Less than a month after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic and Europe its new epicentre, the United Nations (UN) was already warning of another worldwide public health emergency.
In early April, as governments around the world put social distancing measures in place in a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, issued a statement highlighting the rise of a “shadow pandemic”. Flagging the rise in domestic violence reports in countries which had effectively quarantined their populations, Mlambo-Ngcuka warned of a perfect storm facing women in abusive relationships, trapped in isolation with violent and controlling partners while domestic violence shelters struggled to cope with the increasing demand for their services.
Almost as predictable as this grim figure, though, have been the instances of irresponsible journalism positioning the virus as, at worst, a cause of and, at best, a mitigating factor in men’s violence against women. Reading some media reports, one could be forgiven for thinking that there was something within the structure of the virus itself, some mysterious trigger that only activates in male hosts, turning previously loving partners into violent abusers. All too frequently, the language and framing used in articles reporting on the deaths of women in alleged domestic killings have had the effect of attributing at least some of the blame to Covid-19, in the process shifting responsibility away from violent and abusive men.
The report was also at pains to point out that the couple had been “happily married” for 44 years, implying that a husband’s alleged murder of his wife might be written off as a blip in an otherwise blissful relationship and reinforcing the idea that the coronavirus lockdown caused an otherwise non-violent man to become suddenly violent. On the contrary, as Monkton-Smith’s research shows, men who murder their partners typically travel through eight stages of escalating abuse beforehand: from the perpetrator having a history of abuse, to the relationship becoming dominated by coercive control, to a trigger and escalation.
The tendency to foreground male perpetrators and ignore female victims is a persistent trope in media representation of violence against women
While it’s understandable that a neighbour who had only ever experienced the friendly, accommodating side of Alan Smith would be at a loss to explain his alleged actions, the inclusion of these comments without any contextual information from domestic violence organisations (to highlight the prevalence and underlying patterns of violence against women, for example) implies that he was an otherwise ‘good’ man who simply snapped under stress.
Reporting on the same case, The Daily Mail ran a headline that positioned Alan Smith as the victim of his own crime: “Retired painter and decorator, 71, struggling with lockdown stabbed wife to death then killed himself in latest coronavirus killings”. In a single sentence, the report not only employs lockdown as a mitigating factor in Smith’s actions, but in naming his former profession, gives him a persona and status which is denied his victim. Where we learn something of Alan Smith’s background and the “worries” the article suggests drove him to murder, nowhere in the report do we get any insight into Elsie as an individual; she is just Alan Smith’s wife and, ultimately, victim. The tendency to foreground male perpetrators and ignore female victims is a persistent trope in media representation of violence against women. At its most egregious, it has elevated serial killers of women such as Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy to practically celebrity status, erasing the names and real lives of their victims from coverage of their crimes.
In the case of Robert Needham, who was said at an inquest to have shot and killed his partner Kelly Fitzgibbons and young daughters Ava and Lexi before killing himself around 29 March, 2020, The Daily Mail reported that “it is understood the builder had been suffering serious financial difficulties in the lockdown after he was forced to wind-up his building company in October last year”. Once more, readers are invited to sympathise with the perpetrator and to imagine the seemingly intolerable stress that drove him to murder his partner and two children rather than the terror of his victims, without mentioning the potential history of abuse inflicted upon them. Conspicuous by its absence, again, is any input from a domestic violence professional, encouraging us to question what sense of ownership and entitlement leads men like Alan Smith and Robert Needham to take the lives of their partners and children along with their own, or ask why women suffering from stress are not driven to murder their male partners at the same rate.
By framing violence in the context of extenuating circumstances or treating cases as isolated incidents, failing to address the persistent patterns of gender inequality which are both a cause and a consequence of violence against women, such reporting works to reinforce the myths and stereotypes that perpetuate it, including in the minds of abusers, victims and potential jurors
If such instances of irresponsible coverage of violence against women in the media were an aberration, another unforeseen circumstance of the strange and unusual times in which we currently find ourselves, they could be consigned to history in the same way as the virus will, hopefully, someday be. Unfortunately, examples of poor reporting which serve to normalise the abuse and murder of women at the hands of men significantly predate the current crisis and will undoubtedly outlast it. By framing violence in the context of extenuating circumstances or treating cases as isolated incidents, failing to address the persistent patterns of gender inequality which are both a cause and a consequence of violence against women, such reporting works to reinforce the myths and stereotypes that perpetuate it, including in the minds of abusers, victims and potential jurors.
On the other hand, responsible reporting can confront the myths that sustain abuse and shine a light on the systemic gender inequality that underpins it by giving due care and attention to the complexity and continuum of gender-based violence. The media can and should play a key role in highlighting the endemic nature of violence against women, forcing society to question and address the wider inequalities that sustain it.
Support for journalists is out there. The Scottish charity Zero Tolerance, which works to end violence against women, offers a range of advice and resources for writers reporting on gender-based violence, including a media guide, statistics, images, a list of expert organisations available for media comment and a guide to interviewing victim-survivors. They also run the Write to End Violence Against Women Awards which recognise journalists who do get it right, rewarding writers in Scotland who raise awareness of gender-based violence in a responsible and sensitive way. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) also has a set of guidelines for journalists reporting on violence against women.
Simply reporting on domestic violence is not enough, if such reports serve to undercut the efforts of organisations working to raise awareness of its causes and consequences and support its victims. Articles that reinforce harmful tropes and myths work to uphold a patriarchal understanding of gender-based violence that allows it to continue. It’s a terrible fact that more women will die at the hands of men during and beyond lockdown, but journalists have the power and responsibility to be part of the solution to gender-based violence rather than the problem. Instead of the coronavirus becoming the latest excuse for domestic abusers, let’s hope that better reporting will enable a light to be shone on the systemic inequalities that perpetuate violence against women.
Image used with permission from Lucy Dodsworth in partnership with Zero Tolerance. The image shows a woman with curly hair looking concernedly away from the camera. She is holding a little boy whose back is to the camera.