Alessia Tranchese with curly black hair wearing a scarf. Life Solved logo and episode title to the left.

How do unconscious language choices in media reporting contribute to the social inequality of women?

  • 09 March 2021
  • 17 min listen

How do unconscious language choices in media reporting contribute to the social inequality of women? And how does the language of online Incel – or involuntary celibate - groups leave participants more likely to engage in hate speech towards women?

In this episode of Life Solved, Dr Alessia Tranchese explains how she has examined the linguistics of different media to uncover the hidden violent and misogynistic narratives in our society. She’s also been volunteering with crisis centres and activists to understand the impact of pervasive linguistic inequalities upon social justice for those who have experienced rape and sexual violence.

Dr Tranchese and her team are raising questions about how big media and the law can participate in a progressive language to promote a safer, more just world for women.

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Hidden, harmful habits

Dr Tranchese has been carrying out research looking at normalised language choices in reporting and how the patterns found can relate to broader social issues.

Patterns in language are normally hiding some form of discourse or ideology. And if you spot a pattern, there’s normally something there to investigate

Dr Alessia Tranchese, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Applied Linguistics

Alessia’s work has stretched from analysis of news reporting around violent incidents to the #MeToo movement and Jimmy Savile enquiry. She has also looked at the growth of certain misogynistic language features occurring in online forums and adult websites to draw her conclusions.

She’s now bringing together her work in a forthcoming book that explores the representation of rape over a decade in the UK.

Updating legal definitions for modern justice

Dr Tranchese hopes that her observations will not only cause big media to give thought to the implications of insinuating disbelief towards victims while downplaying aggressors in crime reporting but also contribute to developing the laws and definitions that can leave victims abandoned by the justice system:

The law is also flawed. If the law doesn't consider something sexual assault, it is unlikely to appear in the media.

Dr Alessia Tranchese, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Applied Linguistics

In her book, Dr Tranchese is investigating to what extent the widespread attention that the #MeToo hashtag received in recent years has the potential to bring about substantial change in the language used by the media and in the legal system to talk about violence against women.

As with all our research, engagement on every level is core to seeing positive change in action. Alessia has been volunteering with activists and victims at rape crisis centres to understand the social issues that can contribute to sex crime and failures in the justice system.

Research into online language also offered Alessia insight into how abuse can arise from the normalisation of certain language features. She studied the language used by Incels (Involuntary Celibates) on their forums where these men share conversation and views (mostly) about women. Through this, Alessia connected various forms of misogynistic, sexualised language towards women which are particularly visible online (for example, in mainstream pornography and Incels forums), but are also present offline, suggesting that tolerance for, participation in, or exposure to misogynistic language can lead to the normalisation, acceptance, and justification of abusive behaviour.

These ideas are amplified and that’s what the internet has done – it has created a network of misogyny – I wouldn’t say that pornography has created Incels, but it has given them the language to express their hatred against women.

Dr Alessia Tranchese, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Applied Linguistics

If this is the case online, it raises big questions for the responsibility of media reporting to legitimise the experiences of rape survivors and use language in a way that does not undermine women’s words, underplay perpetrators’ guilt, or encourage discriminatory perceptions. Alessia hopes that by opening this conversation to the wider public, progress can be made to understand and challenge the different faces of misogyny, which constitute a fundamental part of the structure that oppresses women in society.

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Thanks for downloading this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. Our interviews bring you world-changing ideas and ask the big questions looking at research taking place here in Portsmouth.

Anna Rose: Today, John Worsey meets Dr Alessia Tranchese, a Senior Lecturer in Communications and Applied Linguistics in the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics. She specialises in looking at how language impacts and reflects violence against women.

Alessia Tranchese: First and foremost, I look at violence against women from a linguistic point of view. So I look at the language used particularly by the media, to talk about violence against women.

Anna Rose: And her research has taken place all over the world.

