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Michael Bradley

When a woman is murdered, the media owes her far more than myth-making

Two weeks into the new year and two Australian women are dead at the hands of their intimate male partners.

In 2022, the Counting Dead Women project, which counts the number of Australian women who have died “due to violence against women” tallied 55 women for the year, up from 43 the previous year. While state and federal governments pour millions of dollars into national strategies to combat violence against women, the number of women dying violently is not going down.

But why? This is a question the media ask with hand-wringing concern. What is it that’s making things worse, not better?

On Monday, Sydney woman Dayna Isaac became 2022’s second casualty. Her boyfriend has been charged with her murder. The Sydney Morning Herald chose to report Isaac’s death with this headline: “Woman dead after recent romance with friend turned violent, police say.”

The opening sentence read: “A woman is dead after her recent romance turned fatally violent at an apartment in Sydney’s western suburbs on Monday afternoon, police say.”

Who killed Isaac? According to the SMH, a creature called “recent romance” killed her. What is missing from the headline and opening description of the alleged murder? Any mention of an alleged murderer. 

In fairness to the journalists, let me add what one of them said when we tweeted the headline and made the point that the victim had apparently been killed by recent romance. She replied: “no charges had even been laid yet but go off clowns”.

True, when the original article was published on Tuesday, the alleged killer had not been charged (he was later that day).

Evidently, the journalist saw no problem with how the story was reported (yes, I know headlines are often written by subeditors), and was pretty unhappy that it had been even mildly queried.

The fact that nobody had yet been charged over Isaac’s death is, however, entirely beside the point. Yes, it could not be reported that she had been murdered, and still cannot because the matter is now sub judice. What or who caused her death, and whether anyone is criminally responsible, is a matter for the courts.

But one thing was certain from the outset — whatever killed Isaac, it wasn’t “recent romance”.

Either you see the problem here, or you are part of the problem.

There has been an increasing focus in recent years on the ways in which the media report violence and sexual violence against women, particularly since Jane Gilmore’s book Fixed It: Violence and Representation of Women in the Media was published in 2019. 

Gilmore’s thesis was that “victim blaming, passive voice and over-identification with abusers continue to be hallmarks of reporting on this issue”. She set out to expose the myths “that we’re unconsciously sold about violence against women”.

Gilmore continues to campaign, in part, by “fixing” headlines. For example, on December 28, The Daily Telegraph in Sydney published a headline that referred to the “dating app death of Dannielle Finlay-Jones”. On her website, Gilmore corrected this wording to the literally accurate “Man with a history of violence was arrested for allegedly murdering Dannielle Finlay-Jones”.

Also in 2019, Our Watch published a set of guidelines on how to report on violence against women and their children. They emphasise simple critical rules that any reporting should follow, including explicitly naming the act (such as “rape” or “murder”); using active language to emphasise that a person perpetrated the act (“man punches woman” rather than “woman punched”); and avoiding sensationalist or trivialising descriptions.

Our Watch also gives real-life examples. A headline that had read “Presumed gang-raped victim had consumed too much alcohol” should have been rendered “Three adult men accused of gang-raping teenage girl”.

So there’s no shortage of material out there attempting to educate journalists and editors on how they should be reporting this epidemic of gendered violence. If they do break the commonsense rules that would achieve the social purposes of telling us exactly what has happened and focusing our attention on what is relevant, then they are making that choice consciously and with intent.

When the SMH decided to report Isaac’s death so as to imply that the key point of relevance was that the victim had been involved in a romantic relationship that had turned violent, it elected to promote the persistent myth that women who are killed by intimate male partners are co-contributors to the cause of their own deaths. That, somehow, they share in the responsibility for what happened to them.

The consequence of this myth-making is that we are given licence to minimise the act. This is not a classic “murder”, the innocent victim of a monster. This is something else, something we don’t need to worry about so much because it couldn’t happen in our own homes.

By these means our society finds its way clear to continuing to tolerate the intolerable: that on average, each week, one woman dies violently at the hands of a man known to her. By tolerating it, we excuse it and enable it.

But apparently if you dare point this out, you’re a clown.

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