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Researcher Finds Child Abuse Reporting Biased and Sensationalised

January 24, 2011

Newspaper reporting of physical abuse of children in New Zealand is unbalanced, with disproportionate coverage given to incidents where Māori are the victims or perpetrators, according to research undertaken by Eastern Institute of Technology lecturer Raema Merchant.

Working on a thesis for her Master of Social Work, Raema examined news reports, feature articles, opinion columns and editorials about physical child abuse from 2000-2007.  She also interviewed journalists writing such articles to identify and explore factors which might influence the way in which the print media portray the issue.

Almost without exception, she found ethnicity attracted more media coverage if it involved Māori, Pacific Island or other minority ethnic groups.  Her research pointed to a 42 percent over-reporting of Māori physical child abuse than would be statistically expected.

‘In the eight-year sample of newspapers I did not see any reference to an abused child specifically identified as Pākehā or European.’

Raema said the definition of who might be considered Māori had expanded in recent years, and it could vary depending on who was collecting the information.

While it was seldom mentioned directly, reporters often referred to ethnicity in circuitous ways.  An article about a dead child might describe the body being taken to a marae, for example, or family names might be mentioned.

‘One explanation for this is that journalists have at times been criticised for being racist, and are less likely to be challenged than if there is an obvious reference to the child being non-Pākehā.’

The obvious weighting given to Māori cases of abuse might be attributed to public demand, the effects of colonialism or an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture.   Journalists also tended to reflect their newspaper’s dominant ideologies and were likely to write for a ‘mainstream’ or ‘middle of the road’ readership.

Disproportionate reporting of child abuse was based not just on the ethnicity of the child or perpetrator but also on the seriousness of the abuse and the sensationalist nature of the incident.

The public was exposed to the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of cases.  Raema tracked articles published in four New Zealand newspapers, keeping a count of each time a child was named.  Over the eight years she did this, she found that newspaper reporting focused on only one-third of child deaths, and on fewer than three percent of children hospitalised due to physical abuse.

Almost 9000 children were victims of physical abuse in the eight years, yet only 21 children became ‘household names” in the newspapers.

The research drew on statistics compiled by CYF, police data and information held by the Injury Prevention Research Unit based at Otago University.

Reasons for the disparity between what professionals knew and what the public was unaware of weren’t clear.  It appeared professionals were constrained about what they could tell the public about the extent of child abuse in this country, possibly because of limited resources or privacy concerns.

‘On the other hand, the question must be raised whether the media are aware of what is happening in the community but ignore the information, choosing instead to focus on issues that are more sensational or newsworthy.’

Stories that were ‘different’ or more sensational were more likely to ‘hook’ the interest of the public, ‘so it is not surprising that the media write more about the gruesome or shocking aspects than an article about a government initiative to educate people.’

In writing stories based on court hearings or police action, journalists considered the public to be avid consumers of crime and the grisly details of child abuse.

The overall opinion of the journalists and columnists interviewed was that stories about ‘real’ people were more important and newsworthy than bare facts.

Newspapers tended to reiterate previous incidents of child abuse when reporting on new cases, and this had created a number of ‘household names’ that had become synonymous with the problem.

The handful of children repeatedly mentioned were often those whose death or injury had captured the public imagination because of defining features of the abuse.  It may have carried on over a long period of time, as in the case of Lillybing (Hinewāoriki Karaitiana-Matiaha), been particularly severe, as for Nia Glassie, or involved the death of twin babies, as with Chris and Cru Kahui.

Articles about these few children tended to fall into one of two styles – they were highly subjective and emotively written, often with specific and gruesome details of the abuse, or they were more objectively crafted, adopting a more unbiased and rational approach to the incident.

Physical child abuse, Raema found, was largely about poverty, poor housing, intergenerational abuse, poor parenting and drugs and alcohol abuse.  Abusers were both Pākehā and Māori.

‘It is a national problem and one that should concern us all.  My research leads me to conclude that we should drop the blaming mentality and seek solutions to the real issues of child abuse.’