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Book examines news coverage of mothers who kill their children; author argues for understanding of risk factors

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

LAWRENCE — When Casey Anthony was accused of murdering her daughter in 2008, the 24-hour news cycle and social media portrayed her as a villain, an unfit mother and someone without remorse. She was found not guilty. 

Media have changed greatly over the years, but a University of Kansas professor’s book shows that their coverage of women who kill, or are accused of killing, their children has largely remained the same.

Barbara Barnett, associate professor of journalism at KU, has written “Motherhood in the Media: Infanticide, Journalism and the Digital Age.” The book examines media coverage of cases of women who have killed their children, presents interviews with journalists who have covered the stories, and takes a look at how motherhood blogs cover the issue.

Barnett analyzed media coverage of 20 cases of mothers who committed infanticide since the 1960s. She found that coverage has largely remained the same over the years.

“In terms of media coverage, not much has changed since Maggie Smith in the '60s,” Barnett said. “These women are represented as bad moms, as criminals and they’re vilified as bad people without any focus on circumstance. The media have changed markedly, but the images of motherhood are not too different from what they were decades ago. We still think of motherhood as we did in the 1950s.”

Without condoning or excusing the crimes, Barnett argues that despite changes in media, coverage has provided more of an opportunity to “publicly flog” the accused than to understand why someone could commit such a heinous crime. Her analysis showed that the women were often presented as selfish, that they didn’t want to be mothers, and that coverage was rooted in Victorian ideals of feminine passivity, domesticity and purity. The stories rarely examined the women’s history of depression, mental illness, substance abuse or experiences with physical and sexual abuse in their own lives.

Coverage also presented the mothers as someone who one day “snapped” and committed a crime instead of someone who had struggled with post-partum depression or other problems for years, which was nearly always the case.

“People often thought they would ‘snap out of it’ because they were moms,” Barnett said of women who experienced various struggles before harming their children. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding of depression and mental illness. Maybe if we understand what causes these sorts of actions we could intervene at some point. These weren’t people who one day snapped, they had been suffering for a long, long time.”

Barnett argues that maternal violence should be considered a public health problem and prevention considered a public health goal. She argues that better understanding of mental health and doctors, families and community members being aware of risk factors could lead many people to get help before violence takes place.

In addition to analysis of media coverage of cases of infanticide, Barnett conducted in-depth interviews with 10 journalists who during their careers covered cases of mothers who killed their children. Uniformly, journalists said they worked to cover the stories factually, without resorting to sensationalism and attempted to answer questions the public had. Many of the journalists came to the story because they covered police or courts and the cases eventually ended up in police blotters or with mothers on trial. That point, Barnett said, shows they are often viewed as crime stories when they could also be viewed as stories about mental health. Not only that of the mother, but of mental health services that were, and in some cases were not, available to the mothers.

The majority of journalists said they did not suffer from covering such horrific crimes, insisting that if they focused on the crimes too much, they would be unable to continue in their jobs. One journalist, though, did leave the field because of her experiences covering such cases, while another said he is haunted to this day by the case he covered.

“Most of them saw the situation as ‘this is my job. I have to do my job and move on. If I focused on this too much I’d go crazy,’” Barnett said.

While traditional media often framed their stories in familiar ways, Barnett found motherhood blogs viewed the situation differently. She analyzed 10 motherhood blogs and one devoted to postpartum. Within a year, many of them discussed the challenges mothers face every day, gave women a chance to talk about their failures and frustrations with everything from violent thoughts to depression and regret of having children, while also documenting the joys, love and learning of motherhood.

Unlike traditional media, the motherhood blogs addressed the topic of death, abuse, divorce and topics generally not broached in stories of infanticide. Nine of the 10 blogs had covered depression within the last year.

“We live in a culture that often teaches women that motherhood is the answer, or that you’re not a ‘real’ woman without a baby,” Barnett said. “These women shatter the myth that motherhood is all wonderful every day.”

Barnett argues in “Motherhood in the Media” that instead of focusing on infanticide in the short term, society should take a longer view of the problem. She also discusses common risk factors for maternal violence including history of sexual abuse, depression, alcohol and drug problems and isolation from other women, including other mothers. Understanding risk factors and better recognizing mental health challenges is ultimately more productive than simply vilifying those who commit the crime.

“Some of the women in this analysis had alcohol and drug problems. Some suffered from such severe depression, they couldn’t get out of bed,” Barnett said. “Others had postpartum psychosis, and they saw visions and heard voices. Yet, those around them often assumed these women were capable of taking care of their children. If a babysitter came to the house and said, ‘I’m here to take care of your children. I’ve been drinking for days,’ or ‘I hear voices, and I’m having hallucinations,’ you wouldn’t likely leave your kids with this person. But our myth about motherhood — that all mothers are able and willing to take care of their children — is so strong, we believe the myth and ignore the reality."