Why does the media fail to hold violent men to account?

Headlines often focus on the perceived faults of the women killed by men, and never on the real issue – male violence.

A supporter of Oscar Pistorius stands outside the North Gauteng High Court on July 6, 2016 in Pretoria, South Africa. Pistorius was convicted of killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at their home in 2013 [Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images]

Claire Parry was strangled to death by Timothy Brehmer, 41, in a UK car park in May this year. Claire was a nurse who helped many people in a career of over 20 years. She was killed by a man who wanted to silence her. A loving family member and a doting mother, Claire, 41, leaves behind two young children.

That is how Claire Parry’s death should have been reported. Instead, UK headlines read: “Woman strangled by PC lover plotted his downfall” (BBC News ); and “Accused said he’s ‘not a bad person'” (Bournemouth Echo).

Following a fervent public backlash, the BBC changed its headline. Public complaints about it were reviewed by the broadcaster’s Newswatch programme, where the editors addressed readers’ opinions, stating that the “headline included a quote that was read out in court as evidence”.

Parry and Brehmer – a former police officer – were having a long-term affair. On the day of the killing, Parry took hold of his phone before sending a text message to Brehmer’s wife revealing their relationship. Brehmer said he had strangled her during a “kerfuffle” in his car. He admitted manslaughter, but was acquitted of murder in October, and sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison.

This is the latest in a string of reports in the UK this year that have led to outrage from domestic abuse charities and campaigners like myself about how the media reports fatal domestic abuse, where reports victim-blame dead women and skirt the cause: male violence. The stories beneath these headlines focus on the actions of the victim that lead to the killing and proceed to eulogise the good character of the perpetrator who is apologetic for his actions.

Around the world, as cities and nations have gone into lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19, victims of domestic abuse have been put at risk. Trapped at home with their abusers, reports to domestic violence services have started to flood in. Brazil, France, China and the UK reported increases in calls for help at above 60 percent. At the height of the lockdown in April, three women were being killed each week in the UK.

The pandemic has shone a light on the experiences of victims of domestic abuse but also exposed the media’s long-held reluctance to name male violence as the cause. In April, one such headline in the UK’s Daily Mail went as far as to label the lockdown as a reason for the killing: “Retired decorator, 71, struggling with lockdown stabbed wife to death then killed himself in coronavirus killings.”

Ensuring the narrative of fatal domestic abuse is reported responsibly and male violence is named is something I have personally advocated for in my work as a domestic abuse campaigner. Last year, I campaigned to free my mother, Sally Challen, in a landmark court case that recognised the lifelong coercive control she had suffered from my father. We argued that the abuse she experienced had led to a loss of control that resulted in her killing him. Her conviction was quashed and she was later convicted of manslaughter and released, after serving almost a decade in prison.

Our campaign not only sought to recognise the abuse my mother suffered but to rewrite the false and harmful media narratives at the time of the original trial in 2010 that depicted her as a “jealous wife”. For myself, it was essential to name male violence as a contributing factor.

In Bangladesh, sexual assault and rapes cases have surged in recent months to as many as 630 recorded cases between April and August. These figures sparked thousands to take to the streets to protest and to call on the authorities to take action. A core issue with tackling this violence is the cultural taboo and inability to name male violence as the cause, a problem exacerbated by a victim-blaming culture across society that instead chooses to ask what a woman was wearing.

The media’s failure to responsibly recognise male violence in stories of violence against women has a devastating effect not only on victims but their families. In 2012 Sarah Gosling, 41, was fatally stabbed with a kitchen knife by her boyfriend, Ian Hope, 53. The UK media reporting at the time gave prominence to the killer’s voice, something Sarah’s brother, Andrew Bernard, found difficult to understand, looking back. Bernard, who now teaches teenagers about domestic abuse, said: “A person who is a defendant in a murder or manslaughter trial is already ahead because they’re here. They have the opportunity to put their side of the case.”

This was highlighted recently when the BBC was forced to remove and apologise for releasing a trailer for its upcoming documentary series The Trials of Oscar Pistorius after it failed even to name Reeva Steenkamp, the 29-year-old woman Pistorius was convicted of killing in 2014. Instead, the two-minute trailer and press release gave voice and focus to the killer, Pistorius, hailing his story as “remarkable” and his achievements “inspirational”. June Steenkamp, Reeva’s mother, expressed her upset at the film which gave him a platform and said she was “disturbed by no one saying anything about my daughter. She was the one who died … her life was worth everything.”

Perpetrators’ voices have overwhelmingly become the commanding voice in stories of male violence, something newsroom editors must recognise and stop giving prominence to.

In an effort to tackle this, UK feminist organisation Level Up successfully developed media guidelines to help combat undignified reports of fatal domestic abuse. Adopted last year by the UK’s two leading press regulators, IPSO and IMPRESS, they have offered an important framework for responsible reporting on fatal domestic abuse. Janey Starling, campaign director of Level Up, now offers hope to the media who have the power to responsibly report male violence.

“Journalists have the power to drastically reduce the number of women killed, but only if they start changing the framing of these deaths,” she said. “Dignity for the victim must be central to any reporting on fatal domestic abuse, and perpetrators should be held accountable for their actions. Don’t seek to frame a murder based on a woman’s actions that supposedly triggered it.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.