PROSE PROBLEMS

The media makes excuses for men who kill women. Here’s how to stop it

It’s not a random act.
It’s not a random act.
Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
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Why do we so often hear of “perfect husbands” who turn into monsters without any prior warning, like the man in this recent story who murdered his wife in—another well-worn description— a “fit of jealousy”?

The answer, according to a campaign launched today, is that the trope is a lazy cliché. It’s also a dangerous one: It robs women who die at the hands of a violent partner of dignity, and perpetuates a stereotype that masks and excuses domestic violence.

Level Up, a UK feminist group, is focusing the new campaign on the media, gathering signatures on a petition for press regulators to set new guidelines for the way news outlets report on deaths from domestic violence. The group says its advice isn’t just for journalists, though: “The more we start talking about domestic violence deaths in an accurate way, the more justice and dignity there will be for those of us surviving domestic violence—and those who did not survive,” reads an email sent out to those who’ve signed the petition. 

So here are the points to keep in mind when discussing cases of intimate partner violence, when reading about them, or, for journalists, when writing those stories:

Accountability

Responsibility for a murder rests with the killer. Often, in cases of domestic violence, “reasons” are given for why a man killed or hurt a women—for example, he discovered an affair—which has the effect of “excusing” the crime. In fact, as the campaign states, “homicides are usually underpinned by a longstanding sense of ownership, coercive control, and possessive behaviors: they are not a random event.”

Accuracy

The right label for these crimes is “domestic violence.” Calling an instance of domestic violence a “tragedy” or “horror” risks suggesting a freak or random act. But the reality is that they are not. In the UK, two women are murdered by a partner or ex-partner every week, on average. In the US, that figure is much higher: two to three per day.

Language can be compelling and remain accurate: Luke and Ryan Hart have written a book, Operation Lighthouse, about the killing of their mother and sister by their father. “Men kill because they believe they can, because they feel entitled that their self-pity is worth more than the lives of others,” they write in a press release for the Level Up campaign. “Every time the media fails to call out domestic homicide for what it is, a societal pattern of misogynistic masculinity, and not an isolated domestic incident, it remains complicit in those murders.”

Dignity

The personal nature of domestic violence can lead to prurience. The revelation of sexual details, for example, can lead those talking about an instance of domestic violence to focus on the wrong parts of the story, robbing dead women, or their surviving family, of dignity.

A useful analogy might be reports of suicide. Guidelines from the UK group Samaritans explain that dwelling on the details of a way someone has taken their own life, or speculation as to the reasons, does a disservice to the dead person and to vulnerable readers. Those writing or talking about domestic violence cases should be vigilant in linking a woman’s personal life, for example, to what happens to her, since such speculation can easily be thought of as an “excuse” for ensuing violence.

Sensitivity

Finally, Level Up suggest avoiding insensitive language or images, including stock images that suggest domestic violence is only a physical crime.

It’s essential to recognize language has real-world impact. Insensitive reporting on suicide has been shown to increase the risk of suicide in vulnerable people. On the flip side, guidelines on suicide reporting similar to those Level Up suggests for domestic-violence reporting have begun to change the way the media report on suicide. It’s time we challenged the “norms” of describing domestic violence, too.

Another recommendation is that stories that discuss domestic violence include guidance on how to reach help. The UK’s National Domestic Violence Helpline is on 0808 2000 247. In the US, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233.