I was told not to write about domestic violence as a young journalist

Victims who died as a result of domestic violence this year.

Victims who died as a result of domestic violence this year.

When I was a cadet reporter I sat in the dog box.  The dog box was a corner desk in the newsroom featuring a chair, a computer and a crackling police scanner.  From as early as 4am or as late as midnight, I’d write stories while ear spying on the Police of Sydney.  Most of what I heard were callouts to accidents, small time robberies and so called ‘domestics’.  These domestic disputes, I was told, were ‘private matters’ and ‘not to be reported’. 

I remember being disturbed by both the Police naming and the media’s secret shaming of domestic violence.  The very term ‘domestics’ seemed to suggest that violence in a family is different from violence elsewhere and matters less. Also, by not reporting violence unless it led to death, it downplayed the incidents as isolated and rare.  Upon regularly hearing the number of times Police attended such situations, I soon realised domestic violence was none of those things.

‘Domestics’ would these days be called ‘domestic violence’, ‘family violence’ or ‘intimate partner violence’. It remains the most common crime (one woman a week is killed in this country by a partner or ex and more than 1 in 3 women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15) and the least reported to police. 

Yet it seems the media has now decided to tell the story. 

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There are no statistics about media representations of family violence (a study is being commissioned at the moment by the Australia's National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety).  But it is widely accepted family violence is now worth covering.  From Fairfax’s #Shine A Light campaign, to the white ribbon donning TV stars on White Ribbon Day, from a recent series on ABC TV News, to the diminishing pages of the remaining newspapers the issue is getting attention. Even macho talkback station 2GB discussed the campaign ‘Counting Dead Women’; Destroy the Joint’s Jenna Price said she was both “shocked and delighted” to be asked on air.

Now, it must be said, when domestic violence is in the news, it can be treated in a most appallingly and sensational way. Witness the salacious, trans-phobic coverage of the death of Mayang Praseto reported by Seven News as “a case of domestic violence that went tragically wrong” (when is it right?). Sometimes the media seems too sympathetic to the perpetrators - minimising their accountability – witness the sympathetic reporting of Geoff Hunt’s actions when he killed his entire family and the coverage of Oscar Pistorius as a  “broken man”. It’s clear there are consistent problem with bias, victim blaming and an over emphasis on mitigating circumstances.  All too often high profile cases are portrayed as ‘private tragedies’ rather than as a symptom of a significant and wide-ranging problem in our society.

Yet there is also a massive improvement. Witness the outcry after the killing of Lisa Harnum and the resulting conversations about ‘controlling behaviour’ and the series ‘Lifting the Lid’ in the Sunday Age. It won this year’s Eliminating Violence Against Women Media Awards (or EVAs) given to journalists for excellence in the reporting of violence against women. Since the EVAs began the number of entries and standards have much improved.  Next year the awards will go national to encourage better reporting across the country.     

Vanessa Born, Media Projects Manager at Domestic Violence Victoria is involved in the EVAs and welcomes the higher standard of work.  She says a lack of reporting allows family violence to “remain hidden and can reinforce the control and domination of those who perpetuate it by isolating targets and supporting the notion that cases are private and rare”.  But she also warns bad reporting can “reinforce myths and stereotypes and further isolate and punish women”. 

Born says journalists are aware of this and their fear and desire to be respectful often keeps the media silent. But she feels there is an increase in reporting of incidents and the ability to put it in context as a complex and systematic problem of gender inequality and not the work of a couple of monsters. The EVAs and the Dart Centre for Journalism both urge journalists to use their tip sheets on best practice responsible reporting that is informed and challenges misinformation and stereotypes that tolerate or excuse violence against women.

And it’s not just reporting that’s on the rise.  

One of the most read and widely discussed book at book clubs at the moment is the internationally best selling but Aussie written ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty.  It’s a witty tale of what goes on behind the closed doors in a school community but features a dark story about a woman who experiences domestic violence regularly at the hands of her domineering, wealthy and hideously charming husband.  Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon have optioned the rights to the book guaranteeing this will become even bigger ‘news’ in the future.  Be ready for a bruised Nicole up in lights  – it will be a powerful image and a sign of just how far we have come out of the darkness. 

Mainstream media is desperate to attract female readers.  Perhaps the slow crawl of women into senior editorial positions may be pushing the stories we once rarely heard.  Or perhaps even the most populist media is finally realising that this is not just a sideline, secret ‘women’s issue’ at all. 

Whatever the reason domestic violence needs to be recognised and outed for what it is.  Dangerous, deadly and all too common.

For 24 hour support, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732): The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.