We know that Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic and Paralympic track star, has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. We know that she worked as a model, earned a law degree and was outspoken about violence against women. The only two things that are up in the air at this point are if Pistorius is guilty and if journalists are capable of covering this story appropriately.
I came across an article on the Washington Post website that was trying to pass as a straight news story but did not even come close. The article, which appears to be written by an Associated Press reporter, says:
“The leggy blonde with a law degree also appeared in international and South African ads and was a celebrity contestant on “Tropika Island of Treasure,” a South African reality show filmed in Jamaica.”
Yes, the article on the website of a national newspaper actually referred to Steenkamp, a woman who was just fatally shot three times as, “leggy.”
Putting aside the fact that the report has managed to objectify a woman who is believed to have been murdered just days ago, I can say with absolute certainty that a phrase like ‘the leggy blonde’ does not belong in a straight news story. Properly written news stories do not include the reporter’s opinions; they include concrete, relevant facts. The term “leggy” is definitely subjective. And how exactly is her hair color or the length of her legs related to her murder investigation?
It gets better.
“While known for her bikini-clad, vamping photo spreads, she tweeted messages urging women to stand up against rape.
This language is extremely problematic. Yes, Steenkamp was known for her bikini-clad photo spreads and, yes, she also tweeted messages about rape. These two facts are true and both should be included in the article.
The language is not problematic because of content; it is problematic because of placement. The reporter chose to take two completely unrelated facts, combine them into once sentence and imply that they contradict each other. The use of the word ‘while’ invites the idea that it is strange that Steenkamp would both pose in her bikini and urge women to stand up against rape.
This is what we call victim blaming. It is the same thing as insinuating that women who wear revealing clothing are asking to be raped. Steenkamp had just as much right to tweet about preventing rape as Gloria Steinem does. What she wore in her photo shoots has absolutely nothing to do with her views on violence against women.
We don’t know yet what really happened between Pistorius and Steenkamp the night that Steenkamp died. But whether Pistorius is guilty or not, a young woman’s life was cut tragically short. As journalists, let’s respect her memory by striving for accurate reporting, and put the objectification and victim blaming to rest.
Guest contributor Leigh Ann Renzulli is a senior journalism major and women’s studies minor at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is a feminist with a blog (youshouldbeafeminist.com) and is on Twitter @lerenzulli.