Alessia Tranchese: I'm currently focussing on the UK, but I've worked in Singapore, Italy, a little bit in India. So I'm focussing on things like online misogyny, cyber sexism, online bullying or hate speech, particularly related to gender.

Anna Rose: It focuses on high profile cases such as the Jimmy Savile enquiry and the Me Too movement.

Anna Rose: Alessia's interest in gender discrimination and violence grew from early observations of inequality in everyday life. She described how limitations to her own personal freedoms, made her more aware of the subjects she would come to research.

Alessia Tranchese: There is certainly an element of personal experience in having -- having lived with discrimination between men and women from a very young age. And I have an older brother and I have always been very annoyed at the fact that he had a lot more freedom than I had. I used to be very annoyed at the fact that he could be out with his friends until late and I couldn't because I was I'm a woman and, you know, you have to be, you know -- there's bad people out there. And I always thought that you know, that's not fair. You know, I should be able to go out and... And I travelled -- travelled a lot. And when I was travelling, I was always annoyed that I had to kind of like pay more money to get a taxi and make sure I get home safely. When a man wouldn't do that. And it's like, you know, I should get home safely no matter what. So these are just things that kind of were in my head, but I never thought I could make a job out of it. But then when I went to India to do an internship, I also then came across a whole series of other forms of violence against women. More extreme, perhaps, I'm not sure. I mean, they happen on a continuum, they're not separate.

Anna Rose: It's this wider impact of misogyny, violence against women and the freedom of women that Alessia is particularly interested in. And that means looking at the language around it and the patterns of representation of violence against women when written. This raises the question of how language can actually amplify harmful patterns in unseen ways.

Alessia Tranchese: Patterns in language are normally hiding some form of like discourse, ideology. So if you spot a pattern, it's nor-- there's normally something there to investigate. So, for example, linking it back to the cyber sexism project, when we looked at the r/incels at Reddit, they talk a lot about sexual activity with women in a way that is violent and aggressive and derogatory. It allows you to make links with other sexual practises that are considered much more normal and standard in society just because they don't happen in that context. So, for example, in mainstream online pornography. So you're looking at the language, at the patterns there. Not only gives you enough evidence to say this is not a one-off, this is something that happens a lot, but this is not happening just here. So we might say that this is an extremist discourse but look at the similarities with this other space where there are similar patterns of--of language.

Alessia Tranchese: Another example is in the corpus, or in a collection, of our articles about rape. If we find that, for example, in a lot of cases, there are a lot of passive -- there's a lot of passive voice, instead of saying 'he raped her', there's a lot of 'she was raped'. These are two representations of the same event and the idea is the language is all about choice. You know, you can say he raped her, she was raped. You are describing the same event. But there is always a reason why we choose to say things in a certain way. We're always choosing from a pool of options, but we choose one. And if we choose that, and especially if we choose it repeatedly, so there is a pattern, then there means that there is something there.

Anna Rose: Alessia says these language choices are not always conscious, but more a product of socialisation. And being unaware of this can make it even harder to challenge. Linguistic interpretation depends heavily on context, which presents another challenge. So if passive language can downplay the role of a perpetrator in violence against women, what other language patterns can mean a criminal action is represented more neutrally?

Alessia Tranchese: It's pretty much the same methodology applied to different contexts. Based on the idea that if you find patterns and repetition in language, then it probably means that there is something there. So the question that's when it comes to -- this is when it becomes a sort of, we call it critical discourse analysis, is when we link these -- these linguistic patterns to broader societal issues. And then we could -- we could argue that this erasure of perpetrator in the language reflects a tendency to focus a lot on the victim's behaviour rather than on the perpetrator. And the whole series of rape myths or false assumptions about -- about rape, like, for example, that women cause rape by dressing in a certain way, or men naturally tend to rape women and so on. There's a whole series of false assumptions, basically all rape myths.

