The media has not traditionally been a good source of information on family violence.
Crimes were not covered, and victims were often blamed. This reflected societal attitudes to domestic violence and its treatment in the courts.
In a recent study, news articles on men who killed their wives and then commit suicide were examined. The general conclusion is that coverage has improved, but still tends to mystify the problem.
The study used articles from the Calgary Herald from 2008 using the term ‘murder-suicide.’ Alberta has the highest rate of spousal homicide-suicide in Canada. This was compared to a second period a decade earlier to see if coverage had changed.
Research on domestic homicide often points out how news articles are framed to blame the victim or excuse the offender.
Direct tactics involve using negative language to describe the victim, criticizing her actions such as her not reporting past incidences, or mentioning ‘consorting’ with other men as contributing to her murder.
Indirect tactics include using sympathetic language to describe the perpetrator, and emphasizing mental, physical, emotional and financial problems which might excuse his actions.
In 2008 there were two main cases covered extensively.
One described the perpetrator as a loving family man who doted on his wife and young daughters but heard voices in his head and believed he was possessed by the devil.
The second involved a woman who had restraining orders due to a troubled relationship. She had tried to break it off but the period after the woman leaves is usually the most dangerous.
She was said to be a caring, loving woman who never gave an indication of problems at home. However the man lost jobs, drank frequently, made threats and was physically violent.
Authorities said it was a domestic dispute that went terribly wrong.
In these stories the explanation is inexplicable: the man was loving and the couple seemed happy. Sometimes there were warning signs: the man had difficulties, or the couple had a history of conflict. And there was always an attempt to find an excuse: mental disorder, alcoholism or unemployment.
In both cases cognitive biases were used. Criticizing the victim, for example, by not calling the police is a ‘just-world bias,’ that good people do the right thing, and bad things happen to bad (incompetent) people.
On the other hand, to focus on the (now) obvious warning signs, is ‘hindsight bias.’ Both are ways of blaming in order to make ourselves feel safe.
The decade-old articles were short, either briefs or about 200 words. Police are the usual source, and the explanations include: domestic problems, depressed state, no concrete motive and nobody knows.
In comparison, the lack of coverage, the paucity of detail, the reliance on official sources and the absence of a context for explanation is striking. This was normal news coverage of domestic violence in the 1980s, a virtual silence compared to coverage 20 years later where there is an increased use of advocates as sources and a larger discussion of context.
The incidence of domestic violence has decreased over time in society, at the same time as newspaper articles about intimate partner violence have increased. The public is receiving more information about fewer cases, although there is still a tendency to mystify the nature of domestic violence.
In response, some researchers have worked to improve journalistic coverage. For example, the Rhode Island Coalition against Domestic Violence worked with reporters to develop a best practices handbook on news coverage of domestic violence murders.
In comparing print coverage of domestic violence murders before and after, they found an increased tendency to label the murder of intimates as domestic violence, and more use of advocates as sources.
As a result, murders which had previously been framed as unpredictable, private tragedies by police, were more likely to be framed as social problems which required public intervention.
This example of action research shows the importance of naming interpretations and the possibility of changing them.
Chris McCormick teaches criminology and media studies at St. Thomas University and his column appears every second Thursday.
Also, see this letter to the editor noting how the sheriff quoted in an article blames the victim –
Blame for male violence misdirected
We work in prevention of gender-based violence and sexual assault. We are authors, professors, public speakers, advocates and community activists. We are appalled and concerned by the statements made by Sheriff’s Lt. Dan Rosenberg and reported by Larry Altman and Andrea Woodhouse in the Daily Breeze (“Couple found dead in MB are identified,” Jan. 12).
The conjecture is that a murder-suicide took place, possibly fueled by interpersonal issues between a girlfriend and boyfriend. About this tragic case, the story says:
“Rosenberg said (California State University, Long Beach student Danielle) Hagbery’s death should serve as a warning to other young women that they need to look out for themselves – such as not going to the boyfriend’s home – when a relationship goes sour. `This is one more tragic end of a dating relationship where these young women should be aware of it,’ Rosenberg said. `Ladies need to be vigilant when things go sideways with boyfriends.”‘
Badly informed comments such as this perpetuate a serious problem: Blaming the victim for her own death. Presuming it’s true that boyfriend Michael Nolin killed Hagbery before turning a gun on himself, the warning must not be directed toward victims. Ladies don’t need to be vigilant. Murderers need to not kill. If this was “one more tragic end of a dating relationship,” men need to be aware of their own potential for violence. Prevention is the real solution.
There are plenty of community-based resources and educational materials on the subject of preventing male violence against women. Please do not hesitate to be in touch if you would like to avail yourself to our services and resources.
– Shira Tarrant, Professor, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, CSU Long Beach
Editor’s note: This letter was also signed by CSU Long Beach professors, lecturers and staff including Courtney Ahrens, Laura Bellamy, Jeane Relleve Caveness, Lynne Coenen, Cindy Donham, Claire Garrido-Ortega, Marc D. Rich, Cpl. Ami Rzasa, Dr. Gina Golden Tangalakis and Mary Kay Will. Also signing were Veronica I. Arreola of the University of Illinois, Chicago; author and speaker Ben Atherton-Zeman; Audrey Bilger of Claremont McKenna College; community members Abby Bradecich, Lana Haddad, Diana Hayashino, Linda Pena, Justine Schneeweis and Barbara Sinclair; community volunteer Craig Coenen; writer, educator and advocate Joan Dawson; Caroline Heldman of Occidental College; Long Beach community advocates Ashleigh Klein and Marea Perez; Dr. Kathie Mathis of Mathis & Associates; Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of Women In Media & News; Chad Sniffen of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault; Jessica Stites of Ms. Magazine; and domestic violence advocate Sharon Wie.