Domestic Violence: Victims or Liars?

By Christina Ramsay

Did the media explicitly or implicitly encourage scepticism for Amber Heard, following her accusation of domestic violence against Johnny Depp?

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In May 2016, Amber Heard filed for divorce against well known “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor Johnny Depp. A few days later, Heard alleged that she had suffered repeated physical and verbal abuse from Depp throughout the course of their relationship.

In Australia, one in six women and one in 20 men have experienced at least one incidence of violence from a current or former partner since the age of 15 (ABC Fact Check 2016). Given these statistics, you would hope Heard’s allegations would be taken seriously. You would hope Heard would be flooded by messages of support from women around the world. You would expect that the media would also show their support for Heard.

However, this was not the case. Instead many labelled Heard as a lying gold digger, seeking to increase her fame and fortune by public shaming beloved actor Johnny Depp. In an article for Mamamia in early June, Katy Hall succinctly summarised the disheartening message sent to Heard by thousands of people across the world: “Your word isn’t true, your proof isn’t enough, we’d rather not know about it, we don’t believe you.”

In this article, I wish to reveal the significance of the media in informing public opinion on this issue, and on the topic of domestic violence more broadly. To assess this impact, I will examine articles from around the world published in the months following the announcement of Depp and Heard’s divorce.

The first article was published in early August by WHO Australia, entitled, “Johnny Depp “Stressed About Amber Heard Divorce”. Interestingly, the title of this article focuses on Depp rather than Heard. In hundreds of articles, Heard is often portrayed as the active agent, almost invariably framing her in a negative light.

For example:

“Amber Heard Resumes Public Battle with Johnny Depp Over Divorce Settlement” (Vanity Fair – August 2016)

“Amber Heard denies she’s blackmailing Johnny Depp” (CNN – May 2016)

“Amber Heard wants a bigger divorce payout from Johnny Depp – as she’s donating it to charity” (OK! – August 2016)

In the WHO article, there is a notable imbalance between quoted material that supports Depp and quotes that favour Heard. An “insider” is quoted repeatedly throughout the article, saying Depp is “stressed about all the Amber drama” and “spending time with his kids is his focus.”

These quotes are an appeal to emotion, creating sympathy for Depp and portraying him as a caring father. However, the quotes come from an anonymous and thus somewhat unreliable source, therefore are unlikely to change the opinion of those who support Heard. Instead, I believe this article is likely intended for an audience predisposed to favouring Depp.

However, author Dave Quinn quotes another important source:

 “In a response to Heard’s claim, Depp’s divorce attorney, Laura Wasser, said in court documents that “Amber is attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse.”

This is a more reputable source, and thus could implicitly incite scepticism for Heard’s allegations. Obviously, Wasser has motive to support her client, however, for readers that are undecided on the issue, this source could create doubt.

Moreover, an important distinction arises between the quoting of Depp’s sources and quoting Heard. Whilst Quinn uses the neutral verb “says” or “said” to cite sources in favour of Depp, he writes, “the actress claimed the actor was abusive to her throughout the “entirety” of their relationship.”

As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, “claimed” means to “state or assert that something is the case, typically without providing evidence or proof.” Therefore this distinct difference in word choice suggests to an audience that Depp’s sources are reliable, whereas there could be doubt surrounding what Heard has “claimed”.

Additionally, Quinn reports that Depp recently held a memorial for his deceased mother, perhaps to again appeal to the reader’s emotional response and motivate sympathy for him.

On the other hand, Quinn reports that Heard was spotted with “tech guru Elon Musk”, sparking “rumours of possible relationship”. This purposeful contrast between the activities of Heard and Depp could be used as flag-waving exercise for readers who are against Heard readers. However, it would not likely convince neutral readers that she is in the wrong or lying about the allegations.

Another article from French newspaper, Le Figaro, took a different approach to reporting the divorce in the article, “Amber Heard-Johnny Depp : les dessous d’un divorce houleux”, (Amber Heard- Johnny Depp: behind the heated divorce) published on August 19th 2016.

