Monsters, jealousy and “sick love” — how the Italian media covers violence against women

Statistics give partial pictures of gender-based violence in Italy – but the language used to cover such violence can be even more misleading.

Claudia Torrisi
3 May 2017

"The man who beat women." La Iene television show, 15 November 2016. Italia Uno.

Although in Italy the mainstream media talks about violence against women as an emergency, too often the caution and care that should be applied to reporting on such a critical issue is lacking.

For one, newspapers and broadcasters often address this violence with numbers and statistics that fail to fully capture the problem – there is no official data on femicides in Italy, for example.

Though things get worse when it comes to the language used. Media reports for instance too often present us with stereotypical main characters: for instance, the man-monster and the weak victim.

These are dangerous narratives.

How gender-based violence is covered can impact how women see themselves and how they are treated. Too often, a sort of shared responsibility in violence is implied – that she could have left, had she only been strong enough.

In November 2016, a popular Italian television show called Le Iene interviewed a man called Luca who said he used to beat his girlfriends so hard that sometimes he had to take them to the hospital.

What came next was a focus – literally – on an idea of “sick love.”

The journalist asked Luca if his girlfriend loved him, even though he hit her. He responded: “Yes, she loved me the same, she felt the typical sick love.”

Luca, as well, is presented as if he beats his lovers because he's in some way sick too. He suggests that his violence increased with the “weakness” of his partner. ...the roots and the context of gender-based violence are absent entirely.

He says he can't remember when he began to beat his first girlfriend, “because she didn't react due to her weak personality. So I started to slap her, then I pinched her, and eventually I sent her to the hospital.”

The problem here is not just the words of this man, Luca, but with the production of this television show in which the roots and the context of gender-based violence are absent entirely.

The picture is that of escalating violence that is almost provoked by a woman who is too weak and not able to distinguish between love and beatings. Violence is presented as something that occurs only to women who are weak, unlucky or disadvantaged.

This problem is even more acute in coverage of femicide.

The term “femicide” was first used by Diana Russell in her 1992 book “Femicide: the politics of woman killing,” to describe “the killing of females by males because they are females.”

The Italian media use the word “femminicidio” to indicate these deadly attacks against women. The La Repubblica daily newspaper uses the term in its coverage – but not all outlets do.

Again, this violence is too often presented as isolated events linked to individual responsibilities – without acknowledgment of patriarchy, unequal power relations between men and women, or discrimination.

It is as if the issue of gender inequality is completely erased from the story.

Partial pictures

The killer is usually described by neighbors or relatives as a good man, a lovely dad, a great husband. They say they'd never have expected this, almost ignoring the woman's death altogether.

For instance: On 28 October 2014, Franco Sorgenti stabbed his partner, Laura Livi, to death in their house in Terni, in central Italy.

Reporting on this case, a local newpaper quoted neighbours describing the man as “respectable and distinguished...very attentive to self-care” and as a “loving dad, like so many others.”

It suggested that Sorgenti had killed his partner “for jealousy. It seems that she wanted to leave him.”

In stories like this, the victim all but disappears: there is no place for her in a tale that is all about lovely dads and great husbands.

Meanwhile, she may appear frozen on the page, in photos stolen from her Facebook account and published by newspapers and websites.

Research by Italian blogger Emanuela Valente on how the media covers femicide revealed that victims' photos were published in 80% of cases.

But there were notable age differences: For women killed when they were 14-35 years old, pictures were published in an overwhelming 97% of cases. This figure dropped to 74% if the victim was older than 36, and 39% if she was over 65.

This research also found that it was comparatively rare to see pictures of the killer (published in only 59% of cases). And, many of these were portraits of him with the victim as a happy couple.

...misleading and partial pictures of much broader phenomena...

When femicides are reported in the media as unexpected events, this presents a misleading and partial picture of a much broader phenomenon and the abuses, threats and harassments that can precede deadly attacks.

Take the case of Alessia Partesana, who was stabbed to death by Marco Tacchini near Verbania – on northern Italy’s Lago Maggiore – last December.

