How the Media Exacerbates and Erases Black Women's Suffering

by Jenn M. Jackson

“If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels.” —Janay Rice

This was Janay Rice’s response to news media outlets following the viral video of her then fiancé, Ray Rice, brutally punching her, knocking her unconscious, and dragging her out of an Atlantic City hotel elevator. Her focus on the role the media played in her re-victimization preceded but is eerily similar to Camille Cosby’s response after the recent surge in mass media coverage of her husband, Bill Cosby, and his litany of sexual assault allegations. Her response that “there appears to be no vetting” of her husband’s accusers indicts the media rather than placing blame on Bill Cosby himself.

The similarities between the two women’s responses make it difficult for mass media to advocate for Black women who are abused by prominent Black men while respecting their rights to privacy. More importantly, though, these women’s statements show that the news media has work to do to gain trust from Black women.

Camille Cosby questioned the verifiability of her husband’s accusers rather than his propensity to abuse others. The tenor of her response – and her comparison of his accusers to Jackie, the woman at the center of the UVA story in Rolling Stone – set a tone which urges the public to believe Bill Cosby (the man we “thought we knew”) and disbelieve the women who have come forward (women we don’t know). Her focus on the media’s need for viral content led her to even ask, “Who is the victim?”

Well, the truth is, there are a lot of victims here. Each of the more than two dozen women who have come forward have been abused. But she, too, is a victim. Because of her husband’s crimes, she has been subjected to media and public hostility. She has been forced to sit by as her love life is dissected by strangers.

Janay Rice took a similar stand explaining that “God chose” her and her husband for this very public spectacle. She denounced being called a “victim” and declared that she has “never seen abuse.” Seeming unable to call out what was seen on footage as abuse, she cleaves to the man she knows rather than the man Ray Rice has been painted as in the media. Truth is, she is an abuse survivor. Whether she wears the title or not, she has been abused. But, how she chooses to deal with that status is her right. Her husband’s job shouldn’t take away her ability to define herself for herself.

In both instances, these women have deflected responsibility away from their husbands and toward the media. According to them, the media’s actions have exacerbated already terrible situations. And while the crimes of their husbands cannot be refuted, this parallel seems the least investigated to date. Yet, these Black women’s concerns that the media doesn’t have the best intentions for them is worth discussing.

Perhaps their ire stems from the fact that mass media still fails to allow Black women humanity. In fact, Camille Cosby and Janay Rice are right to question media outlets and their objectives in making their stories “viral” because Black women continue to experience erasure by these organizations every single day.

It is no secret that the news media vacillates between invisibility and hypervisibility when it comes to coverage of Black women. This was recently apparent in the story of Shaneka Nicole Thompson who was shot in the stomach before her assailant murdered two NYPD officers. It took nearly two full days for her name to be released which focused the narrative on the deceased officers and erased her completely from the story. But, for Janay Rice and Camille Cosby, their husband’s factual and alleged crimes have made these women’s private lives objects for public consumption. It seems that by simply being present in their marriages at this point in history, these women have had their lives opened up for scrutiny even when it re-victimizes them. So, where is the middle ground?

Honestly, the answer is complicated. While concerns about Janay Rice’s mental and physical safety are legitimate, they add to the invasive nature of mass media and its inability to allow Black women public dignity. Similarly, issues with Camille Cosby’s reaction to mass media are warranted but underscore a culture where getting the “big story” causes collateral damage.

While this is not a suggestion that rape survivors be “vetted” – as writer Wagatwe Wanjuki notes that we don’t need to “hear both sides” of rape allegations. Instead, my fault-finding is with news outlets who require Black women to make public statements in defense of celebrity Black men altogether. When are White women called upon to do the same?

What we need is a thoughtful, deliberate news media. One that champions Black women and our fullness without controversy. Rather than always looking to us to prove the sanctity of Black men, news media outlets should allow Black women to be complete human beings who exist outside of the bounds of high profile relationships or other salacious, newsworthy settings. When the news media start treating Black women like full human beings, folks like Camille Cosby and Janay Rice won’t need to question their intentions.

In all, these women’s concerns about the hypervisibility they are experiencing and pressures from the public to give statements aren’t invalid. Rather, they are important and deserve our attention.

Until we allow Black women to exist as individuals, we will be complicit in hostility and violence against them. And, as long as we usher along additional violence to Black women, we will also be named amongst their abusers.

Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. For more about her, visit her website at

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