Despite being a hard-news style publication, the tone of the article is quickly established as gossip when author Lena Lutad writes, “La sulfreuse Amber Heard n’a décidément pas fini de faire parler d’elle” (The scandalous Amber Heard has not yet finished getting herself talked about).

By describing the actress as “scandalous”, Lutad implies that she is the one causing public outrage, rather than the situation itself. Thus the implication is that Heard’s intention is to be the subject of discussion, and that her actions are encouraging scrutiny of her personal life.

The article uses subtitles in an attempt to build a rational case against Heard and encourage scepticism in readers.

“Amber Heard tient à son image” (Amber Heard holds onto her image)

“Soupçons, mensonges et visage dissimulé” (Suspicions, lies and a hidden face)

“Montage particulièrement grossier” (Particularly clumsy montage)

The article evaluates a series of “facts”, such as Heard’s donation of the divorce settlement to charity as “la preuve” (the proof) that she is attempting to save her public image because her career is on the rocks.

Given no external sources are supplied as supporting justification for these claims, this evaluation is an informal fallacy as there is insufficient evidence to prove that Heard’s sole motivation for donating her settlement was to save her reputation.

However, Lutad appeals to the authority of TMZ, a celebrity news website, to raise suspicion about the timing of Heard’s allegations.

“TMZ s’étonne aussi du timing: Amber Heard est partie en guerre 48 heures après le décès de la mere de Johnny Depp.”

(TMZ was also shocked by the timing: Amber Heard started a war 48 hours after the death of Johnny Depp’s mother.)

The phrase “started a war” is highly evocative, suggesting that Heard has been aggressive in the divorce battle. It is particularly ironic that Lutad alludes to violent behaviour by Heard given the allegations of domestic violence.

Nevertheless, this appeal to authority assumes an audience who will be sympathetic towards Depp and are willing to believe the reports of a gossip website. Like the WHO article, Lutad uses the death of Depp’s mother to stir sympathy in the reader and portray Depp as the victim.

Ultimately, the piece is highly evaluative, explicitly stating that Heard had, “sa stratégie de dénigrement” (a strategy of denigration) which promotes a negative view of Heard and encourages sympathy for Depp. Similarly, Lutad explicitly raises doubts about Heard’s story and the authenticity of images surfaced in the media that show Heard’s bruised face. However, little to no justification is given to support Lutad’s claims. This lack of serious attempt to persuade the reader that Heard is lying, suggests that Lutad believes the audience will already be sceptical of the allegations and pre-disposed to favour Depp.

Finally, I will look at an article from Morning News USA published on October 13th 2016, entitled, “Johnny Depp Ex-Wife Amber Heard Confirmed Gold digger: ‘Justice League’ Movie Suffers?”.

Heard’s key descriptor in this article is not actress, but “Johnny Depp’s ex-wife”, suggesting that readers will best know the actress for her romantic relationship rather than her career. This could indicate the publication is writing for an audience who have an indifferent or unfavourable attitude towards Heard, believing her to be talentless or un-noteworthy.

The article immediately takes its position as an evaluative news piece from the title, labelling Heard as a “gold digger”. Whilst there is no Oxford definition for this term, the top definition as stated by Urban Dictionary is, “Someone who seeks romantic involvement with a wealthy individual with the goal of obtaining wealth from the relationship.”

Given Depp paid $7 million dollars to Heard in the divorce settlement, it could be argued that Heard fits this definition. However, this sum was donated to charities of Heard’s choice, rather than kept for the actresses’ personal use; thus, a case could be made to refute claims that she is a “gold digger”.

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The photo used in this article is also telling; whilst the article is reporting the release of new photos for Heard’s upcoming movie “Justice League”, the publication chooses a hyper-sexualised photo of Heard lying seductively on a couch. Rather than portraying Heard as a victim of abuse, or even as an actress in her new film, this image implicitly suggests that Heard continues to live a life of opulence given she is casually lounging, dressed in expensive clothing and jewellery.

