Why are reports of domestic violence often framed around the alleged perpetrator's 'story'?

Date

Clementine Ford

Sandra Peniamina died after receiving multiple stab wounds.

Sandra Peniamina died after receiving multiple stab wounds. Photo: Supplied

Last week, Victoria's Royal Commission into Family Violence handed down 227 recommendations to the state government. It was a momentous occasion, bringing to a close a 13-month-long commission which, among other sources of evidence, heard from countless survivors of family violence. It felt like a watershed moment, an acknowledgement of the immediacy of an epidemic that not only kills at least one woman per week in Australia but leaves numerous others with comprehensive physical and emotional trauma. For those fighting on the frontlines of change, it was an act of recognition that had long been denied or at the very least downplayed with weasel words, whataboutery and a dismissiveness towards things that happen "behind closed doors".

Two days after the report was made public, this article was published about an alleged domestic homicide in Brisbane. New Zealand citizen Arona Peniamina has been charged with the murder of his wife Sandra, who was found in the driveway of the family's home on Friday morning. Sandra had sustained fatal knife wounds to her head, and Arona is now under police guard in hospital. The couple had four children together, who are now staying with their uncle.

Those details are fairly straightforward. And yet, the reporter chose to introduce his story with these words: "Four children are without their parents after a young couple's marriage ended in a horrible, bloody tragedy".

He immediately follows with, "On Thursday night, the Peniama siblings had a mother and father to care for them in their Kippa Ring home, north of Brisbane."

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In fact, it isn't until the third paragraph that readers discover Arona Peniama has been charged with murdering his wife. Prior to this, you could be forgiven for thinking both had been killed in a violent home invasion or accident. Once again, a circumstance of alleged domestic homicide has been presented as something unavoidable; it is not the result of human choice and deliberate action, but the result of leaving home one day without an umbrella and being exposed to a sudden and unexpected downpour.

In its recently updated guidelines on family and domestic violence reporting, the Australian Press Council urges that words matter: "Publications should be mindful of the language they use and try to avoid terms that tend to trivialise, demean or inadvertently excuse family violence, such as 'a domestic', a 'domestic dispute' or 'a troubled marriage'."

With that in mind, framing the alleged domestic homicide of a woman by the hand of her husband as a "tragedy" instead of a violent and deliberate choice is unacceptable. Further, it's obscene to suggest that a substantial part of this "tragedy" is the children's loss of their father. If Arona Peniama is shown to have murdered his wife, it will be a devastating burden for those children to carry. But to present it as a "tragedy" rather than another act of paternal violence is to suggest, again, that such a circumstance was unavoidable.

There are other confusing language choices throughout the report. Do we need to know that Arona Peniama was a "keen and somewhat successful poker player" or that the children's current guardian is "one of their father's closest friends"? Why is it that the reader is given relatively jocular information about Arona Peniama's hobbies and friends while learning precisely nothing about the life of the woman he allegedly murdered, beyond the fact that she was both his wife and mother to their four children?

In its guidelines, the Australian Press Council also warns against the use of the passive voice in reporting on family and domestic violence. This means not referring to the alleged perpetrator and/or crime as an afterthought, but placing them front and centre. Sandra Peniama did not die as a result of a "horrible, bloody tragedy". She died from multiple stab wounds to the head. Arona Peniama was not claimed by that same tragedy, leaving all four of the couple's children without parents. Instead, he has been charged with her murder.

Language matters. It bloody matters.

We are making headway in the national conversation around family and intimate partner violence, but sometimes it feels like we take one step back for every two steps forward. So it is that a comprehensive statewide proposal to target violence can be handed down, only to be followed up two days later by the characteristically awful framing of alleged domestic homicide as something that happens with no warning or explanation and leaves nothing but victims in its wake. But family violence and domestic homicide in particular is not a natural disaster. It doesn't occur as a result of unpredictable weather patterns. It is not a hurricane swooping in to destroy everything in its wake, with no rhyme nor reason behind the selection of its victims. It is a deliberate act that is always underpinned by the fact that it relies on making a conscious choice.

We can change the narrative around violence. But to do that, we have to change the words we use when we talk about it. Accounts of domestic homicide should not need to be dramatised to make the audience care about the story. As a society, we should find the fact that it happens at all shocking enough.