A Simple New Move In The Battle Against Domestic Violence

July 1, 2020

Last week’s horrific murder of a Rockhampton mother has seen sections of the media again highlight how much still has to be done to cut domestic violence in Australia, unaware or unwilling to face the fact they could be contributing to the problem.

For years now, numerous expert organisations aimed at alerting the community to the scourge of domestic violence and protecting vulnerable women, have been bolstered by many millions of dollars from governments and charities.

In addition, there have been innumerable creditable media campaigns to bring the scourge of domestic violence into the public eye.

Yet the assaults and killing go on, as we were reminded in the starkest of terms this week with a virtual blow by blow description of the latest murder of the loving mum in front of her three children, allegedly by her estranged partner. 

The Courier Mail quoted a Police Inspector investigating the killing as saying the crime scene “was one of the worst scenes we have seen”. 

The paper went into even more bloody detail before reporting that experts feared the latest tragedy will produce a spike in men threatening to kill and stab their partners.

It then quoted Brisbane Domestic Violence Service and Micah Projects chief executive Karyn Walsh as saying: “It is a trend we see that the more publicity around the details of domestic violence that perpetrators copy those threats and actions towards their partners.

“After the death of a woman we often hear more women are being told that.”

All of which leads to the question as to how much some media contribute to the problem by the way they go over-the-top with graphic detail of how many stab wounds and where etc, in the belief that it is responsible reporting and what their readers and viewers want.

Many would argue that it is neither responsible nor what their readers and viewers want, and by persisting with the sickening blood-and-guts reports, negate a lot of the good work they do in raising awareness of domestic violence.

To overcome this, self-regulating guidelines could be applied when reporting domestic violence, similar to those introduced a decade or so ago to help reduce suicides.

After many years of largely avoiding the suicide issue, there was a turning point in Australia in 2011 as campaigners urged media outlets to alter their advice to journalists reporting suicide.

Subsequently, the Press Council updated its guidelines, as have commercial outlets and the ABC.

They all changed to reflect that change in attitude, not that they should not report suicide, but that they should report it in a positive way where journalists felt there was a story where they could contribute.

The Press Council says, among other things on reporting suicides:

  • The method and location of a suicide should not be described in detail (eg, a particular drug or cliff) unless the public interest in doing so clearly outweighs the risk, if any, of causing further suicides. This applies especially to methods or locations which may not be well known by people contemplating suicide.
  • Reports should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides. They should not inappropriately stigmatise suicides or people involved in them but this does not preclude responsible description or discussion of the impacts, even if they are severely adverse, on people, organisations or communities. Where appropriate, underlying causes such as mental illness should be mentioned.
  • Reports should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images. Great care should be taken to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have attempted suicide or to relatives and other people who have been affected by a suicide or attempted suicide. This requires special sensitivity and moderation in both gathering and reporting news.  

In the UK, The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the largest independent regulator of the newspaper and magazine industry in the country, says a wide body of research evidence shows that media portrayals of suicide, including information published by newspapers and magazines, can influence suicidal behaviour and lead to imitative acts, particularly among vulnerable groups or young people. 

The research shows that overly detailed reporting does not just influence the choice of method of a suicide, but can lead to additional deaths which would otherwise not have occurred.

Last year, in a position statement, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), said it considered responsible media reporting to be an integral aspect of suicide prevention and encourages ongoing collaboration, research and leadership to ensure appropriate reporting of suicide in Australian and New Zealand. 

There is a robust body of scientific evidence that establishes that the way suicide deaths are reported in the media can impact suicidal behaviour in the community, the RANZCP said.

“This impact can manifest through increased suicide deaths, attempts and/or rates of ideation.”