Advice for media reporting of Domestic Violence

Edmonton, we have a domestic violence problem. 

For many of you, this is not news. You've witnessed it, you have lived it, or you know someone who is/has. 

According to Statistics Canada, Alberta's family violence rate is slightly higher than the national average with roughly 290 victims per 100,000 people (2013).

In the past month in Edmonton alone, there have been four deaths due to domestic violence and this is a very disturbing trend. 

Another woman is dead this past week at the hands of an ex-intimate partner. She was the mother of five children and loved by many. Do you know her name? Do you know that there was a restraining order against her ex? That he had a history of violent behaviour? That what happened here is not "woman found dead outside home", but "Woman killed by her ex-partner in yet another incident of Domestic Murder." 

Domestic murder. 

Do those words make you uncomfortable? 

GOOD. They should. 

Because the reality is that for a lot of women (and men too), this is the kind of fear they live with each and every day. That one day their partner is going to "snap", that the abuse will escalate, and most of all, that they won't be able to get themselves or their children out of their situations safely. 

And while the City of Edmonton does provide services to victims of domestic abuse and violence, for many women, they don't understand how the system works, and even if they do, sometimes the perceived hoops that they need to jump through can be too daunting or too risky for them to even make that first call. As seen with the murder of Colleen Sillito, the woman who was killed this past week, even when she did access these services, even with a Protection Order in place, and an ex with a documented history of violence and uttering threats, she was not protected from him. 

The family of Ms. Sillito have called for a public inquiry into her death and the handling of her file by the police. I think it is time to look at ALL of the cases of domestic homicide that have happened in the past year in our city (and province) and find the patterns of inconsistency, the ways that these cases are dealt with and how we can all do better. 

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I believe that one way, is in the way these kinds of "news stories" are presented by the media to the general public. In one article about Ms. Sillito's murder, the headline read, "Homeowner Paul Jacob died in Fort Saskatchewan Friday, brother confirms." As if the fact that ownership of the house was the main issue here, and not that he shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and then himself. And based on the comments on the posted link as seen on Facebook and screen shot here, this fact does seem important to certain people who somehow chalk up the murder of Ms. Sillito, a mother of five, as "karma". Is it a wonder with attitudes like this, that the rate of violence against women in Alberta is what it is? 

In my opinion, not only do we have a domestic violence problem here, we have a media reporting on cases of domestic violence problem as well.  And it is not just in Alberta, across North America, media outlets come up with sensational headlines telling us the "reasons" why men kill their partners. A recent Huffington Post article outlines the dangers of this kind of reporting:

...it’s a serious misunderstanding of the nature of domestic violence to say that one single event — like serving an undercooked hamburger or accidentally saying your ex’s name — caused a homicide. [...] journalists should be asking if the perpetrator has a history of abuse and looking for patterns of behavior. Domestic homicides don’t usually come out of nowhere. There are often red flags before women are murdered. Most killers don’t just “snap,” despite media coverage to the contrary.

And for women and men who are in abusive relationships and looking to escape them, reading articles that focus more on the killer than on the victim, that often make victim-blaming statements, or inappropriately cite cultural differences, and speculate on all the "reasons",  leave many feeling even more hopeless and alone than ever. Providing information about the warning signs of domestic abuse, how to help, safety planning and crisis hotlines can easily be incorporated into coverage of cases of domestic violence. Media can also acknowledge that domestic violence cases are not isolated incidents of inexplicable tragedy that are beyond the reach of community action. The "not my business, not my problem" attitude that many take when they have knowledge of domestic abuse happening needs to stop - abusers rely on these attitudes to continue exerting control over their victims. Domestic violence is a community issue, a societal problem and we all have a role to play in keeping people safe. 

As my friend Jen Rollins said in a recent open letter to the media and Edmonton city officials regarding educating the public and public officials about domestic violence, 

Domestic violence doesn’t happen because of jealousy or anger, domestic violence is about power and control. Domestic violence crosses all educational and financial lines, it knows no boundaries, affecting all ages, races, religions, and sexual orientations.

Education is the key to reducing the high incidence of domestic violence in Edmonton and in protecting women and their children in Edmonton and across Canada. We urge you to continue to educate your staff about the real causes of domestic violence and in turn to educate the public about domestic violence and domestic murder.

Below is an example of how every article about domestic violence should end in every newspaper, online story, or media interview about cases of domestic abuse, domestic violence, and domestic homicide. (Of note - not one of the articles that I have read in the past 2 weeks about the recent domestic murders in Edmonton included so much as a phone number for victims to call.) Please, journalists, feel free to copy and paste! 

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Below are some warning signs of Domestic Violence, ways to help someone in an abusive relationship and local Edmonton and Area resources and numbers to call. 

Warning Signs of Domestic Violence

Jealousy, controlling behaviour, quick involvement, unrealistic expectations, isolation, blames others for problems or feelings, hypersensitivity, cruelty to children, cruelty to animals, use of force during sex, verbal abuse, rigid sex roles, past battering, threats of violence, breaking or striking objects, using force during an argument, controlling the money in the relationship.

Suggestions for Helping Someone in an Abusive Relationship

  • Approach the person in an understanding, non-blaming way.
  • Acknowledge that it is scary and difficult to talk about abuse, and let them know that no
    one deserves to be treated this way. In no way does someone cause the abuse to happen.
  • Support the person as a friend. Be a good listener and do not tell them what to do. Allow them to make their own decisions, even if you do not agree with them. Avoid ultimatums that require someone to end the relationship or lose your friendship. This only results in further isolating the person.
  • Leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a woman and her children. A domestic violence advocate can assist in developing a safety plan. If the person being abused will not talk with an advocate, consider getting resource information for them.
  • Provide information about where to go for help - See Edmonton and Area Resources below
  • Above all, let the person know that they are not alone.

Edmonton and Area Resources

Today’s Family Violence Help Centre: 780-455-6880
Family Violence Info Line: 310-1818
WIN House: 780-471-6709
Lurana Shelter: 780-424-5875
Elder Abuse Help Line: 780-454-8888
Safe Place – Sherwood Park: 780-464-7232
SAIF Society – St. Albert: 780-460-2195