Putting Victims on Trial

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Our media needs to look at the choices it makes when reporting on domestic abuse homicides.  Reading the coverage of the trial of James McDonald who murdered his estranged wife Sophie in Dawlish, Devon, I’ve found out much more about Sophie’s private life then is relevant.  Unless she was the one on trial for murder, it’s hard to see, for example, what relevance it is that she was attending AA.

By choosing to spend column space detailing what the victim did or didn’t do rather than on the perpetrator’s actions, journalists shift the blame onto the victim.  I feel like I’m back in my Probation service job listening to an offender who’s trying to shift the responsibility on other people.

Journalists have a responsibility to think about the impression they create for the reader.  If you detail a victim’s private life, the average reader will assume that’s relevant to what happened. The reader is encouraged to draw a causal link between the victim’s behaviour and the perpetrator’s decision to kill.  This is not the case when the media reports on stranger homicides, but we also see it in the reporting of rapes and sexual assaults.  It’s unfair on victims and their families.

If journalists report the excuses a perpetrator has made for their violence, then they should be careful to highlight that this is what it is; the excuses of someone trying to mitigate the sentence they will receive. It is not a rational, acceptable explanation for their violence and sometimes this is not at all clear in the reporting.  Nothing the victim did or didn’t do makes murder acceptable.

But better still, journalists would instead focus on what we know about the perpetrator and would make links to the warning signs of highly controlling, jealous and abusive partners who go on to murder.  They’d make the link to the hundreds of women who are murdered each year in this country at the hands of partners or ex partners, many at the point of separation like Sophie.

And they’d make sure that they publish helpline numbers to domestic abuse services such as Women’s Aid.  Groups such as Media Reporting Standards for Domestic Abuse are  and Everyday Victim Blaming are doing a great job of collating examples of poor reporting and highlighting what needs to change.

Otherwise the media ends up putting victims on trial and they, and their families, deserve better.

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