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November 29, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:48am

‘Mistakes not malice’ responsible for most bad reporting of domestic violence

By Charlotte Tobitt

New training on how to write about domestic abuse and homicide is being offered as most bad reporting has been attributed to “mistakes, not malice”.

Campaign groups Level Up and AVA (Against Violence and Abuse) have created new training with Women in Journalism to help journalists and editors improve reporting of domestic abuse.

The Dignity for Abused Women in the News project will also recruit and train a group of survivors to act as citizen journalists on the subject, sharing their own stories and those of other women.

Donna Covey, chief executive of AVA, told a Women in Journalism panel last week: “This will help show how those stories should be covered and can be covered, they will provide a voice for those women to tell their own and other women’s stories, and we also hope they’ll be a resource for time-strapped journalists who are trying to put stories together.”

Covey said the project will also produce guidance for the domestic abuse sector on how they can use and develop citizen journalism with women they work with as a way of approaching and challenging poor reporting at both local and national level.

“We’re particularly keen to build something on this that looks at local reporting because what women who’ve experienced abuse tell us is that quite often the local paper actually is the stuff that they find most distressing because that’s the stuff that their family and their friends and the people they pass on the street read and if that gives the wrong version of their story, that in many ways, is a harder thing for them to live with,” she said.

Overall, she said she hoped the new online resources for journalists will help stories about domestic abuse and domestic homicide “move the debate on, centre the woman or the survivor, and actually help all of us have a better understanding of societal and structural reasons why this crime is so prevalent”.

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Ryan Hart, whose mother and sister were shot dead by his father in 2016, said he and his brother Luke were faced with “awful” reporting: “What we saw just shock us to the core,” he said.

“We saw articles which complimented our father as a nice guy who was always caring. There was speculation that my mum was having an affair, that that drove my father to murder, that she was after his money and she had malicious intent. And we saw helplines for male suicide charities in the articles – no mention of domestic abuse.

“The whole framing was that a tragedy just happened and the tragedy was that a man had felt so sad he took his own life and Mum and Charlotte were invisible in that narrative.”

But Hart added: “I do know that they weren’t produced with malicious intent. They were not intending to cause this societal damage or perpetuate myths and stereotypes, I think it’s a genuine lack of understanding and time and resources.”

Similarly Sunday Mirror investigations editor Geraldine McKelvie said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the response to focus groups discussing the issue at the Mirror this year.

She said one person told her afterwards they had not realised calling somebody a jilted lover and framing it as a potential reason for a murder could be harmful, and that they would not use the phrase again.

McKelvie said: “It’s through lack of education that these mistakes are made – not malice.

“Obviously, there are always exceptions to every rule. But I genuinely think that if more people can understand the effects of getting it wrong in that respect they will be willing to learn and to change.”

Hart said his father had actually copied and pasted from previous media reports that had defended previous perpetrators and victim-blamed women and children in his murder-suicide note, and used these reports to help himself justify his plans.

But Hart said he had already seen improvements, pointing in particular to interactive maps, sometimes used by the BBC since he and his brother ran a training session with editors, which show how many domestic homicides there have been in the UK and, he said, “completely transformed” the coverage.

“It goes from individual homicides that are unrelated to a societal or countrywide issue so that we can sort of see the scale and I think that’s crucial,” he said.

Janey Starling, Level Up’s campaign director who wrote the Dignity for Dead Women media guidelines backed by press regulators IPSO and Impress, said the training will use the acronym AIDA – accountability, images, dignity and accuracy.

She said headlines should refrain from positioning the death as something that happened after a woman’s actions as fatal domestic abuse never “comes out of the blue” but follows a period of coercive control.

“It’s very common – once you see it, you’ll see it everywhere,” she said. “It’s ‘jealous husband killed wife after dinner out’.”

Megha Mohan, the BBC World Service’s first gender and identity correspondent, similarly warned against phrasing such as a “bullet killed a woman”.

“These are the kinds of headlines and the positioning we have to be careful about when we report on these stories of violence because it plays a small part in positioning the narrative of this wider story,” she said.

Starling added that images should centre the victim and not show them alongside the perpetrator, for example together on holiday, as it is “damaging to romanticise a woman’s death”.

Mohan agreed: “We tell young women not to be a footnote in their life now, and no woman should be a footnote in her own death.

“So when we’re reporting on stories about domestic violence, we don’t need to put a composite image of the perpetrator and the woman he killed right next to each other. That is incredibly jarring as a family member to see that and as a community that loves the woman to see that.”

On dignity, Starling said: “Every woman’s children if she has them will be reading this coverage for years to come and it’s so important that it isn’t graphic, it isn’t sensationalised.”

Finally she added that every death that is reported is “an opportunity to prevent more deaths” and that “one of the most powerful things that journalists can do is name the crime as domestic abuse”. She also pushed for stories to include the national domestic abuse helpline in the same way that articles concerning suicide point readers to the Samaritans.

Starling also raised questions of race, saying when a Muslim woman is killed there is an assumption it had something to do with Islam or that when a black woman is killed her killer is labelled as a monster.

“Where the press do do a good job of holding the perpetrators to account it’s almost always a man of colour… whereas when you see white men who have murdered their wives, they’re always nice guys, or a charity trustee, or he flipped,” she said. “So I think there’s as much deeper questions that the media needs to ask in terms of the criminalisation of men of colour.”

She added that journalists should remember dead women have no right of reply to what their killer has said, and that they should “look deeper into the story… there will always be more, don’t let the urgency of breaking news trump accuracy, and actually a much more informative piece”.

The National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, is on 0808 2000 247.

Picture: Laura Dodsworth

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