TW : this article includes mentions of domestic violence, rape, pedocriminality and manslaughter

Today, I was scrolling mindlessly through Instagram when I came across a video on a horrific piece of news: Shanon, a 13-year-old French middle schooler, was brutally raped on March 6, which resulted in her death three weeks later. After the initial shock of learning about it, I was flabbergasted by the way this tragic event was handled by the journalist. Produced by the French media outlet Brut, the video clearly minimises the crime that occurred by stating that the young girl “lost her life,” as if she was killed by cancer and wasn’t the victim of  a violent crime. They then proceed to explain that the situation “got out of control” during the act leading to Shanon’s  death. The use of the term “out of control,” however, implies that the initial situation was controlled and not already problematic. 

As we can see here, the misleading use of these terms bring on an attenuation of the circumstances and roles of the people responsible for the death of a young girl. It had a clear impact on the audience, as we can see in the comments section, where we can read numerous comments putting part of (if not all) the blame on the victim of this crime. Sadly, this phenomenon of choosing titles and terms to undercut the horror of a femicide, or any sexual crime in the media is far from an exceptional occurrence. 

Over the years, I have witnessed many articles using several techniques to change narratives when tackling sexual violence. This can go from completely omitting the victim’s identity to focus on the “tragic” story of the perpetrator, to using passive phrasing to seclude the offender from their act, to making a pun in the title to turn the situation into a comical event. 

Words have power. They shape our perception of the world. Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf explains that “language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.” Indeed, words, despite having the same meaning, can have different connotations that impact our views on events. 

No, a man killing his wife is not “a crime of passion.” Using this kind of wording normalises the idea of violence in romantic relationships. There is no justification when assaulting, hurting and killing a partner or loved one. There is no love present in the act of violence. Reducing such behaviour to the banal through those narratives is part of the reason why domestic violence victims often fail to identify when their relationships have become violent. 

Furthermore, it is worrying that gender-based violences are presented as simple, everyday news stories belonging to the “minor news item” section – like we can see in newspaper Global News – as if we are not talking about the murder of a woman. Once again, such editorial choices contribute to the trivialisation of violence against women as a mere fact. 

There is a need, from the media, to take accountability for how irresponsibly they tackle such important issues, and to acknowledge how to properly address them. I do believe that journalists are aware of what they are doing when they choose the wording of their headlines. “He tested his virility on his granddaughter” is not the proper way to address the molestation of a 5-year-old by her grandfather.

As professionals, journalists know what they are doing when they are using those terrible facts as articles to entertain society. This should not be normalised because it contributes to a culture of violence towards women. Pointing out that these kinds of articles – that are still numerous in the media – are harmful is a first step in the fight against sexist and sexual violence.

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