Anna Rose: In the media and other written text patterns of language can seem to downplay rape and violence against women, and this can play out online and in real life too. The #MeToo movement has brought this to mainstream attention in recent years, and Allesia touched on the importance of its work. She's currently writing a book on the representation of rape over a decade in the UK. This explores the impact of high profile cases such as the Jimmy Savile enquiry and asks how the #MeToo movement has impacted media representation of sexual assault.

Alessia Tranchese: The claim is that the #MeToo movement has actually helped challenge that myth of the rapist being a monster. So what I'm trying to find out is whether that actually has led to a change in discourse. So, for example, if we have more cases of perpetrators that are like normal men or of the type of assaults, it's not just, you know, violent rape, but a higher presence of cases that might not involve violent aggression, but they're still considered sexual assault. I mean, there are some problems linked to what the law considers as a sexual assault, but that's -- that's a problem while -- my students they -- they kind of have the same problem. They tend to think, well, the law says it is, you know, is pretty much what things are. But trying to get them to see the law is also flawed. If -- if you -- if the law were perfect, then, you know, marital rape would never have been allowed. So we need to also challenge that. If the law says this is not sexual assault, we should question whether that's the case or not.

Alessia Tranchese: It's a bit difficult because if the law doesn't consider something, sexual assault is unlikely to appear in the media. But, yeah, I think -- I think the if the MeToo actually -- movement has actually brought about some important change, somehow that should reflect in the language of the media.

Anna Rose: And like MeToo, Alessia is keen to make an impact on misogyny in the real world in addition to her academic contribution.

Alessia Tranchese: I think it's a bit inevitable when you study these things that you want to do something to change it.

John Worsey: Yes.

Alessia Tranchese: It's kind of a consequence of what you do. You see so many things that are not right and so many things that are not just, you know. You see injustice, you just want to do something to make it right. And this is pretty much why I thought, you know, I can't just be studying this and being, like, all theoretical about it. If I don't do something outside of this, so this is why I volunteered with rape crisis centres. And -- and it's also important because I think if you are studying these things, you, of course, you know, the experience of people that have been raped or assaulted, it's individual experience. You can't -- you can't say you understand what's happened, everybody experiences this differently and these things change over time. But I think it's important to -- if you want to be -- if I want to study this topic, it's important for me to kind of work with activists, people that work on the field -- in the field. As a volunteer, I've spoken to people that have been assaulted and for me, that has opened my eyes to how I understand rape as a crime.

Anna Rose: Our cultural language isn't just made up about what we say and hear, but about what we read. The next step was to understand how this extends into media and the digital world. Alessia and her team did some particular work around using linguistics to identify abuse online in forums.

Alessia Tranchese: So the idea initially was to find a way to identify hate speech online because the police are dealing with this type of stuff all the time. But they don't really seem to be equipped with this because it's a relatively new thing, at least online. So we wanted to come up with a message to spot the abuse. And we thought, OK, let's look at the site that is known for being abusive to investigate their language. How -- what do they say on this site that we can then apply to other sites and see, ok, these features matched, so this is likely to be abusive because we found it on this website, which is known for being abusive.

Alessia Tranchese: So we started looking at these linguistic features. And as we were doing it, we kind of diverged a little bit because we realised that – I know this sounds a little bit strange – but am I -- I have an interest in... I've been reading a lot about well, from a feminist perspective, about online, particularly pornography. Not just online, but mostly online, because that's where it's available the most these days. So I had read quite a lot about this topic. And as I was analysing the data on the Incel website, I started realising that there were a lot of similarities between what I was reading on this site and what I had read about. And this is where we kind of like came to the realisation that the discourse of Incel when it was abusive, it was mostly sexually abusive. It wasn't just, you know, I'll kill you or, you know, it was a lot worse than that.

Alessia Tranchese: There are some people that are not Incels, and that's where they start kind of like accusing each other, abusing each other. And that's when you see these kinds of things and you see that all this stuff, abuse is all sexualised.

John Worsey: Right.

