Dear Jamaican Media, it is Time to Live Up to Your Function
Back in the year 2000 when I started my first Masters programme in Communication Studies, I remember on our first day being told explicitly what the functions of media are, the manner in which it functions in upholding a democratic society and the responsibility of the public to make sure that it fulfils its purpose. On the very first day, I left class with the understanding that media has a lot of social power to inform, interpret, instruct, entertain and engage in cultural transmission within the society it serves. I felt that with that kind of power, it was essential that the public continue to hold practitioners to the standards of ethics according to the social contract we have with them. Flash forward twenty-one years and the state of media in North America and the Caribbean leaves me with a number of questions in regard to whether or not media has abandoned its ethical principles. This is an attempt to remind Jamaican practitioners in media of what their functions are supposed to be and to urge them to stop engaging in harmful, misleading and sexist reporting that would get them fired or sued in other countries.
As at 2021, Jamaica ranked seventh in the world on the World Press Freedom Index, down one spot from the sixth position in 2020. To emphasize this point, the countries with greater press freedom than Jamaica are, in reverse order, sixth the Netherlands, fifth is Costa Rica, Denmark is fourth, Sweden is third, Finland is second and Norway is first. Canada ranks fourteenth and the United States forty-fourth. That means that in the region of the world known as “The Americas”, only Jamaica and Costa Rica appear in the top ten countries of the world with the highest levels of press freedom globally. This means that no one in Jamaica is consistently muzzling the press or instructing them on what they can and cannot say in the public domain outside of the reasonable limits of protecting vulnerable people from hate crimes. Given this fact, it is now time to hold the media accountable for the absurdities it has historically and recently exhibited in covering gender based and sex crimes.
The most recent headline to completely disgust and enrage me was one in which the reporter dared to refer to a twenty-one-year-old MAN as a “lover” to a fourteen-year-old GIRL whom he murdered in the Jamaica Gleaner, (a publication that has existed since 1834 and is the oldest continuously published newspaper in the Western Hemisphere). In Jamaica, the age of consent, is sixteen. Anyone with basic literacy and numeracy is quite aware that someone who is fourteen is nowhere near the legal age of consent in the country and therefore, it is impossible for her to have a “lover”. In fact, what she had was a rapist. Any reasonable person with a basic understanding of the consent knows that this murder by a jealous abuser was motivated by a rapist murdering his underaged victim. The article in question can be found here. Unfortunately, this is one of many such appallingly tone deaf articles which pushes the disappointing rape culture narrative that we have come to expect from Jamaican reporters. In March 2020, this article was published as was this one in September of 2020. The headlines of these articles do not mention “rape”, “abuse” or “assault” and instead, refer to “sex”. To ensure that it is clear that these types of articles are a trend rather an a series of “isolated incidents”, here is one from May 2021, February 2020, August 2019 (in which the body of the article refers to the violation of a 13-year old as rape), July 2020, May 2019 and this trend continues as far back as one has the motivation to go. The Jamaica Observer is a little better as a simple Google search for “sex with a minor Jamaica Observer” yielded over a million results, some with less poorly worded headlines.
If one of the roles, (read responsibilities) of the media is to educate (instruction), then would it not be expected that they would do so by helping people to recognise the importance and power of language? How can any media house claim to have a newsroom which fulfils these functions and print the kinds of headlines that downplay violence against women and girls while simultaneously refusing to hold abusers and rapists accountable for their criminal acts? Someone who breaks the law by raping someone under the age of consent is a criminal. The same Jamaican media that can call people car thieves, praedial larcenists, (also here), murderers and a host of other words that specifically identify perpetrators of crime can also call people who perpetrate acts of sexual violence on minors rapists. If they are not willing to do so, then the obvious question is “why not?”. If we can refer to buggery, a very loaded word in Jamaica, why can’t we call rape, rape? Is it because of the implicit misogyny that suggests that any form of vaginal penetration is more acceptable than anal penetration?
Sex crimes are very complex and often, victims, (especially if they are underage), are very reluctant to come forward. Often times, it takes them years and a lot of encouragement (including in therapy), to muster the strength to talk about what happened to them. This kind of media hostility further discourages them from speaking out because the implicit message they receive from these gross articles is that their pain and victimization can be minimized because vaginal sex with a minor is “not so bad”.
The media has abdicated its responsibility to educate the public in these matters and it has to stop. What is clear is that those entering the field need some serious education around how to report on these types of sensitive issues rather than favouring sensationalism and re-traumatizing language. The gymnastics around taking responsibility for what is published on the grounds of what “the legal system calls these things” would be a laughable cop out if it were not seriously harmful to victims. The legal system itself needs to evolve but, that is a completely separate issue. Most of us do not encounter legal terms out in the public space nor in the media because media is written in simple language and legalese is definitely above that level. Media practitioners are told from day one that part of their job is to “give a voice to the voiceless”, is this idea simply a platitude now? How could such headlines pass the editorial process?
It also means that those of us who work with the survivors of sexual abuse and assault have a duty to engage the media in how to report on these crimes in a manner more fitting for the benefit of the victim and not the perpetrator. It means that social workers, counsellors, doctors and nurses all have to finally realise that our voices matter and that calling the media out is one thing, teaching them what to do instead is quite another. This is the reason I felt the need to share my outrage publicly. I realise that much more needs to be done but, I am sharing a few free tips for the media should they choose to listen:
1. An “underage woman” does not exist.
Someone below the age of majority is by definition, A CHILD. When we word stories as “man has sex with underage woman”, we suggest a consensual act with someone just shy of adulthood. This is simply not true. This is a despicable term that needs to be immediately retired.
2. “Sex” has the connotative value of consent.
Rape is an act of domination, control, dehumanization and violence. It is NOT about sex. To suggest that it is, would be at best uninformed and at worst extremely misleading and harmful. Call rape what it is.
3. A child cannot have a “lover”
A child engaging in any kind of sexual interaction with an adult is automatically facing an unbalanced power dynamic. This is why children cannot vote, buy property or enter into contracts. They are CHILDREN. Lovers are people engaged in consensual sex with their own agreements around what that looks like. The law is clear, someone under the age of 16 CANNOT consent to sex and therefore, cannot have a lover.
There is much more to be said about this but, it is a conversation that needs to be had in the public space since it is the public’s job to hold the media in check. Freedom of expression does not mean the ability to dodge responsibility for something one has put out into the public space especially when one’s function is to accurately disseminate information, educate the public and interpret information. Media ethics are clear and yet, they are being flouted. Even the Gleaner’s own ethics code states “The fate of newspapers lies in the hands of the public. The freedom enjoyed by journalists to report and to comment is, and should be seen as a precious gift from the public.” It even goes on to state “Most of our communities' failures are rooted in complex problems. A truly excellent newspaper will spend most of its investigative skills on explaining those circumstances in the hope of helping to forge solutions.” The Gleaner’s recent failings fall far short of this statement to devastating consequences for survivors of sexual violence.
In closing, I would like to quote their ethics code once more and reiterate that, “a great newspaper is distinguished by the balance, fairness and authority of its reporting and editing. Such a newspaper searches as hard for strengths and accomplishments as for weakness and failure. The great newspaper will, by honest and intelligent journalism, inspire people to do better.” So Jamaican media, here is your chance to inspire people to do better by reflecting on your recent glaring failures and leading by example going forward.