Studies analyze trends in coverage of violence against women in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico

Just as Latin American feminist movements have strengthened and become more present in the media over the past decade, violence against women has also risen and been covered more closely in the region. A collection of studies on the coverage of violence against women in the Global South looked at three Latin American countries — Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The studies analyze trends and point to ways to cover the issue from a human rights and gender perspective.

The book "Violence against women in the Global South: Reporting in the #MeToo era" was launched on Aug. 1 and features case studies from 11 countries. It was edited by Andrea Jean Baker, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia; Jeannine E. Relly, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson; and Celeste González de Bustamante, a professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism in Austin.

Violence against women is a more pronounced problem in the Global South relative to the rest of the world, and has worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, Bustamante told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “We thought we really needed to do something to shed light on the problem. We do research on media, so that's our focus, to see the relationship between media and the problem, how news media were covering the issue, and how news media could be improved, given some of the shortcomings that we found in our research,” she said about the book.

book cover with photo of women holding hands up to protect herself

Book cover for "Violence against women in the Global South – Reporting in the #MeToo era".

In addition to co-editing the volume, Bustamante co-authored the case study on Mexico with Grisel Salazar Rebolledo, a journalism professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. In "Moving beyond the protest paradigm?: News coverage of International Women's Day Marches in Mexico” they analyzed Mexican media coverage of feminist demonstrations in the country between 2018 and 2020.

Two other studies in the book deal with Latin America. "#NiUnaMenos: The story of a tweet that revolutionized feminism and changed how media covers violence against women in Argentina" was authored by Mariana de Maio, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. And the study "The judge and the influencer: Race, gender, and class in Brazilian news coverage of violence against women" was carried out by Heloiza Herscovitz, a professor at California State University.

Bustamante said they decided to look at Argentina, Brazil and Mexico because these are the three biggest countries in the region, and also because they have “strong feminist movements on the ground and online in terms of hashtag activism, specifically related to the issue of violence against women.”

She hopes the book can highlight how news coverage of violence against women is connected to this “huge systemic global problem.”

“As a researcher and a scholar, you have an opportunity to decide what you're going to focus on, and this seems like such an important subject to shed light on. (...) I hope that [our work] does improve the situation for women in the Global South and across the world in some way,” Bustamante said.

Mexico: Local media intensify coverage of women's marches

The study by Bustamante and Rebolledo analyzed the coverage of Mexican media and news agencies on feminist demonstrations held in the country between 2018 and 2020. The researchers gathered 1,007 news stories published between January 2018 and December 2020 in 12 local news outlets, 11 national news outlets and two national news agencies.

The first finding concerns the increase in news coverage of feminist protests in the country: In 2018, there were 53 articles; 445 in 2019; and 509 in 2020. Most of them — 420, or 41.7% of the total — were published by local news outlets, which showed the largest increase in coverage in the period: from 15 in 2018 to 223 in 2020, an increase of 1,400%.

Using a subsample of 100 articles, the researchers analyzed the tone, sources and framing of the coverage. National news outlets had the most negative coverage (44% of the total), while local news outlets had the most positive coverage (50%). Negative coverage was more prevalent in 2019 (55%), when a TV reporter was assaulted live by a man while covering a feminist demonstration in Mexico City. In 2020, the share of negative stories dropped to 25%, and positive stories accounted for 63% of the total.

woman with buttoned black blouse looking at the camera and smiling

Celeste González de Bustamante, professor at the University of Texas in Austin and one of the coeditors of the book. (Photo: Courtesy)

Government officials were the most cited sources in the stories, present in 34% of them; 33% of the stories had no source, and only 22% featured the voices of protesters. In local newspapers, 68% of the stories featured the voices of women, both government officials and protesters. The national media, on the other hand, were the ones that most quoted official sources.

The most frequent framing, present in 42% of the stories, was that of a “riot,” focused on “turbulent behavior and damages to private property or street buildings and infrastructure.” However, the authors identified a significant increase in “legitimizing narratives” of the protests, focusing on “protester demands, agendas and goals,” from two stories in 2018 to 22 in 2020.

The researchers believe that, in the period analyzed, the Mexican news media “experienced a learning process that led to more nuanced and sensitive but less confrontational coverage of the women’s demonstrations.”

“These alterations signal that the news media in Mexico is moving in the appropriate direction in terms of news coverage of women’s International Women Day’s marches (...) The changes observed in this case study are valuable because news narratives can strengthen or weaken biases towards women’s protests and the overall feminist movement,” they stated.

The researchers propose two explanations for these changes. They believe the news media are following the transformation of public opinion, which has given more importance to debates on violence against women from feminist perspectives, due to the strengthening of these movements in Mexico and the region in recent years.

They also credit the change in coverage to the strengthening of women in the community of journalists in Mexico, with the increase of collectives and networks of professionals founded and led by women. In addition, there are more and more women reporters in newsrooms who are aware of feminist demands, advocate for better practices and are more present in covering these issues, the authors wrote.

Argentina: Uprising against femicides shook the press

Researcher Mariana de Maio's study traced a history of the #NiUnaMenos movement, which emerged in 2015 in protest of femicides that shocked Argentina. The movement promoted massive marches across the country, as well as bringing the issue of violence against women and feminicide, an extreme expression of misogynist violence, into the public debate.

