, aboriginal women were subjected to far more questions concerning their drinking habits and experiences of casual sex, and had a lower conviction rate when men plead not guilty than did Euro-Australians.
Without rehearsing the many theoretical nuances and debates through which Cossins takes readers, some points are particularly interesting. As she reviews sex/gender debates, for example, Cossins ultimately suggests that the case under consideration indicates that aboriginal women were distinguished not only by their sex. That is, Cossins insists that laws create more than one sexed body, as they are also raced: “(t)his means that the discrimination experienced by white women can never be the same as that experienced by black and indigenous women – as between women, the normal female body is the white body while the black or indigenous body is constructed in ways that evoke abnormality” (92). Another point that Cossins makes that dovetails with some of the work discussed above is her suggestion that the rape complainant is “the ‘criminal body’ of the sexual assault trial” because the sexed female body carries meanings of “dishonesty, deceit, revenge, fantasy and unreliability” (95, 93). However, Cossins suggests we need to further consider how some women are made more unreliable than others through constructions of their race. Cossins’s article may therefore be interesting as an extension of the work that focuses on how such discourses about women are reinforced in press coverage of violence against them.
In addition to the work of these authors cited above, several others have done work that further bolsters the argument that news media report on violence against women in manners that decrease the seriousness of assaults. An overview of some examples will therefore provide further examples of features of such reporting to watch for, and to avoid.
Elizabeth K. Carll’s 2003 article, “News Portrayal of Violence and Women: Implications for Public Policy” provides a general overview of trends in media reporting on violence against women. Carll suggests that despite the statistical frequency of violence against women in the U.S., media coverage tends to provide merely a “mirage of individual pathology”, preventing one from considering the “social roots” of such violence (1603). Carll also notes the disproportionate amount of coverage that female perpetrators of domestic violence receive, given the more systemic occurrence of domestic violence against women. Carll touches on parallels with other countries’ media coverage of violence against women, further helping one to argue about the pervasiveness of such patterns. Carll is a firm believer in the power of the press, suggesting that if such coverage were undertaken in a different manner, it could help garner support for legislative change. In fact, she suggests that attention to acquaintance rape has helped put this issue on the agenda of policy-makers.
Alina Korn and Sivan Efrat published an Israeli case study in 2004; “The Coverage of Rape in the Israeli Popular Press”. In their examination of two rape cases that each received a great deal of attention in the Israeli popular press, the authors found that the sexual history of the complainants – who were both minors – was persistently emphasized. Indeed, Korn and Efrat echo Anastasio and Costa, and Henley et al when discussing the tendency for the press to increase victim-blame, and reinforce myths about women and rape – particularly, in this case, the apparent inability for women to be raped if they have ever had consensual sex. In their analysis, Korn and Efrat pay particular attention to the sides of the stories that are aired in the newspapers, noting in both cases the defendants’ sides were given far more attention, and therefore far more legitimacy. The authors also suggest that sex crime stories may be used to help sell papers, as the most titillating aspects of the cases were given ample attention. In addition to bolstering claims made in other articles, Korn and Efrat’s work might also be useful for this suggestion concerning the newsworthiness of crime involving sex, even if the Pickton case is focused on homicide, not rape. At the very least, Korn and Efrat have a fairly large literature review which may be of interest.
Adrian Howe’s 1997 piece, “The War Against Women: Media Representations of Men’s Violence Against Women in Australia”, is a response to The Age’s 1993 series called ‘The War Against Women’. In contrast with most other studies under consideration, Howe includes lengthy clips from various articles that appeared during the 3-week period of the series. Many of Howe’s findings are similar to those patterns discussed above in terms of the tendency to “reinscribe hegemonic narratives of gender relations” when attempting to explain violence against women (73). Howe also points out how the voices of feminists were undermined throughout the series, in favour of treating violence against women as aberrant, unusual occurrences and thereby minimizing men’s responsibility for their behaviour. As such, Howe views this series as yet another affirmation that women somehow acquiesce in violence against them, and that domestic violence ultimately “is a war that cannot be won” (73).
Carolyn Michelle and C. Kay Weaver’s analysis in their 2003 article “Discursive Maneuvers and Hegemonic Recuperations in New Zealand Documentary Representations of Domestic Violence” also has findings similar to media analyses already discussed. Indeed, six years after Howe published his article, the authors suggest that the literature still indicates a tendency for the press to focus on domestic violence as the aberrant behaviour of a few men. The authors also note the observation that women are blamed through suggestions that if they would only have done something about it, they could have avoided the violence – rather than reporting on any institutional failures or other systemic problems.
These authors’ particular analysis is of three documentaries created as part of a New Zealand police campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence. Drawing on Foucault’s idea of competing regimes of truth, the authors identify five discourses circulating in social science literature that have been used to understand domestic violence. They go on to suggest that each discourse is present in the documentaries, but in a hierarchy whereby feminist analyses of the issues are once again stifled. For instance, the authors point out that the documentaries claimed to be about “family violence”, thus ignoring how most domestic violence is perpetrated by men. The documentaries thus also avoid how feminists have connected this violence with women and men’s respective status in society. The authors found that by focusing on individual stories, and the idea that the violence was learned by the men, these productions further mitigated attention to such social issues. Finally, the authors argue that the documentaries’ focus on the hope of reconciliation resulted in reemphasizing the necessity, or desirability of women taking partial responsibility for changing patterns of behavior.
