Dear Media: Stop Calling Domestic Murderers ‘Good Blokes’

Domestic violence is a significant problem in Australia. And yet, when you open a newspaper to read about these murders of women or children by men, the perpetrators are almost always described as being a ‘good bloke’ or a ‘friendly guy’ by the media. Enough is enough. Media assertions of murderers being ‘good blokes’ is not only inaccurate, it is also damaging, because the media is not holding perpetrators responsible for their actions, and is blaming the violence on the victim (Gillespie, Richards, Givens & Smith, 2013).

There is a murder of a woman by a partner at a rate of nearly two a week, according to the National Foundation for Australia Women (NFAW). Van Krieken et al., (2016) say there is a clear pattern when it comes to domestic violence in Australia—men are the perpetrators and women overwhelmingly the victims (p. 112). According to NFAW, 80 women were murdered by their domestic partner in 2015, 71 in 2016, and 20 lives have been taken in 2017 so far, with 80 per cent the result of domestic violence. The story is similar globally. According to Ben-Zeev (2014), about 40 per cent of all female murder victims die at the hands of a former or present spouse or lover globally.

The stats are there, and the pattern is clear. Yet almost every time the Australian media reports on the tragic consequences of domestic violence, the murderer is described as being some derivative of a ‘good bloke’. As Wozniak and McCloskey noted in 2010, by portraying the perpetrator this way, the media leads the public to believe the victim was complicit, or caused her own victimisation, and this reduces the perpetrator’s responsibility (p. 936). Various US studies undertaken into media reporting of domestic violence found almost half the articles excused perpetrator behaviour, 17 per cent included victim-blaming language, and 20 per cent used positive perpetrator descriptors, such as ‘nice’ or ‘well-liked’ (Wozniak and McCloskey, 2010, p. 936). Click on a news story in Australia, and the problem is worse. Almost without exception, perpetrators of violent domestic murders are described using positive language.

The ABC, when reporting on a father who drove himself and his two children off a wharf in 2016, described the murderer as “a top bloke and someone who was always ready to help others.” In the same report, the perpetrator was also described as “respected and well-liked and had been heavily involved in the football community” and “You couldn’t have asked for a better bloke”.

Msn, when reporting on the murder of a woman and her mother, described the perpetrator–and one victim’s partner–in the opening paragraph of the article as a “good guy”. They went on to report he was “just a good guy” who seemed like a “normal everyday person”.

In April this year, The Courier Mail described a man who murdered his wife as “a regular, decent bloke” and “just your average bloke”. Cue The Border Mail, also in April this year, giving a character reference to another domestic murderer: “To say this was out of character for him is an understatement”. The Sydney Morning Herald, in October last year, described a man who had just murdered his wife as “friendly to everyone”.

By describing these murderers as ‘good blokes’, the media is actively condoning domestic murder. And it gets worse. Not only is the media condoning domestic violence, it is also, through use of certain language, implicating women as complicit in their own deaths. Because what else would drive a ‘good guy’ to murder, other than a woman who asked for it? In a shocking display of murder justification, The Daily Telegraph, when reporting on yet another domestic murder this year, ran as its lead paragraph: “A man accused of stabbing his wife of five years to death had just found out she was having an affair.”

What the media says matters. Van Krieken at al. (2016) state what is perceived as criminal behaviour is not set by authorities. Rather, it is socially constructed and dependent on the values and norms of the society we live in (p. 362.). The media plays a large role in how people understand societal problems, especially crime (Wozniak & McCloskey, 2010, p. 937), and in modern society, the media is a primary source of information about crime and violence, and shapes societal views of morality (p. 938.). Keller (2002) agrees the media provides material for modelling thought and behaviour (p. 1). If crime is dependent on a community’s notions of right and wrong, and the media plays a central role in what is seen as acceptable (Van Krieken et al., 2016, p. 363), then Australia has a problem. As Gillespie et al. (2013) assert, issues are acknowledged when they are framed as being a larger social problem, and the media plays a vital role in constructing such problems.

The continual use of positive language by Australian media to describe domestic murderers is, at best, normalising domestic violence and, at worse, condoning it and blaming the victims. It is time the media took responsibility for their language. As Gillespie et al. (2013) point out, the media drastically influences public opinion, and how the media chooses to frame domestic violence has important ramifications and influences how society perceives violence. Carlyle, Scarduzio and Slater (2014) agree when they say an important component of designing prevention programs is how media portrayals of issues influence public opinion (p. 2394). It is therefore crucial for journalists to portray domestic murders in an unbiased and accurate manner so the community understands the severity of the problem (Wozniak & McCloskey, 2010, p. 937).