Alessia Tranchese: But it's not -- so that is kind of like going back to the original point, how can we spot abuse online? And we realised that one of the ways to spot online hate speech towards women, in particular, is to look for certain forms of sexual abuse or sexualised language. Because when these forms occurred, it was pretty much always a form of abuse. These are just means in which these ideas are amplified and that's what the internet has done, it has created a network of misogyny or network-- networked misogyny. So it's all interconnected, but it didn't start there. And I wouldn't say that, you know, pornography has created Iincels.

John Worsey: Sure, sure.

Alessia Tranchese: But it has given them the language to express the hatred against women.

Anna Rose: Alessia's research here is soon to be published in the journal Violence Against Women. And as well as working to identify abuse in forums online, Alessia and her team want to change the way that newspapers, magazines, radio and TV all report on rape and violence against women.

Alessia Tranchese: There's an assumption in-- in linguistics, at least in my field, that language in society work are interconnected and from language reproduces societies – a sort of mirror of society. It can also influence society, particularly through the media, considering their power and their ability to be-- to have their voices amplified and also digitised. That was my initial goal. I want to look at this, highlight all the things that are wrong with it, and then go and tell newspapers this is how you have to write about it. And then I realised that actually, that's not -- first and foremost it's not that easy. It's not something that I've completely given up on, but changing these things take a lot of time. Giving a set of rules about how they should write about things is not necessarily always going to work. So it's about changing mentalities, it's about -- it's about changing the way in which people think rather than saying, OK, instead of using the word victim, use the word survivor or instead of using the passive voice, use the active voice or, you know, these examples. It's about changing the way in which people understand what rape is about, which can lead to more profound changes.

Anna Rose: For Alessia, it's not just about impacting the media or creating a set of rules to eliminate these patterns in language. It's about adjusting people's mindset to violence against women and teaching classes of students to think differently is another way to do this.

Alessia Tranchese: I give them a scenario in which I ask them to identify and decide and say whether they think that that scenario, a rape, happened or didn't. And then I put together all the answers and then I give the answers back to them and I get them to think about what everybody has written. And they actually realise that it's interesting because pretty much everybody gives the same answer. And then we get to think about how, actually, what kind of answer could you have given? A lot of language is about what has not been said, which is more difficult to analyse than what has been said.

John Worsey: Yes.

Alessia Tranchese: Because it's analysing silence or absence is more different-- more difficult than analysing presence and voice. So they kind of start thinking about, actually, we haven't thought about this and how certain ways of thinking about violence are ingrained. How -- how they think, for example, about, you know, rape is all about consent, is about giving consent, but nobody ever says, oh, somebody had to ask for consent. Everybody talks about giving consent. Where rape is about saying, no, instead of thinking-- thinking that in a lot of occasions people don't refuse things by saying an outright no. So, you know, rape is not necessarily consent, it's not about saying a clear no, because that put the emphasis on the victim or survivor who has to say a clear no. But could rape and consent be about something else? Is consent really-- does somebody really need to say no to consent? Because then there are a lot of, like, blurred situations like what happens when somebody is drunk? What happens if the person is your partner? What happens if you are a woman in prostitution? You know, there's a whole series of difficult situations. So, yeah, they do get to think about these questions with -- with me.

Anna Rose: Thanks for listening to this episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. You can find out more about the work of Alessia and her team, as well as our other projects by going online to port.ac.uk/research. If you want to share your thoughts on this programme, you can shout about this podcast using the hashtag Life Solved.

Anna Rose: Next time, we'll be hearing how fans of popular culture are creating communities for positive change.

Lincoln Geraghty: Niantic, who design Pokémon, always said they always had the intention to use the game to sort of bring people together, to do things for the greater good of society.

Anna Rose: Make sure you subscribe in your podcast app to get every episode of Life Solved automatically. And please do tell us what you think with a review and rating if you get a moment. We can't wait to share another fascinating discovery next time.

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