How media headlines trivialise gender-based violence

Wednesday, November 17th, 2021 00:05 |
Public Service and Gender, CAS Rachael Shebesh inspect Kisii County GBV Rescue centre, deplores high cases of GBV. PHOTOS/ ROBERT OCHORO

Newspaper headlines, and by extension, TV tags and radio teasers, do a great disservice to the fight against gender-based violence and child abuse. 

“Man beats wife over gizzard in Bungoma”, “Woman slashes son’s finger over Sh20”.  These headlines, though catchy, do more harm than good. 

I have written countless news headlines in my career and I always thought their only purpose was to attract readers to the story.

But after attending a forum with County Gender Officers organised by Voice for Women and Girls and Journalists for Human Rights, my mindset changed.

Psychologists say first impressions really do matter. What we read first colours how we process the rest of it. Headlines make the first impression about the story to the reader. 

Every morning, we choose an outfit with an impression in mind. In the same way, headlines can affect the perception of the text that follows. 

Take the example of the first headline above. Instead of inspiring anger or action, it reduces the whole story to a stereotype about people of Western Kenya.  Among the Luhya, the gizzard traditionally belongs to the man of the house. So the headline risks turning a very grave matter into joke. The reader might focus more on why the perpetrator was so obsessed with a gizzard and disregard the serious crime committed.

The recent killing of four old women in Kisii serves as a statement of why we should be careful while crafting headlines. On October 17, four women in Marani Ward in Kisii were lynched.

There were allegations of witchcraft tied to the killings.  A week before, one of the women had buried her husband. 

By drawing attention to certain details or facts, in this case the word witchcraft, a headline can affect what existing knowledge is activated in the readers head. As is the norm, media houses published the murders with the headlines all pointing to alleged witchcraft.  Conversations around the matter revolved around witchcraft and not the murders. 

As journalists, if we had been keen, we would have noticed that “witchcraft” was code for greed. Elderly women are losing their lives because of the resources they have under their name.

But correcting that headline weeks later, or even giving a more accurate account, may not be enough to create the initial perception created by the headline and, by extension, the story.

We often tell ourselves that once the headline has hooked the reader, they will get the full and factual bits of the story once they read the text. 

But, according to study done by Ullrich Ecker, a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Western Australia and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, reading the piece may not be enough to correct the headlines’ nuances. Ecker found out that initial impressions both mattered and were not easily corrected.

In the instance of the Kisii story, the headlines on witchcraft slightly mislead the reader.

According to KHRC, for years, old women have been labeled “witches” and it is all downhill from there. Once the women are killed, the family members are shamed and kicked out of the community, only for the perpetrators to assume ownership of their land. 

The moment the sub-editor also bites the hook and runs with the witchcraft angle on their headlines, it becomes very difficult to change the readers mind later on and worse, it derails the course of justice.

When crafting a headline, we have to go beyond whether its catchy and examine what possible perceptions it might create.


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