For Tougher Press Guidelines On Covering Domestic Abuse

Why the press regulator should create new guidelines similar to those used when covering suicides

The Editors’ Code of Practice Committee should consider laying down stricter guidelines on how journalists cover domestic abuse. These should be similar to the current Clause 5 of the Editors’ Code that stipulates responsible reporting of suicide in order to prevent copycat deaths.

The research of Lundy Bancroft, a psychologist who specialises in domestic abuse, suggests the more abusers are able — and enabled — to rationalise their abuse and shift the blame of their abuse onto their partners, the more likely they are to continue to abuse and eventually kill their partners.

Yet several articles I’ve seen in the UK Press recently covering stories of domestic abuse have led with the very rationale that the abusers used to kill their wives and ex-wives. Not just reporting it but actually emphasizing it.

Here are just two of many examples:

Husband who “just flipped” and strangled his wife during lockdown found not guilty of murder

https://twitter.com/BBCNews/status/1361301582105645061

This article on Mail Online:

‘Made my kids turn their backs on me’: Chilling last Facebook post of estranged husband, 40, who knifed his NHS worker ex, 39, and her daughter, 24, to death before dying in crash in ‘double murder-suicide’

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9227763/Three-dead-Kilmarnock-night-chaos-Woman-39-dies-hospital-injured-car-park.html

Headlines like these imply the attackers have a good reason or a legitimate justification to kill their partners. How can it be right that we know the murderer’s specious rationale for their behaviour before we’ve even been told the victim’s name?

There are two main problems with the current way the Press covers domestic abuse. The first is the lionisation of abusers.

This usually comes in the form of quotations from people who know them — but who obviously wouldn’t have known the extent of the abuse as abusers never beat their wives and children in public — who are struggling to marry their own impressions of the person they knew with the heinous crimes they have committed.

This type of copy often reads like so, with glowing epithets about the abuser:

Neighbours described John Smith as a ‘model citizen’ and a ‘loving husband and father’ before he brutally hacked his wife and children to death with a machete.

Instead this copy should be stripped down the purely factual and read:

John Smith brutally hacked his wife and children to death with a machete.

I don’t know why journalists feel the need to write utter nonsense fanfiction about domestic abusers and yet, time and time again, I see men who have murdered their wives and children described as ‘model citizens’, ‘doting fathers’ and ‘pillars of the community’ even though their very actions prove this was never the case.

The second problem is the use of the abuser’s own rationale for domestic abuse, implying the victim was somehow to blame or ‘had it coming’. For example:

Before murdering his ex-wife at her place of work, John Smith posted on Facebook how she had ‘turned his children against him’ and ‘left him for another man’.

Instead this copy should read:

John Smith murdered his ex-wife at her place of work.

The way domestic abuse is currently covered makes it more sociably acceptable and more likely to happen. It portrays abusers as likeable people who ‘just snapped’ or ‘loving husbands and fathers’ who just lost their tempers one day when we know that abuse builds slowly for years.

It also traps abuse victims in their relationships, unable to leave these supposed ‘model citizens’ who are beating them black and blue behind closed doors. It implies women are somehow to blame for their abuse when, in fact, abusers tend to abuse because they enjoy it and makes them feel powerful.

The Press are complicitly enabling domestic abuse and this must stop.

It is for this reason, the Editor’s Code should be changed to provide guidelines on how journalists cover domestic abuse in a similar way to how IPSO enforces guidelines on how journalists should treat their coverage of suicide. With more emphasis on the facts of the case and less emphasis on the gory details and the abuser’s rationale for their abhorrent actions.

Thank you for reading — I hope you found my thoughts interesting. You can find me on Twitter: @Sayde_Scarlett

Artist by day; author and neo-decadent poet by night.