The deaths of women killed by current and former partners have long been reported in harmful ways. But now, the UK’s press regulators have adopted feminist guidelines on how to write about domestic violence deaths. Stylist’s Moya Crockett reports.
In the summer of 2016, a man named Lance Hart shot and killed his wife Claire and daughter Charlotte in the market town of Spalding, Lincolnshire. The story was picked up by several newspapers, many of which included positive descriptions of Lance – who had been emotionally and psychologically abusive towards his wife, daughter and two sons for years – in their reporting.
The Telegraph quoted a neighbour who described Lance as “a happy nice man”, while The Sun spoke to a neighbour who said Lance was “the nicest guy you could ever meet”. Every publication that covered the murders addressed the fact that Claire had left Lance, with the Daily Express describing the double murder as “the ultimate act of vengeance by a rejected husband”.
The tone of the coverage of Claire and Charlotte’s murders was often salacious, speculative and disturbing sympathetic towards their killer. And this case wasn’t an anomaly. Two women a week are killed by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales. When their deaths are covered in the media, particularly if there are children involved, reports frequently include positive descriptions of the alleged killers – as well as emotive theories as to what could have possibly ‘driven’ them to murder.
Now, in a bid to encourage newspapers and magazines to report domestic violence deaths more responsibly, the UK’s two main press regulators have adopted guidelines devised by a feminist campaign group. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and Impress are now sharing the guidance – which was developed by grassroots organisation Level Up in collaboration with domestic abuse experts and journalists – on their own websites.
The hope is that having clear guidelines on how outlets should report domestic violence deaths – similar to the Samaritans guidelines on how to report stories about suicide, which are adhered to by many publications including Stylist – will reduce the chances of families of victims having their grief and trauma “compounded by irresponsible reporting”.
Level Up’s guidelines on how outlets should report on domestic violence deaths consist of six main points:
- Accountability. Place responsibility on the killer. This means avoiding speculative “reasons” or “triggers”, or describing the murder as an uncharacteristic event. Fatal domestic abuse is usually underpinned by a longstanding sense of ownership, coercive control and possessive behaviours: they are not a random event.
- Accuracy. Name the crime as domestic violence. Rather than describing the death as a “tragedy” or “horror”, frame it within the context of a pattern of controlling behaviour, coercive control and/or previous assaults. Include a reference to helplines at the end of the article, so readers know where to seek help.
- Images. Centre the image of the deceased woman, but include a picture of the perpetrator at the bottom. If she is a Muslim woman, use the image that has been provided by the family and police alone.
- Dignity. Avoid sensationalising language, invasive or graphic details that compromise the dignity of the dead woman or her surviving family members. In cases of BME women, focus on the perpetrator’s gender-based abuse and control as the root cause of homicide. When religion or culture is used as a reason, it detracts from the sexist values the killer holds that underpin their violent actions.
- Equality. Avoid insensitive or trivialising language or images. All women have a right to dignity and respect, especially in death, regardless of their race, sexuality, occupation, class and whether they live with mental or physical disabilities. Remember a victim’s children are likely to read reports on their mother’s death.
- Sensitivity to cultures and religion. When reporting on a woman’s death, there is no need to discuss religious or cultural values, or her religious or cultural background unless imperative to a case. Be careful not to perpetuate stereotypes or make assumptions, particularly around ‘honour killing’ or domestic homicide.
Level Up’s guidance was adopted by IPSO and Impress following a petition launched in 2018, which was signed by 20,427 people.
“The public support this campaign has received since it started has been overwhelming, which goes to show that the public are some way ahead of the press when it comes to reporting fatal domestic abuse,” Janey Starling, campaign manager for Level Up, tells stylist.co.uk.
“The guidelines are a great start to a cultural shift in how our media treats victims and their families, and our next challenge is to make sure that every newsroom in the country is familiar with them. There’s no excuse for careless reporting now.”
To develop the guidelines, Level Up worked with Luke and Ryan Hart, the sons and brothers of Claire and Charlotte Hart. Since their father killed their mother and sister in 2016, the Hart brothers have become campaigners against domestic abuse and coercive control and have written a book, Operation Lighthouse, on the subject. They also say that the inaccuracy of the reporting of their mother and sister’s death had a lasting traumatic impact on them.
“The men that kill aren’t anomalous monsters, it happens far too frequently for that to be the case,” the Hart brothers say. “Gender violence is a common pattern in our society, with one in four women experiencing domestic abuse in their lifetime.
“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.”
Examples abound of this kind of reporting. According to one 2017 article, for example, the two men who raped Australian woman Lynette Daley so brutally that she bled to death – one of whom was her boyfriend – were in fact “loving and caring”. A man who killed his estranged wife Sally Lawrence by disabling the airbag in his car before deliberately crashing it into a tree was apparently “torn apart by anger after [she] left him and began a relationship with another man”. In 2018, the BBC News website was forced to change a headline that described Chris Watts, the American man currently serving five life sentences for murdering his pregnant wife Shannan and two young daughters, as an “amazing hubby”.
These kinds of descriptions often – although not always – come from people who knew the families involved, not from reporters themselves. But they help create an impression of such murders as uncharacteristic events; as one-off tragedies that cannot be comprehended and could not have been prevented.
“What’s quite incredible is how so many articles frame domestic homicide as an event that came out of the blue, when actually there is a history of controlling behaviour,” says Starling.
Starling explains that if a man kills his partner or ex-partner, it is rarely the first time he has been violent or abusive towards her.
“For a journalist who doesn’t know the couple and is just picking [the story] up, a homicide might seem like it has come out of the blue,” she says. “But once you look into the deeper context and the character of the relationship, a very similar pattern [of abuse] often emerges.”
Irresponsible reporting on domestic violence deaths can also influence the punishment male killers receive when their case goes to court. Research shows that reports of domestic homicides that reinforce a narrative of romantic ‘love’ – such as suggesting that a man behaved a certain way because he was heartbroken – can lead to lighter sentencing in court, even if there is clear evidence that the man had been systemically abusive towards the woman before her death.
Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Gloucestershire, was a consultant on Level Up’s guidelines. She says they are “not just desirable, they are crucial”.
“Reporting of these homicides should not only be fair, but should reflect reality because this could help prevent future deaths,” she says.
“These perpetrators invariably share some behavioural patterns which reveal risk. Myths and inaccurate sensationalism protect killers not victims.”
Level Up is now raising money to send a copy of their domestic violence reporting guidelines to every newsroom in the UK. Support their campaign here.
In the UK, the national domestic violence helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Scotland, the domestic abuse and forced marriage helpline is 0800 027 1234. In Wales, the Live Fear Free helpline is 0808 8010 800. In Northern Ireland, the domestic and sexual violence helpline is 0808 802 1414.
A version of this article was published on 8 October 2018, when Level Up launched its campaign against irresponsible reporting on domestic violence deaths. It has been updated throughout.
Images: Getty Images