Based on the impact of #NiUnaMenos, Maio analyzed how five Argentine news outlets — Clarín, Infobae, La Nación, Página/12 and Perfil — covered cases of femicide and other forms of violence against women between January 2015, five months before the movement began, and January 2019. A total of 419 stories were analyzed in relation to the sources quoted, the framing present in the text, and the tone used to describe the victim and the perpetrator.

The type of source most present in the stories was “victim’s family/friends (39.4%), followed by “judicial system representatives” (34.8%) and the “police” (17.4%). Clarín was the news outlet that most used “perpetrator’s family/friends” as a source (41%),  and the researcher believed that the use of sources from this news outlet “is more favorable towards the perpetrator,” a “trend that helps perpetuate patriarchal view of violence against women.” Página/12 was the news outlet that most featured activists and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as sources, producing “stories that address the systemic roots” of this type of violence.

The most frequent framework was “isolated incident,” present in 75.2% of the stories on femicide. Clarín was the news outlet that used this framework the most, present in 29% of its stories. “The killing of a woman, especially in a domestic setting, is often reported as an isolated incident that does not further threaten the public. However, this fails to recognize the structural characteristics of a patriarchal society,” the author wrote.

Next, the framing that appeared the most in the articles were “focus on shocking details” (38.7%) and “tragic spectacle or source of amusement” (32.2%). Page/12 was the only news outlet that did not present the latter framework. These are “another method of drawing attention away from connecting these crimes to human rights and women’s rights,” Maio wrote.

On the other hand, 13% of the stories treated femicides as a systemic phenomenon rather than an isolated issue. Página/12 presented this framing in 39% of its stories, more than double that of second-place Clarín (18.5%).

Most of the coverage was neutral towards the victim (85.4%) and the perpetrator (53.5%). The news outlet with the most negative tone towards the perpetrator was Infobae, present in 68.2% of its stories, while the most negative towards the victim was Clarín (12.9%). The news outlet with the most positive tone towards the perpetrator was Perfil (5.5%) and the most positive towards the victim was Infobae (22.7%).

Maio stated that the coverage of the five news outlets analyzed could be “strongly criticized,” but “gradual improvements can be observed.”

“Femicides are not framed as crimes of passion as often as before, and using the police as the sole source of information has lost importance over time. More prominence has been assigned to the victims’ friends and families, and to individuals in the justice system. These nuanced changes observed in Argentinean media coverage suggest that the #NiUnaMenos movement has had some impact. Over time, this has possibly contributed to creating coverage that is more likely to raise awareness about the systemic nature of the problem. Nevertheless, the general approach to covering these crimes continues to be tainted with patriarchal values,” wrote the researcher.

Brazil: Victims' class and race influence coverage of femicides

The study by researcher Heloiza Herscovitz focused on the news coverage of two femicides that took place in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the period marked by lockdown due to the health emergency, violence against women in the domestic environment intensified and was classified by the United Nations (UN) as a “the shadow pandemic.

The research focused on 75 news stories, from various news sources, found on the Google News Brazil platform about “two of the most highly publicized cases of femicide in the Brazilian media that happened during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to Herscovitz. These are the murders of Viviane Vieira do Amaral, on Dec. 24, 2020, in Rio de Janeiro, and Bruna Quirino, on Sept. 6, 2021, in Valinhos, in the state of São Paulo.

Amaral, a white woman, worked as a judge and was murdered by her ex-husband in a park, in front of the couple's daughters. He was arrested soon after. Quirino, a Black woman, worked as a dance instructor and digital influencer. She was murdered inside her home by her husband, who also tried to stab the couple's daughter and committed suicide.

“The femicide of a white judge in a public space in Rio de Janeiro generated 45 news stories, while the femicide of a Black social media influencer in a private residential condominium of São Paulo generated 30 news stories,” on the Google News Brazil platform, Herscovitz wrote.

In the coverage of Amaral's femicide, the researcher identified that the most present framing was “No woman is safe, despite social status and [skin] color.” The murder of a white woman, a judge, in a public place, in daytime, “reminded members of the elite that they were not immune to domestic violence,” Herscovitz wrote.

Other frameworks present were “femicide is unacceptable,” echoing statements by judicial authorities condemning the murder of a colleague; and “the crime was planned,” presenting details about the crime and the killer.

In the case of Quirino's femicide, one of the frames identified was “the color of femicide is black,” in reference to the fact that Black women are 62% of the victims of this crime in Brazil. The following frameworks were also identified “independent Black woman awakens a man’s blind rage,” highlighting the fact that Quirino had made posts on social media saying she was her “husband’s boss,” and “a crime without a clear motive,” in news stories that speculated on the perpetrator's physical and mental health status.

Herscovitz believes that, “in some ways, the narratives presented by the news media were inconsistent.”

“Portrayals of the perpetrators suggest that they were stressed, mentally or physically ill, and somehow provoked (...). Despite that one perpetrator stabbed his wife in front of their three young girls, and the other tried to stab his 20-year-old daughter when she surprised him while he killed his wife, the news stories did not include sources to explain how the femicides affected children. The analysis also revealed that the news media could not present femicide cases as part of a broader social context and major social problem. The sources quoted in the stories offered limited perspectives regarding why violence against women is a major social crisis and what should be done to change the status quo,” the researcher wrote.

Featured image and header: Women marching in Mexico City in September 2018. Photo by Danielle Lupin / Flickr CC.