Race, gender, class: The ‘bad mother’ and child abuse in media reporting
News is instantaneous in the information age. Interactive webpages for all forms of mass media and social networking mean that we can all co-produce news. The lines blur between journalism and ‘opinion’. Child deaths understandably become the focus of enormous public scrutiny. We can all act as judge and jury when we watch live testimony on television and can participate in discussion of child abuse trials via social networking sites. In the case of child homicide, family members and witnesses are subject to media surveillance. In New Zealand as elsewhere, a cultural ‘story’ is told about child abuse. Both mainstream journalists and columnists employ race, class and gender stereotyping in discussing child abuse. Columnists have a special power; their often cruel words are shocking while their status affords their polemic some gravitas. And with the freedom offered by ‘opinion’, the tone becomes more anti-poor and misogynistic. The writing style is often reminiscent of the stereotypical internet ‘troll’, that is, the angry white man hiding behind his computer monitor, baying at a world that confronts his privilege. Inflammatory judgements about mothers are commonplace, e.g. ‘Women such as L are the reason why there are so many dead Maori children … they are the enablers – delivering their children to the abuser like a human sacrifice’ (Sunday Star Times, 18/11/12).
In New Zealand, the homicide of twins Chris and Cru Kahui in 2006, for whom nobody has yet been held accountable (the father was acquitted), provides a telling example of the complex role of media in shaping public responses to family violence. While the coronial inquest found no evidence of the mother’s part in causing the children’s fatal injuries, the spectre of blame has lingered on her in the realm of public opinion for years. When she announced that her story would be told in a book, a storm of protest ensued and 40,000 people signed up to a ‘Facebook’ page urging a boycott on book sales (New Zealand Herald, 30/06/11). A content analysis reveals that family members in high profile cases may all have intimate aspects of their lives on the front page; for example, reporting subsequent pregnancies of murdered children’s mothers (Beddoe, in press). Such stories are inevitably accompanied by a photo of the deceased child and references to earlier child homicides.
Media presentations underscore an ideological deviance narrative that seeks to frame child abuse with a central ‘folk devil’ figure: the bad Maori mother. As in the United Kingdom, ‘class disgust’ features (see Tyler, 2008; Warner, 2013). But in New Zealand, Maori people are also disproportionately represented in poverty and health and education inequalities, thus adding another dimension. The detailed reporting of child abuse deaths suggests that Maori families, and in particular Maori mothers, have become central to a moral panic that sites child abuse as a ‘Maori problem’, rather than an outcome of poverty, discrimination and institutional racism (Merchant, 2010).
Why does this matter? Entman argues that media framing distorts the problem in public perceptions by promoting ‘a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation’ (1993, p. 52). Where children are framed as ‘at risk’ and adults (especially ‘welfare’ mothers or Maori mothers) are seen as ‘a risk’, we are likely to see an overly moralistic and individualising approach to the most troubled children and families, one that assumes that all deep-rooted social problems can be solved by interventions aimed at dysfunctional individual behaviours. Adults become subject to surveillance and punishment, not support. A focus on ‘bad mothers’ may also cement an artificial divide between adult and child protective services at a time when the needs of vulnerable children and their caregivers may benefit from co-location of child and adult services (e.g. family violence and mental health). And as Clapton, Cree and Smith (2013) have recently argued, an adversarial divide between child welfare services and families drastically reduces the potential for relationship-based, optimistic and collaborative practice. Ultimately, a focus on ‘dysfunction’ allows the political system off the hook, ignoring poverty, racism, ingrained misogyny and other sources of alienation. To counter this is a major challenge.
18th May 2013
Beddoe, L. (in press). Violence and the media. In A. Taylor & M. Connolly (Eds.), Understanding violence: Developing effective professional responses. Christchurch NZ: Canterbury University Press.
Clapton, G., Cree, V., & Smith, M. (2013). Moral Panics, Claims-Making and Child Protection in the UK. British Journal of Social Work. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bct061
Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication 43(4), 51–8.
Merchant, R. (2010). Who are abusing our children? An exploratory study on reflections of child abuse by media commentators. Unpublished MSW thesis, Massey University, Auckland.
Tyler, I. (2008). “Chav Mum Chav Scum”. Feminist Media Studies, 8(1), 17-34.
Warner, J. (2013). Social work, class politics and risk in the moral panic over Baby P. Health, Risk & Society, 15(3), 217-233 17.