I was chatting to Sharon Bryan our Head of Partnerships & Development of Domestic Abuse Services the other day about the tragic news of the 26-year-old woman and her 9-year-old son, who were found murdered in Louth, Lincolnshire (31st May 2021).
The conversation drifted into the terminology used by the press to describe murders that are a result of domestic abuse and violence, I will let her sum up her thoughts below:
“I was yet again left feeling very frustrated at the lack of clarity into what this murder was! It was domestic abuse related – a Domestic Homicide. I knew that even before the media said that it was the woman’s ex-partner. How did I know that? Because I read articles like this every day.
To those of us that work in the field of domestic abuse and violence, we can read between the lines of these articles and know that these are yet more women and children that have lost their lives to violent and abusive partners and ex partners. But it is not us that need to know! It is the general public – and the media generally do a poor job of cultivating an understanding of domestic abuse and violence among the public.
The media calls such an incident a ‘murder’ or a ‘fatal assault’ or ‘stabbing ‘– alongside suitable adjectives such as ‘horror’ or ‘sick’ and the like and without any reference to the context. If the perpetrator is not found immediately the public may be exhorted to look out for – and avoid – a man who is armed and dangerous.
‘Murder’ of course could equally well refer to a terrorist incident, the result of an armed break-in or a contract killing.
All the while, the main reason for, the main cause of, these particular tragedies is wholly ignored.
NCDV’s mission is to make domestic abuse and violence socially unacceptable. But, how can we begin to do that when it could be argued that the way in which the media represents domestic abuse constitutes a patriarchal ideology, which skews the issue of domestic abuse and the underlying societal norms that this creates.
Why are the words ‘domestic abuse’ not used in the media when reporting on women and children that are murdered by ex-partners?
Surely, to truly raise awareness of male violence against women, it needs to be named. To most of the population, domestic abuse is still something that happens to other people, never to them or to their families or friends, so they don’t need to think about it! If the media were to include these two words in their articles about women that have been murdered by their partners and/or their ex-partners, the general public would be reading these words on average twice a week as we know that on average 2 women a week are killed in the UK by their partners or former partners, although this figure has been higher during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
Of course, this is not just a problem in the UK. Domestic abuse is reported in very different ways in many other countries. ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) have very good editorial guidance around the ‘do’s and don’ts’ when reporting on domestic abuse – https://edpols.abc.net.au/guidance/domestic-violence/ – for example:
- Name it! Use clear language that names the abuse for what it is.
- Use active language that doesn’t reduce the severity of the offence – for instance, ‘man assaults wife’ instead of ‘woman assaulted’.
- Include support details at the end of every story where practicable.
The media can play a vital role in the prevention of men’s violence against women, but not without paying particular attention to the way in which it represents the issue. Domestic abuse is not a random, isolated act of violence or abuse. It is a misuse of power and a pattern of abusive and controlling behavior, and the failure to frame an incident of domestic abuse as the systemic issue that it is, can lead to the seriousness of the issue being distorted and watered down. Journalists and editors need to be more aware of the complexities surrounding domestic abuse and work to provide more context on what is not an isolated act of violence but a systemic failing of our society.
Domestic murder or domestic homicide are the correct characterisations for these sad events. I would go so far as to say that if we cannot categorise something, we cannot name it. If we cannot name it, we cannot deal with it appropriately or, in other words, accord it the social priority, effort and funding that it merits.
Domestic abuse and actual domestic violence have been with us for countless millennia but finally, perhaps, we have a chance to stop this blight on our civilisation by calling it out by its proper name.”
I think Sharon has raised an excellent point.