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Why the media must change how it speaks about women killed by their partners

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Moya Crockett
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Why the media must change how it speaks about women killed by their partners

A new campaign seeks to change the way that domestic violence deaths are reported in the press. It couldn’t come a moment too soon.

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 worryingly 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 glowing descriptions of the alleged killers – as well as emotive theories as to what could have possibly ‘driven’ them to murder.

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”. Earlier this year, the BBC News website was forced to change a headline that described Chris Watts, an American man currently held on suspicion of murdering his wife Shannan and two young daughters, as an “amazing hubby”. 

Chris Watts was described in one headline 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,” Janey Starling, campaign manager for feminist organisation Level Up, tells stylist.co.uk.

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.”

Level Up has now launched a campaign to change how domestic homicides are covered by the press. The organisation has created a set of domestic violence reporting guidelines for journalists, similar to the Samaritans guidelines on how to report stories about suicide, which are adhered to by many publications including Stylist.

The guidelines have been developed in collaboration with domestic abuse experts including Luke and Ryan Hart, the sons and brothers of Claire and Charlotte Hart. Since their mother and sister were killed by their father in 2016, the Hart brothers have become campaigners against domestic abuse and coercive control and have written a book, Operation Lighthouse, on the subject.

“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.” The brothers say that the inaccuracy of the reporting of their mother and sister’s death had a lasting traumatic impact on them. 

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.

“The proposed guidelines are not just desirable, they are crucial,” says Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Gloucestershire, who consulted on the recommendations.

“Reporting of these homicides should not only be fair, but should reflect reality because this could help prevent future deaths. 

“These perpetrators invariably share some behavioural patterns which reveal risk. Myths and inaccurate sensationalism protect killers not victims.”

Campaigners want newspapers to report domestic homicides more responsibly 

Level Up’s guidelines on how outlets should report on domestic violence deaths consist of five main points:

  1. Accountability: Place responsibility solely on the killer, which means avoiding speculative “reasons” or “triggers”, or describing the murder as an uncharacteristic event. Homicides are usually underpinned by a longstanding sense of ownership, coercive control and possessive behaviours: they are not a random event.
  2. Accuracy: Name the crime as domestic violence, instead of “tragedy” or “horror”, and include the National Domestic Violence Helpline at the end of the article: 0808 2000 247.
  3. Dignity: Avoid sensationalising language, invasive or graphic details that compromise the dignity of the dead woman or her surviving family members.
  4. Equality: Avoid insensitive or trivialising language or images
  5. Images: Avoid using stock images that reinforce the myth that it’s only a physical crime.

Level Up has launched a petition to get the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to adopt their guidelines.

“We’re targeting IPSO because they’re in charge of the press standards in the UK, and this is a campaign for better standards when it comes to reporting on domestic violence deaths,” Starling tells stylist.co.uk.

“Ultimately, they’re the one who can hold newspapers to account. At the same time, we would love as many newsrooms as possible to voluntarily adopt these guidelines.”

Stylist is supporting Level Up’s campaign. You can too by signing the petition here

If you or a friend needs help in dealing with domestic abuse, call the Freephone 24-Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 (run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge). Alternatively, visit refuge.org.uk or womensaid.org.uk.

Images: Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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