Again and again, media outlets report on sexual and domestic violence in terms that either sensationalise and romanticise crimes or implicitly blame victims for their own attacks.
“Husband jailed after he ‘snapped’ and smothered ‘nagging’ wife to death with pillow”.
“Atlanta spa shootings: Suspect had sex addiction and was attempting to take out temptation, police say”.
“Hen-pecked husband killed wife who called him ‘limp and useless’ over his erectile dysfunction”.
“BBQ Dad ‘killed six over wife’s affair’”.
“Wife jibes about penis size and lesbian tryst ‘drove hubby to murder’”.
“Life for husband driven to double murder by jealousy”.
These headlines are not relics of the past. Most are from the last few years. Earlier this month, a man who had murdered his ex-partner by stabbing her repeatedly and then left her bleeding to death while he went to the pub was described like this in a mainstream newspaper headline: “Scorned toyboy murderer jailed for 17 years for slicing his ex-lover’s throat was star at his local tennis club”.
The article read: “Yesterday, Jessop, from Newark, Notts, was jailed for life with a minimum term of 17 years and eight months at Nottinghamshire Crown Court following the ‘persistent and brutal’ attack. Now the killer’s prowess at a very different kind of court has come to light after photos emerged of him playing for Newark Tennis Club.”
Just a few days ago, a local US newspaper ran an obituary for a man accused of shooting dead his wife, five children and mother-in law before taking his own life. The obituary described him as a man who “lived a life of service”, “excelled at everything he did” and “made it a point to spend quality time with” his “cherished children”.
Over the last decade, we have seen even the most high-profile cases covered in this way in national and international media. An extensive New York Times profile of Elliot Rodger, written by four men and published little over a week after his misogynistic Santa Barbara massacre, was illustrated with a sepia photograph of an angelic-looking Rodger in the fifth grade. In a series of quotes from people who knew him, Rodger was variously described as “smart”, “liked” and “very innocent, very soft-spoken”. The piece even quoted passages from Rodger’s manifesto about being bullied at school, but failed to mention that in the same manifesto he had described women as “beasts,” “twisted” and “the ultimate evil” and argued that they should have all rights removed. The words “sexism”, “misogyny”, “extremism” or “terrorism” are never used.
In the UK, an article about Lance Hart’s murder of his wife and daughter read: “Of course, such men are often motivated by anger and a desire to punish the spouse. But, while killing their partner as an act of revenge may be understandable, for a man to kill his children (who are innocent bystanders in a marital breakdown) is a very different matter. I believe it is often a twisted act of love, as the man crassly believes that the crisis in their lives is so great that the children would be better off dead.”
The use of the words “of course” and “understandable” to describe a man’s murder of his wife, and the term “act of love” to describe the killing of his own child, is symptomatic of how far into victim-blaming our news coverage of domestic violence has spiralled.