The media's verdict appeared swift: he had killed her because he was afraid that she wanted to break off the relationship.

Only a few local newspapers reported that this man had a criminal record for previous beatings. There was also almost no coverage of the complaint posted on Facebook by one of the killer's ex-girlfriends, saying she had also suffered abuse from him.

This is too common: a focus by the media on something the woman has done that broke the social order of the couple and provoked the man's reaction – wanting to end the relationship, for instance, or even a “little holiday” she took alone.

Are those good reasons to kill a woman? Certainly not, and focusing on what she has done is blaming the victim, implying that she in some way deserved what happened.

“He had a raptus”

Italian media can also seem transfixed by the word “raptus.”

This term is used to indicate a sort of blackout that occurs in the head of a man that kills his wife, his girlfriend, his lover or his ex. Did he stab her to death? He had a raptus. Did he strangle her? He had a raptus. Did he shoot her? He had a raptus too. The raptus justifies everything.

For instance: in March, in Caltagirone, in Sicily, Salvatore Pirronello stabbed his partner Patrizia Formica to death while she was sleeping.

The story went: he wanted to end the relationship, but she did not agree. So, one night Pirronello went to the kitchen, took a big knife and decided to kill her. The Italian news agency AGI, said he had been moved by a “night raptus.” Huffington Post Italia wrote that he had a “raptus in his sleep.”

Did he strangle her? He had a raptus. Did he shoot her? He had a raptus. The raptus justifies everything.

This is not a new fixation. For example: On October 2010, Paolo Giusti killed his wife Elisabetta Tognotti and then shot himself as well. The headline of an article on a local newspaper called it a “raptus of jealousy.”

The result is too often a picture of a man wounded, disoriented – often afraid of being hurt by the woman he loves.

Meanwhile, the implication that she had a hand in her fate is reassuring for the rest of the community – after all, when bad things happen to good people, it means we are all vulnerable.

Italy's mainstream transphobia must be mentioned too.

Research suggests that Italy was the deadliest country in the European Union for transgender people between 2008 and 2015, with the highest number of murders. Again, this context is too often omitted from coverage of violence against trans people.

There is further a frequent lack of respect for the sexual identity of victims in these cases, with transgender women referred to with male pronouns and male names.

Last July, a transgender woman was found dead in Rome and AdnKronos, an Italian news agency, reported the case using male pronouns, while the TV channel SkyTg24 reported the victim's name as Batista Thiago Fernando.

Of course, Italy is not the only country where gender-based violence is not covered with sufficient caution, care, or concern for context.

For instance, in the UK the Everyday Victim Blaming campaign group has a section on their website with complaints submitted to the media over fraught coverage.

But the level of awareness about these issues in Italian newsrooms appears lower – and this might reflect broader differences as well.

Italy has not yet, for example, seen a project like “The Femicide Census,” which collected and analysed data on femicides across England and Wales over several years.

A Permanent Observatory

Officially, the equal opportunity working group of Italy's National Order of Journalists has endorsed guidelines from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on how to cover violence against women.

These ask journalists to avoid using “judgmental language” and “suggestions that the survivors may be to blame, or were otherwise responsible for the attack or acts of violence against them.” They further advise that journalists contextualise incidents of violence to “tell the whole story.” Gender-based violence is a structural problem...

Indeed, these guidelines note: “sometimes media identify specific incidents and focus on the tragic aspects of it, but reporters do well to understand that abuse might be part of a long-standing social problem.”

Recently this equal opportunity working group also proposed setting up a Permanent Observatory on how the media cover violence against women, with an email address for the public to report problematic stories.

This is certainly a step forward – but it is far too early to tell what impact it might have.

What is clear, however, is that stereotypes and partial pictures impact the way in which society perceives the problem of violence against women: something far from everyday life, that impacts only those who perhaps deserve it or are too weak to escape it.

Gender-based violence is instead a structural problem, and one of the biggest challenges is the lack of public awareness on this aspect. The media can and do influence society – and can help spur on progressive cultural change. We need better reporting on violence against women, now, to do precisely that.

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