When a beautiful young woman is murdered, it reminds of us the dark side of being human. But is the media’s salacious coverage of such tragic events justified?
Human beings are complex creatures. Our motives are often opaque, even to ourselves. We want to be fine, upstanding ethical and rational creatures, but the truth is our motivations are often murky, distorted and irrational.
Because “the media” are a human creation, they mirror those same contradictions. They like to pretend they have only the noblest of motives and they make decisions about what to feature and how to feature it for hard-headed, rational reasons. The truth is the media give us what we really, secretly — even unknowingly — want, because that’s what sells.
The media like to blame us for forcing them to be salacious, and we like to blame them for the very same thing. We are locked into a kind of dance. Just as all of us slow down and crane our necks as we pass the scene of a horrific accident, so we often feel compelled to devour all the details of a particularly gruesome crime.
When a beautiful young woman is killed — Jill Meagher and Reeva Steenkamp being the latest tragic examples — the media show much more interest than when an ugly old woman is the victim or when some poor bloke meets a sticky end. The tone taken is often one of righteous anger and sentimentalised compassion, yet the way the victim is often portrayed fetishises the very things that may have attracted her killer (and certainly attracts the media) in the first place.
There can be a very strong element of salaciousness in some of the coverage — Steenkamp’s bikini-clad form splashed over the front pages of newspapers being a case in point. Coverage of cases such of these triggers a whole series of powerful human myths and archetypes: woman as the object of forbidden desires, innocent as an individual yet guilty of inadvertently triggering lust and longing, and men as helpless in the face of their murkiest impulses. Such crimes remind us all of the dark side of being human, the danger that lurks within desire, fame, success and love. It is, perhaps, precisely because acknowledging such things is so forbidden that they become so attractive.
The electronic media have been ramping up the panic we feel at such crimes for a long time. A century ago if a murder occurred we’d read about it in the pages of the newspaper. Seventy years ago, we’d hear the bereaved sobbing on radio. Fifty years ago, we began seeing the whole thing play out on TV. In each case, it brought the crime emotionally closer, no matter how physically far away we were. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the media became more technically sophisticated, people became more convinced violent crime was on the rise (it isn’t) and so more afraid. This wasn’t done deliberately; it’s an unforeseen consequence.
“When a beautiful young woman is killed … the media show much more interest than when an ugly old woman is the victim.”
Social media has taken this anxiety up a few more notches. Australians, particularly Australian women, followed the disappearance of Jill Meagher in real time. We watched the infamous CCTV footage in front of a dress shop. When her body was found, we wept over our keyboards, even though most of us had never met her or anyone she knew. She was us, or our daughters, sisters or friends.
All of us have taken a short walk home after having had a few drinks, and any of us could have been the one in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Indeed, Meagher’s fate is more viscerally terrifying than Steenkamp’s because it was so random and so unlucky. It reminds us danger is reality and safety an illusion. It removes from us the comforting nonsense that we can somehow control our fate. One of the reasons authority figures — police, teachers, parents, religious leaders, the media — tell women to curtail their own behaviour to avoid r-pe is not just s-xism (though there is a fair dose of that) but because it allows us all to maintain the belief that we can control what happens to us and avoid evil.
It’s like people who tell themselves an acquaintance has died of cancer because he or she didn’t think positively enough. A friend who was s-xually assaulted as a teenager told me her mother had lost all her friends in the aftermath of the crime because the “friends” had said the abuse had happened because she had allowed the daughter to go out so much. The young woman was returning from a day at uni in the early evening. If we can blame the victim, we can convince ourselves it won’t happen to us.
It is also worth reminding ourselves it remains a good thing that murders like these are big news. News, by definition, is out of the ordinary; the more unusual the event, the bigger the headlines. The day the media mostly reports good news is a day to be feared.
I once heard an expert explain why fairy tales are often grim, why children’s stories often begin with the death of the mother and why we slow down to gawk at traffic accidents. She argued we needed to experience play-danger as we grow up (tickling, which mimics being eaten, was another example she gave) and vicarious danger as adults. She said without some relatively safe exposure to real-life danger we would be incapacitated by any actual experience of it. It is a kind of pre-disastering.
If she is right, maybe the media’s reporting of the dark side of human experience is popular for a good reason as well as for many bad ones. The last thing most of us understand is ourselves.