openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why isn’t Sabina Nessa getting the attention Sarah Everard did?

Web analysis shows that some murders appear to be more shocking than others. Police and media must learn to respond better

Anita Mureithi
24 September 2021, 10.55am
Sabina Nessa
Metropolitan Police

Glowing in her graduation photo – that’s the image of Sabina Nessa most of us have seen. A bright young woman with her whole life ahead of her. Like Sarah Everard just six months ago, Nessa’s case has reignited conversations around women’s safety and the clear lack of progress in the issue of violence against women and girls.

She was on her way to meet a friend last Friday night. Her journey should have taken just over five minutes. She did not reach her destination. The 28-year-old primary school teacher was found dead the following morning in Cator Park near OneSpace community centre, her body hidden under a pile of leaves.

A tweet from Sabina Nessa's sister

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Like many people I first heard of Nessa’s death through social media. I went to various news sites, looking for more information on her case, expecting her story to be all over the news. But coverage was minimal.

My hunch was that Nessa’s death was getting less coverage than Everard’s had, so I used the social media analytics tool Crowdtangle to find out. The figures were stark: in the first week after Everard’s death, there were twice as many posts on Facebook as there have been since Nessa died. And 50% more interactions with those posts: while 225,000 people reacted to a post about Everard in the seven days immediately after her death, only 148,000 have responded to the news of Nessa’s death.

Similarly, a quick look at Google Trends shows that immediately after Everard’s death, there was a huge spike in people searching for her name. We’re now a week after Nessa’s death, and there’s been no equivalent trend.

The two cases aren't the same: Everard was missing for six days before her killer was arrested, and her death was confirmed a day later still. So the coverage of her case in the first week in part reflected the urgency of a missing person inquiry. Still, the difference is striking.

The same day as news of Nessa’s killing broke, an article was posted asking the important question of whether there has been any meaningful change since the abduction, rape and murder of Everard. The disheartening reality is no, things haven’t really changed. Months after Everard’s murder, here we are – having the exact same conversations about violence against women and girls.

Only, it’s not exactly the same, is it?

The race question

Some might ask, why bring race into it? The answer is that, while the wider issue is the epidemic of violence against women, it intersects with race in a way that women of colour are all too familiar with.

Within three days of Everard’s disappearance, her case had been covered by numerous organisations including the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent and Huffington Post. It feels uncomfortable to make these comparisons but in the aftermath of her death, Crowdtangle shows that social media shares were significantly higher for Everard-related posts than they were for Nessa.

It’s not a competition, and it’s not about whataboutisms. But the insidious minimisation of violence against women of colour can’t be ignored. Stories of women of colour are often unheard and unreported.

The sheer level of disregard for Black and brown people is not a myth conjured up in our heads

To truly understand why, you would have to see the continuous pattern of discrimination demonstrated in the way that media, police and the legal system treat victims of colour. When Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were found dead, two Metropolitan Police officers were arrested on suspicion of misconduct in public office after reportedly taking selfies at the scene of the murder.

When Richard Okorogheye went missing, his mother, Evidence Joel, encountered a “dismissive” attitude from the Metropolitan Police. She said: “The fact is that I’m an African woman with an African accent… Maybe if I was a lawyer and I was a completely different colour and my son had blue eyes I would have been taken seriously.”

Okorogheye’s body wasn’t found for two weeks.

The sheer level of disregard for Black and brown people is not a myth conjured up in our heads. It’s a real and serious problem.

There is an uncomfortable truth that is unearthed when violence is perpetrated against people of colour, particularly women of colour. It’s the realisation that to a big chunk of society, our lives are worth very little. Cases like those of Nessa and other victims from marginalised communities deserve just as much concern, outrage and awareness as there is when the victim is a white woman.

When news of Nessa’s death first started to circulate on social media, many wondered why her story didn’t capture the nation’s attention like Everard’s did. ‘Missing white woman syndrome’ is a term coined by the late Gwen Ifill. It refers to the mainstream media’s fascination with reporting on missing or endangered young white women and girls from middle-class backgrounds, while women and girls from other marginalised communities are ignored. This extends not only to women of colour, but also to women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

The media question

When we talk about inequality in media coverage, it’s also important to look at the problematic nature of media reports on missing or murdered women of all races. Media attention may raise awareness, but unless it’s accompanied by real and meaningful change, sensationalist coverage dies down and eventually society moves on to the next big story. Until the next time a woman is killed. It’s a continuous cycle.

What good is newsworthiness if it doesn’t come with justice or reform?

Everard’s death was referred to as a death that “sparked a nation’s soul-searching”. But here we are six months later talking about Nessa and asking the same questions about institutional responses to violence against women and girls. How many more? What will it take? Why are women still having to deal with this?

Maybe it’s time for the media to rethink its approach when covering violence against women and girls. Media can serve as a subtle instruction manual on how to empathise with certain groups of people over others. These messages are powerful and they position certain groups of women, often conventionally attractive, white, middle-class women as ‘newsworthy’. But what good is newsworthiness if it doesn’t come with justice or reform? At a time when people claimed to be listening and learning about gender-based violence, since Everard was abducted over 52 women have been killed in circumstances where a man is the main suspect.

The root cause

Victims who do make it to mainstream media are often subject to a level of critique that is akin to victim-blaming. Cases like that of Nessa or Everard are often followed by implicit journalistic messaging that suggests that women should be more careful, rather than suggesting that men should stop killing women.

Police in the area where Nessa’s body was found have been handing out personal alarms and leaflets on personal safety. When Everard was killed, women were advised by police to avoid going out alone after dark. This not only suggests that the responsibility is on the victim to not get murdered or attacked, but it also leans into the argument that gender, as a societal construct, frames women and girls as passive victims in need of protection.

Women don’t need protection. Men, the people statistically committing the most crimes against women, need to unlearn toxic narratives that are entrenched in hegemonic masculinity.

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