What does the Pistorius and Steenkamp case reveal about the media’s treatment of women?

A woman in a bikini pouts provocatively at the camera. One hand is running through her hair. The other lingers at her cleavage. Next to her appear the words: “Three shots. Screams. Silence. Three more shots.”


What does the Pistorius and Steenkamp case reveal about the media’s treatment of women?

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 20 February


Adi Bloom

A woman in a bikini pouts provocatively at the camera. One hand is running through her hair. The other lingers at her cleavage. Next to her appear the words: “Three shots. Screams. Silence. Three more shots.”

That was how The Sun reported the violent death of Reeva Steenkamp, at the hands of her boyfriend, Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, last Thursday, and it reveals much about the nature and use of language and images in the modern media.

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, offered its own analysis via a double-page spread of photos of Steenkamp, who had worked as a model in her native South Africa. This was relatively restrained: only two pictures out of five showed Steenkamp in a bikini.

“This just reveals the way that we sexualise and objectify women,” says Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project. “But it’s also about titillation and the pornification of female victims. The portrayal of them as sex objects prevents people from seeing this as a crime against a human being.”

The result of such dehumanisation, says John Jewell, of Cardiff University’s school of journalism, media and cultural studies, is that this ceases to be the story of a woman’s death.

“She’s presented as still active, still vibrant,” he said. “The tragedy is around Pistorius’ downfall, not around the death of this young woman. It’s about how our hero has fallen.”

But, says Bates, this is symptomatic of the way that the media regularly portrays women. When MPs Louise Mensch and Nadine Dorries had a political disagreement last summer, much of the press reported it as a “catfight” between “blondes”.

And when award-winning author Hilary Mantel offered a critique of the media’s portrayal of the Duchess of Cambridge this week, the media retaliated by spinning it into a tale of the beautiful mother-to-be and the jealous older woman.

It goes to prove, says Jewell, that Page 3 attitudes remain, even though Rupert Murdoch recently tweeted that the day of the Page 3 nude might be over.

Lisa Clarke, of the No More Page 3 campaign, agrees. “The Sun, as the top-selling paper, has a brilliant opportunity to change things for women in this country, and to present them in an equal, non-objectified way,” she said. “But unfortunately, it chooses not to accept that opportunity. Page 3 is part of that, but it’s certainly not the whole picture.”

Such attitudes inevitably trickle down: today’s Sun front-page is often tomorrow’s playground trend. “It’s now so banal and everyday to display your body as a prime sign of your value,” said Jessica Ringrose, senior lecturer in gender and education at the University of London’s Institute of Education. “But when young people sexually display themselves, people freak out.”

Not everyone, however, sees the tabloid’s treatment of the Pistorius case in the same light. George Brock, professor and head of journalism at City University London, believes that the primary concern of mediawatchers should be accuracy, rather than angle.

“Steenkamp’s images are in the public domain,” he said. “If the facts are in the public domain, and they’re all correct, then putting a sensational cast on them is what the popular media always have done and always will do. But if they’ve got them wrong or inaccurate in any way, that’s what we should be worried about."



Questions for your class


  • Do you think that men and women are represented differently by the media? Explain your answer.
  • How much impact do you believe the media has on the way that we think and act?
  • What do we mean by 'objectification'?
  • Why might it be dangerous for us to view people as objects rather than as human beings?

Related resources


Introduction to language in the media

  • An interactive introduction to media language with accompanying tasks and a consideration of gender representation in advertising.

Women’s magazines: Dominant ideologies and airbrushing

  • A PowerPoint containing lots of ideas for how to approach the dominant representation of women in the media.

Attitudes to the roles of men and women

  • Explore changing attitudes to the roles of men and women with this PowerPoint resource and related activities.

Women’s History Month

  • Mark Women’s History Month by taking a look at some of the women who’ve shaped our world, the issues they’ve faced and the many contributions they have made.


Further news resources


First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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Alain de Botton, a philosopher and writer, wants serious ideas to be discussed more widely.

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