Telling the true story

Journalism has precious few tools to express uncertainty, or unknowing. There is little room for nuance in a headline, but the need for brevity doesn’t warrant absolution.

Too often we grasp for blunt instruments and hope that readers will fill in the blanks.

It’s a failure felt most keenly in the reporting of family violence.

Convention falls away. The perpetrator’s culpability is diluted. Stories slip into the passive voice, so dreaded in any other coverage.

Even in the construction of the oft-cited official statistic, the killer is backgrounded: “One woman every week is killed by a current or former partner.”

The fear of destroying an individual’s reputation is a valid impulse, sharpened by our country’s defamation laws. Covering fast-moving tragedies is hard when the ground beneath you is constantly shifting. The facts are not always clear.

But this week, a father doused his wife and three young children with petrol and set them on fire while they sat in a car before he stabbed himself to death. The children – Aaliyah, Laianah, Trey – died at the scene; their mother, Hannah Clarke, died in hospital later that day.

“The woman succumbed to her injuries at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital early this evening,” police said in a statement.

It’s telling that in this case, even when the perpetrator was dead, even when there was no defamation risk, his complicity was hidden.

“Ex-NRL star Rowan Baxter dies alongside three kids in Brisbane car fire tragedy.”

Somehow, time and again, the media’s fear of laying blame in a domestic violence death outweighs the fear of misreporting what has actually happened.

Men who kill their partners are still portrayed as loyal husbands who just “snapped”, loving fathers who were driven over the edge by acute stressors. These were “volatile relationships”. Unnamed neighbours are quoted: “She gave as good as she got.”

The flood of criticism that came in response to the coverage of Rowan Baxter’s crime only served to further betray the thoughtlessness with which the media approaches stories of domestic violence.

Headlines changed; stories were quickly updated.

Clearly the knowledge needed to better cover domestic violence isn’t unknowable. Groups such as Our Watch have created dot-point guides for the media, and those guides hang in many newsrooms around the country. There is an entire sector of advocates on hand to try to help.

Because they know that the media is complicit in the way our society reads and understands family violence. They know it isn’t “just semantics” to argue about language choice in these stories. They know that this reporting, when done well, can be the catalyst for a woman in a violent relationship to seek help.

If the media has any obligation to those killed by their partners and parents, it is to tell their stories accurately.

That is the work.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

Lifeline 13 11 14

Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 22, 2020 as "Telling the true story".

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