In addition to these articles’ suggestion of numerous contexts and ways in which violence against women is problematically represented in the press, an article by Barbara Barnett from 2005 expands on Carll’s brief point about the disproportionate amount of coverage that female perpetrators of violence receive. “Perfect Mother or Artist of Obscenity? Narrative and Myth in a Qualitative Analysis of Press Coverage of the Andrea Yates Murders” provides an interesting counter-point to the articles discussed, as Barnett outlines how the press coverage of this case also tended to reinforce ideas about femininity and maternity. (Andrea Yates drowned her five children in 2001).
Barnett first outlines the denial of any “maternal ambivalence” in society; that is, the pervasiveness of ideas about the natural disposition of women to nurture and care for children (and men). Barnett then focuses on considering how the narratives common among press coverage in both the local, Houston paper and the national Newsweek during the year of the trial tended to reinforce such myth. Barnett suggests that two narratives prevailed, that of the traitor, and that of the quest. In narratives about the traitor, Barnett argues, Yates figures predominantly as a Judas figure, betraying not only her own family but her sex. Barnett did find sub-themes in this narrative, such as her husband being figured as a traitor for his inability to prevent his wife’s actions, and the medial community betraying Yates through inadequate care. However, stories frequently suggested that Yates’s own mind betrayed her, a theme that Barnett argues largely reinforced myths about the good mother, instead of seriously considering post-partum depression. In discussing the aspects of the Quest narrative, Barnett focuses on the search for legal remedy and punishment for Yates’s crimes. Even here, Barnett suggests that maternal myths were employed once more as issues of post-partum depression were often ignored or minimized, in favor of focusing on the idea that women are simply meant to be natural caretakers.
Taken together, these articles suggest that coverage of the Pickton case may mitigate Pickton’s responsibility for his actions (and ignore the involvement of any others) by focusing on aspects of his mental health, or by ignoring the particular combination of socioeconomic and political factors that helped lead to or rendered easier these crimes. Questions about why sex trade workers are particularly vulnerable to such violence may also fall by the wayside, or serve only to reinscribe ideas about women’s appropriate behaviour and roles. Indeed, if sex trade workers, particular those of visible minorities are always-already guilty in many social discourses, and the systemic nature of violence against any women tends to be consistently mitigated in the press, it is all too easy to imagine how the Pickton case will provide ample opportunity for the reinforcement of myths about gender, race and class difference and the appropriate responses to the issues the case raises.
Anastasio, Phyllis A. and Diana M. Costa. “Twice Hurt: How Newspaper Coverage May Reduce Empathy and Engender Blame for Female Victims of Crime.” Sex Roles. 51.9/10 (2004): 535 – 542.
Barnett, Barbara. “Perfect Mother or Artist of Obscenity? Narrative and Myth in a Qualitative Analysis of Press Coverage of the Andrea Yates Murders.” Journal of Communication Inquiry. 29.1 (2005): 9 – 29.
Carll, Elizabeth K. “News Portrayals of Violence and Women: Implications for Public Policy.” American Behavioral Scientist. 46.12 (2003): 1601 – 1610.
Cossins, Anne. “Saints, Sluts and Sexual Assault: Rethinking the Relationship Between Sex, Race and Gender.” Social and Legal Studies. 12.1 (2003): 77 – 103.
Harding, Robert. “Historical Representations of Aboriginal People in the Canadian News Media.” Discourse and Society. 17.2 (2006): 205 – 235.
Henley, Nancy M. et al. “Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence: Agency and the Passive Voice.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 14.1 (1995): 60 – 84.
Howe, Adrian. “The War Against Women: Media Representations of Men’s Violence Against Women in Australia.” Violence Against Women. 3.1 (1997): 59 – 75.
Korn, Alina and Sivan Efrat. “The Coverage of Rape in the Israeli Popular Press.” Violence Against Women. 10.9 (2004): 1056 – 1074.
Lowman, John. “Violence and the Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution in Canada.” Violence Against Women. 6.9 (2000): 987 – 1011.
Meyers, Marian. “African American Women and Violence: Gender, Race and Class in the News.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 21.2 (2004): 95 – 118.
Michelle, Carolyn and C. Kay Weaver. “Discursive Manoeuvres and Hegemonic Recuperations in New Zealand Documentary Representations of Domestic Violence.” Feminist Media Studies. 3.3 (2003): 283 – 299.
Wilcox, Paula. “Beauty and the Beast: Gendered and Raced Discourse in the News.” Social and
Legal Studies. 14.4 (2005): 515 – 532.
About Heather Peters
Heather Peters is a Master’s student in Concordia University’s Communications Department. Her research examines Canadian press representations of women working in the Thai sex tourism industry.