A pattern of disrespect: how the media influences narratives of dead or missing women
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Recent reports in the mainstream media have demonstrated a pattern of disrespect towards women who have died or been victims of violence by men. These reports continually undermine women’s experiences by focusing on and broadcasting intimate details of their lives, creating narratives of victim blaming, and ignoring the injustices faced in particular by trans women and women of colour.
Nicola Bulley’s death in February was overshadowed in the media by reports of her struggle with alcoholism and her personal history. The continual violation of her privacy and publication of intimate details of her life has demonstrated a complete disrespect for both Bulley’s death and for her family. It has perpetrated a pattern of victim blaming towards women whose deaths have been reported on in the media, as well as misrepresenting her family members. In a statement released to the press by Bulley’s family, they condemned the media coverage for their conduct, and claimed it had “misquoted and vilified” friends and family members.
This is not the first time the media has shared intimate details of women victims’ past. Grace Millaine, who was killed by her Tinder date Jesse Shane Kempson in New Zealand in 2018, fell victim to endless media speculation around her past and “what kind of girl she was”. The defence argued Millaine’s death was a result of a consensual sexual "misadventure", completely downplaying and negating what it really was – the violent murder of a woman by a man. The media’s publication of intimate details of her personal life repeats the pattern of demonisation and victim blaming of women. A BBC article published during the trial in 2019 quoted a man who had agreed to meet up with Millaine but never did. He “described her as having an exploratory interest in BDSM as well as being "naive" in her use of such dating apps”. Not only is the use of a character description given by a man who never actually met Millaine hugely problematic, but the description of her as “naïve” and “interested in BDSM” creates a narrative that her murder was partly her fault. Further descriptions of Millaine’s alcohol consumption the night of her death also demonstrate victim blaming, and bring to mind the media’s descriptions of Nicola Bulley’s struggles with alcohol. In continuing to blame women for their own deaths, these narratives continue to distract from what the main take-away should be from these tragedies: that violence against women must end.
The handling of the murders of Emma Pattison and her daughter, Lettie Pattison, also echoes a concerning narrative of victim blaming and a downplaying of domestic violence. Pattison and her daughter were murdered by husband and father, George Pattison, at their home in February 2023. Additionally, reports depicting the murders as a result of George Pattison’s jealousy or spite reinforce the harmful gender stereotype that women should not overshadow or be more successful than their husband. The Daily Mail headline “Did Living in the Shadow of his High Achieving Wife Lead to Unthinkable Tragedy?” downplays his agency and attempts to validate his actions, focusing on her behaviour as a ‘high-achiever’ rather than his act of murder. The police have said they are treating the case as an “isolated incident”, which once again undermines the severity of domestic violence. Although media coverage has painted Emma and Lettie Pattison’s murders as an “unthinkable tragedy”, it does not seem so “unthinkable” when we remember that it happens to a woman twice every week in the UK.
The coverage of the recent death of Brianna Ghey also echoes these patterns of disrespect to dead women and girls in the media. As a young trans girl, Ghey’s gender was constantly misreported and disrespected in coverage of her death, and will likely not be recorded as an act of violence against a woman. Since Ghey was under 18, she was unable to get a gender recognition certificate and so will be recorded as male on her death certificate. Further to this, several news outlets used Brianna’s dead name in their reports in the initial days following her death. This misgendering of Brianna Ghey both reflects and works to legitimise the systemic and legal barriers faced by trans people today.
Even more worrying than the portrayal of dead or missing women in mainstream media is the complete lack of reports on missing or dead women of colour. Bennylyn Burke and her 2-year-old daughter, Jellica Burke, were murdered by Andrew Innes in Dundee in February 2023, after Burke and Innes met on a dating site. The mother and daughter, who had recently moved to the UK from the Philippines, have had little coverage in the media, exemplifying the problem of “Missing White Woman Syndrome”. Racism Unmasked Edinburgh defines this as a “social phenomenon … where Missing Persons and other violent crime cases often favour young, middle-upper class white females”, often ignoring or failing to report on other groups, including BIPOC and LGBTQIA people. We simply can’t continue to downplay the violence committed against women by men, by failing to properly report on and condemn violence against women from marginalised groups.
The media have an undeniable influence on the way we perceive women whose deaths or murders are reported on in the press. The continual negation, misrepresentation, and excusing of these tragedies reinforce and perpetuate myths around violence against women and girls. As well as the embodying of gender stereotypes, they also feed into transphobia and the systemic racism towards women and girls of colour. We have to understand how problematic the portrayal of women in the media is so that we can understand the prevalence of violence against women and girls. We have to recognise victim blaming, problematic racist attitudes, and violations of privacy, so that we can show the respect these women deserved to have from the very beginning.