The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

What’s Wrong With This Headline?

Posted by Clem Bastow on October 15, 2008

You will most likely have read over the past two days that Victorian Labor MP Theo Theophanous (also one of the minority of Victorian MPs to vote against abortion law reform) has stepped down amid allegations of sexual assault. From today’s Age coverage:

THE woman whose allegations have forced senior state cabinet minister Theo Theophanous to step down has told of being raped by him — inside Parliament House — in 1998.

The woman said Mr Theophanous sexually assaulted her after she accepted his invitation to show her around the Spring Street building late one night. Mr Theophanous denies the allegations.

In other words, it’s clear that – at this stage – the woman’s claims are allegations only. So why the need to bring out the judgy judgy quotation marks, eh, Age sub-editors?

The article makes it clear that the allegations are, as mentioned before, allegations, so there’s no need for the added punctuation. In the woman’s eyes, she was raped, plain and simple. She wasn’t “raped”, as though it’s some imaginary concept.

It may seem like semantics, but we have regularly discussed the use of passive and judgemental language in newspapers’ reporting of rape cases and I can’t help but feel they contribute, along with protracted and often nightmarishly unfair court cases, to the climate that makes women feel they can’t report rapes. Which, in this instance – where the woman spoke to The Age about having been too afraid to speak up about her alleged assault for ten years – makes the headline even more unnecessary.


11 Responses to “What’s Wrong With This Headline?”

  1. tina_sparkle said

    I’m not defending the use of passive language, but does the use of quotation marks instead of saying “woman alleges rape by minister” have anything to do with layout and how much space there is for a headline?

  2. Clem Bastow said

    I doubt it, tina, though I see your point. Particularly in the online edition, the headlines are often quite long.

  3. audrey said

    I ‘think’ that headline is ‘bullshit’.

    But what would I know? I’m only a ‘feminist’.

  4. Davo said

    I’m not familiar with Australian media law, but I know that in the U.S., if someone has accused someone else of committing a crime, the media cannot say that the person committed the crime until they are convicted. Perhaps the quotation marks in this case are an attempt to communicate that the man has not been tried and convicted of a crime yet. It’s using the woman’s words to describe the event, instead of implying that a court convicted him of such actions.

  5. blu-k said

    Great point – and one I had not thought of before. It made me think that we never see something like:
    Woman tells of having car ‘stolen’. So why the qualification for ‘rape’?

  6. What worries me about this is that quotation marks operate at a subconscious level on the reader, who might unthinkingly adopt the posture of suspicion (maybe even contempt) conveyed in the header.

  7. mscate said

    whichever, it’s really prejudicial and irresponsible.

  8. Bill Posters said

    I’m not defending the use of passive language, but does the use of quotation marks instead of saying “woman alleges rape by minister” have anything to do with layout and how much space there is for a headline?

    In the paper version, the headline occupies a tricky narrow three-deck space which seems to have dictated the insensitive phrasing.

    Defamation law says all elements of a layout are relevant – it’s not enough to just have the fact it’s an allegation explained in the body copy if the headline makes a bald accusation. (You can blame sexist lawyers, not sexist newspapers, for that one.)

    Of course, on the web there’s plenty of room and another headline, with the word “alleges” in it, could and should have run.

  9. Scal said

    Bill, I would actually go further and say that the qualification was unnecessary in this instance as it already qualified the statement as being her story only.

    It doesn’t say “Woman recounts details of her rape by Minister”.

    I know it’s a subtle distinction, but it’s important.

    Davo, Australian defamation law is quite different to the States’ – for starters, we have no guaranteed freedom of speech (except for in relation to political communication, which is surprisingly narrowly-defined).

  10. Bill Posters said

    I know it’s a subtle distinction, but it’s important.

    Too subtle to make a media lawyer happy, I reckon.

  11. Davo said

    Scal: Well, I learned something about Australian law today. Thanks. I also agree with Bill and you, there are definitely other ways to say it. I wasn’t trying to defend the headline. I agree it was poorly written.

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