Monday, May 27, 2013

It's the same all over: perspective on child abuse reporting in Malaysia

The topic of the study abstracted below was child abuse reporting in the Malaysian press, but the conclusions are relevant to media reporting in the US.

The mainstream press largely reports on the consequences of child abuse: the death and injury of a child, the tragedy that falls suddenly on a family, and, far less less frequently than one might expect, the punishment of the perpetrator.

It is the uncommnon story that examines the circumstances that precipitated the abuse.  Even less common is the story that looks at prevention programs.

The coverage of cases varies inversely with how well we can understand it.  A simple search on Google News shows that the most uncommon cases, involving horrendous cases of deliberate and persistent physical abuse, are picked up by hundreds of media outlets across the nation.  The much more common case of a parent or caregiver losing control and inflicting injury on a crying infant rarely reaches outlets outside of the community in which it happens.

Allow me to offer two possible reasons.

First, those horrendous acts of physical violence transgress some of our strongest norms and define evil for many.  The perpetrators of such acts are beyond the pale, and such acts mark foreign territory for most of us.  By allowing us to divide and define the world into good and evil, in which evil acts are done by bad people unlike us - "them" - they help define "us."   Framing child abuse properly aids understanding, and understanding aids prevention.  Good work on framing from PCAA.

Second, acts of momentary rage violate the same norms, but are far too understandable for many.  To the extent that the perpetrator is someone like ourselves, it creates cognitive dissonance, and we struggle for explanation.  Those stories are not consistent with our division of the world, as "good" people do bad things.  So, we look less deeply, and the grey areas of the story attract less media interest.

For example, Google Trends shows differential responses to "shaken baby" and "Casey Anthony."

The final point of interest: society seems to devolve blame on the mother.  The universality of that response especially obvious if you read the comments on most shaken baby news stories.  A substantial proportion blame the mother for her choice of caregiver or just for putting the child in child care.

And so we justify our choices.

Unfortunately, many comments suggest that some still feel parents are invulnerable to the circumstances that precipitate abuse.  The statistics show otherwise, and those who believe that "good" parents are not at risk of haring their child simply have acquired a false sense of security.
The ‘social tsunami’: Media coverage of child abuse in Malaysia’s English-language newspapers in 2010
Sara Niner  Monash University, Australia
Yarina Ahmad Monash University, Australia
Denise Cuthbert School of Graduate Research RMIT University, Australia
  1. Sara Niner, Sociology, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, Building H Caulfield Campus (H.5.43) 900 Dandenong Road, Victoria 3145, Australia. Email:
Since the early 1990s, Malaysian society has displayed a deepening concern over steady increases in reported cases of child abuse in the country. For many Malaysians, knowledge of this issue comes from the mainstream media. This research analyses media coverage of child abuse in two mainstream English-language daily newspapers throughout 2010.
The analysis focuses on how this issue is presented and ‘framed’ in the media. Through the use of simple episodic framing and a distorted focus on extreme cases of child abuse, media coverage internationally obscures the reality of child abuse as it occurs within the context of contemporary social, cultural, religious or political systems. This hinders any genuine understanding of the problem, leading to flawed solutions. We find these international patterns largely replicated in Malaysia.
Furthermore, gendered socialization processes in Malaysia make women and mothers principally responsible for family life and there is a tendency to blame and punish mothers for child abuse even when they are not the perpetrators. Internationally, child welfare experts and academics have advised the media to focus reporting on the underlying causes of abuse so that the issue can be better understood and addressed and this advice is pertinent for Malaysia today.