Do a quick scan of the headlines and you’re likely to see a few stories about homicide. Statistically speaking, when a woman has been tragically killed, the murderer, if identified, is most likely going to be her spouse.
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But what is her cause of death called out as? Homicide? Domestic dispute? A fatal gunshot wound? Stabbing?
What some advocates would argue is missing from these news reports is one very important term: Domestic violence.
While it’s true a weapon may have taken her life, when a man murders his girlfriend or wife, that victim has often died as a result of relentless and methodical domestic violence. The omission of this phrase is detrimental, say advocates, because it overlooks the epidemic that takes anywhere between 1,800 and 3,500 women’s lives every year, depending on what homicide statistics you look at. Not to mention those survivors who die over time from health issues caused by the fear and stress of the abuser's tactics.
Domestic Dispute vs. Femicide
“This [murder of an intimate partner] wasn’t an isolated incident that happened in the heat of passion—it’s part of something more,” says Tracy Tamborra, associate professor of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven and former director of a domestic violence agency. “There will have been a prior history of coercive and controlling tactics.”
The problem with leaving domestic violence and abuse out of the newspaper articles, the evening news and the current events discussions around the water cooler is that it fails to hold abusers accountable for the totality of their heinous acts. Even worse, says Tamborra, is choosing the phrase “domestic dispute,” as a murder’s cause instead, which has a resounding feel of victim-blaming.
“This is a phrase I have a problem with. A dispute assumes there are two equal parties that have a viable claim for something,” she says, adding that it’s fine in civil litigation, “but when it enters the criminal realm, you do not have two equal parties. You have an aggressor and you have a victim.” She prefers terms like femicide, which is rarely seen in the headlines here, but used freely in other parts of the world. Says Tamborra, press will regularly report murders by spouses as femicide or gender violence, specifically calling out the crime as violence targeted at women.
For example, the Venezuela-based news outlet teleSUR reports police suspect femicide in the death of a Salvadoran doctor, the Toronto Sun uses femicide to describe a deranged man’s killing spree and the Hurriyet Daily News in Turkey reports February of 2018 was one of its highest femicide months in recent history, reporting 47 women were killed.
Meanwhile, NBC News in the U.S. put the term in quotes when a local councilwoman said femicide was the cause of four women’s deaths, implying this may not even be a legitimate term.
Beyond Media Coverage
So we know what media needs to do better, according to advocates, but what about when we’re talking about the murder of victims of domestic violence in general discussions? Is it vital, in order to be an advocate, to use proper language? And what about in an obituary? Is this the space to call out domestic violence or even say someone died of femicide?
“Language is important on a micro and macro level,” says Tamborra. “At the micro level, to be respectful to a victim and victim’s family, you want to capture what happened with as much sensitivity as possible.” This means that speaking to others and writing an obituary are not necessarily the places to make a political statement, unless that is something the family wants to do.”
Laurie Colon’s family felt her publicly accessible obituary was the place to make such a statement, identifying the 37-year-old woman from Wisconsin as a victim of domestic violence in the first line of her memoriam.
“You never know—using strong language in an obituary could be part of the healing process,” Tamborra says. “On the other hand, I would hope the person writing the obit would think about how the victim will be portrayed in death. Many victims work really hard to protect their victimhood identity and you don’t want to strip them of that dignity.”
Media Can Do Better
On the macro level, such as in the press, this is where change can be made, says Tamborra. You can call out the institutional problem of violence against women.
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Still, she says, it’s still important to not sensationalize what happened for the sake of making a point. “I think journalists who write about victims don’t know anything about them and it’s almost voyeuristic.”
Tamborra says those in the media should examine their intentionality of writing.
“Are you trying to titillate the reader, make a political point or capture the trials and tribulations of a particular person? I’ve seen [news] stories in which they’ve said the wife was found with her throat slit, and I think that’s hard for the family to hear over and over again. But maybe the author’s intention is to make a point about how violent violence against women actually is.”
The media—or anyone speaking about domestic violence—can benefit from knowing the right vocabulary around violence against women. Read “Why the Media Needs to Start Using the Right Terms” for more information, or review the Online Guide for Journalists covering domestic violence.
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