Throughout the article, author Pritha Paul uses evaluative language in describing Heard’s actions such as, “demanded” and “played the victim”. This language encourages a reader to take a negative view of Heard’s actions and implicitly suggests that Heard’s claims were false. Emphasis is also placed largely on Heard as the active agent throughout most of the article, perhaps implying to a reader that Depp is the victim of her actions.

Interestingly, Depp becomes the active agent when he is doing a good deed.

“An amicable settlement was finally reached when Depp agreed to pay the aforementioned money in instalments to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union.”

This imbalance between Heard as the active agent acting upon Depp implicitly encourages a reader to view Depp more favourably than Heard.

Ultimately, this tabloid style article takes an explicitly negative view of Heard

“Some people are of the opinion that the actress is talentless and the only way she managed to bag a role in such a big production was by creating media frenzy around her earlier this year when she accused Johnny Depp of domestic abuse.”

Whilst this statement implies this is the opinion of an external source, no sources are quoted thus I would argue that instead this evaluative opinion is a reflection of the author’s own views.

In fact, only one source is quoted in the entirety of the article and this source is an anonymous user on a comment thread from an article posted by Celebrity Dirty Laundry. As with Le Figaro article, this piece fails to engage in a persuasive discussion of the facts of the situation or justify the opinions provided with any support.

This highly evaluative stance against Heard is possibly a result of Depp’s huge popularity and success as a Hollywood actor. For this reason, author Paul assumes readers will be in support of Depp and will look less favourably upon Heard’s actions.

Comparatively to this evaluative tabloid approach, many other news outlets favour quotes sourced from psychologists and domestic violence victims. For example, popular news site News.com.au published an article in early June, “Domestic violence experts explain how the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard saga could affect victims”, in which they sourced much of their information from Rachel Kayrooz.

Kayrooz, a victim of domestic violence, founded Shout! Speak Out in 2006, a non-profit organisation for women and child survivors of domestic violence.

Kayrooz said: “The media’s approach to domestic violence can ultimately save a life or destroy it.”

Several other publications take a similar stance on the importance of reporting on incidents of domestic violence in a serious and considered manner:

“The Disturbing Reaction to Amber Heard’s Domestic Violence Allegations Against Johnny Depp: Why It Matters” (E! News – June 2016)

“Amber Heard was courageous to speak out about abuse. We’ve failed her.” (Mamamia – June 2016)

It is evident that the divorce of this high-profile couple has sparked controversy worldwide, and the reactions are extremely varied. Upon beginning this article, I expected to conclude that the approach taken to reporting this issue by hard-news publications, as opposed to tabloid style articles would be vastly different. I expected that tabloid journalism would show their support for Depp, an extremely successful and beloved Hollywood actor. I expected that the hard news publications would present the facts of the situation, and any perceived scepticism for Heard’s story would be implicit.

Yet upon further analysis, it became clear that style was not the differentiating factor.

The article from WHO demonstrated that tabloid news in Australia may have implicitly encouraged scepticism for Heard; however, this scepticism was generated by shifting support to Depp, rather than by explicitly attacking Heard.

On the other hand, the approach taken by both tabloid and hard-news outlets in the USA and France was to explicitly provide evaluative judgements on the situation, often in favour of Depp and accusing Heard of making false allegations.

This significant difference in approach perhaps reflects a difference in worldview between Australia and the rest of the world. As of June 1st, domestic violence killed 31 women in Australia in 2016. In an average day, police across Australia will deal with an average of 657 cases of domestic violence. Due to these alarming statistics, earlier this year the federal government announced a 3-year plan for tackling domestic violence. In our country, it has become impossible to ignore domestic violence.

This is not to suggest that the predominant worldview in France or the USA is to doubt victims of domestic abuse. Many people in these countries, journalists, bloggers, and anonymous commenters alike spoke out in support of Heard.

What I am suggesting is that in Australia, it has become unacceptable to not take domestic violence seriously. In Australia, the dialogue surrounding this issue has shifted to the point where negative commentators are almost completely outlawed.