Last week, Australia was shocked by the news that Borce Ristevski, who confessed to killing his wife Karen, was sentenced to a meagre 9 years in jail, serving “at least” six before he is eligible for parole. “We didn’t get justice,” Karen’s brother Steve Wiliams said outside the court.
And then, within hours, many Australians were not shocked to see one of the variations of problematic headlines that so often accompany media reporting of Australia’s epidemic of domestic violence (on average, one woman a week is killed by her current or former partner) appear: “What drove Borce Ristevski to kill his wife,” asked the Herald Sun.
I say not shocked because headlines of this nature accompany media reports of domestic violence on a fairly regular basis: 14.8 % of the time, to be precise, according to research into media representations of violence against women conducted by ANROWS and Our Watch.
The research found that 14.8% of reporting of incidents of domestic violence offer “excuses’ for the perpetrators, those mythical things that “drive” men to perpetrate such horrific crimes. Other chestnuts in this genre include odes to the “good bloke” who “snapped” or the wayward woman whose behaviours provoked an otherwise model citizen to act “out of character”.
At least the perpetrator is present in these iterations, no small thing given the same research found perpetrators are “invisible” in nearly 60% of domestic violence reporting. A classic example: the axe that killed a woman. Who might have been wielding that axe, you ask? A trifle.
Fortunately, the national debate around domestic violence and our understanding of the role of the media in helping to shape that debate has now evolved to a point where many were quick to call it out on social media. And it is right that they did, as this kind of thing is not without consequences. In fact, it is incredibly damaging.
To illustrate that point, also last week, perhaps presciently, a new video produced by Our Watch made the rounds on social media. It features a number of Our Watch ambassadors who have lost loved ones to domestic violence talking about the impact media reporting of this kind has had on them personally and the missed opportunity it represents to educate the public about an important issue.
I defy any journalist who carries the responsibility of telling these stories with care – and it is a great responsibility – to watch this video and not be inspired to just do better.
The point they make about the missed opportunity to educate the public is a good one. When the media go down the cul-de-sac of searching for meaning in these kinds of excuses for the perpetrator or other common domestic violence myths and victim blaming, they begrudge us all the opportunity to understand what really “drives” these horrific crimes, and, thereby, prevent them.
The weight of international evidence brought together in Our Watch’s landmark violence prevention framework, Change the Story, tells us it is gender inequality, particularly the condoning of violence against women, men’s control of decision making and limits on women’s independence, stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity and disrespect towards women and male peer relations that emphasise aggression.
If we really want to know what “drove” Ristevski to choose to use violence in this way, and it was a choice, it is in this research, not sensationalistic headlines, that we can begin to search for answers.
Fortunately, headlines and reporting of this kind, I believe, are decreasing in frequency as more in the media heed the advice of domestic violence experts and survivor advocates.
Last month, Our Watch published new reporting guidelines to aid them in that endeavour. In the UK, the domestic violence campaign group Level Up scored a major victory last week when they persuaded the UK’s press regular to publish its guidelines developed in consultation with experts and survivors.
Level Up’s campaign was supported by Luke and Ryan Hart, whose estranged father murdered their mother and sister in 2016 four days after the family left him. Both brothers were shocked to see media reports describing their father, who had a history of controlling behaviour and abuse, as “always caring” and “a nice guy” – the media also speculated that the prospect of divorce “drove” him to murder.
Even more disturbingly, the brothers found that their father, who meticulously planned the murders (as almost all do), had googled articles about men who murder their wives in the weeks preceding the crime. Did similar patterns of reporting embolden him, they wondered? Did he commit murder knowing he could exercise the ultimate act of power and control by controlling the media narrative that followed, which would almost certainly cast him in the best possible light?
In the days after the Ristevsi sentencing, many, rightly, expressed concerns about the message such a short sentence was sending to would be domestic violence perpetrators and what it said about the value our society, more broadly, places on a woman’s life.
It’s also high time we asked what message we have been sending would be perpetrators for far too long in the way these crimes have been reported.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica