Trigger warning: This post deals with violence against women and children, suicide and other distressing topics. It may be triggering for some readers.
If a man walked into a classroom, pulled out a gun and shot three children and a teacher, before turning the gun on himself, we’d call it a massacre, and we’d call him a vicious murderer.
Yet when a man walks into his own home and shoots his three children and his wife before turning the gun on himself, he’s remembered in the press as a loving family man who was under some strain.
Geoff Hunt, who violently shot and killed his wife and three children this week, has been remembered today in some media as “super, super patient… You couldn’t get a better bloke. The most gentle, considerate bloke… a pillar of society.”
And perhaps he was. But he also murdered his wife and three children and that cannot be airbrushed from this story.
As Stephanie Dowdrick wrote yesterday:
None of us can exactly imagine the circumstances of the killings: which child was killed first, whether the children witnessed a parent being shot, whether at least two of them witnessed the death of siblings before their own shooting. It’s too horrible even to think about. Yet we owe it to the children: Fletcher, Mia and Phoebe Hunt to think long and hard.
Let’s be clear about this.
One woman dies every week in this country at the hands of her partner. To kill a woman or a child is the ultimate act of domestic violence. It is a crime for which there is no excuse. Yet this sort of reporting is exactly how domestic violence in this country gets reframed and minimised.
And while everyone can empathise with the fact everyone who knew the Hunt family are reeling right now and wanting to remember how they lived, it’s also important as a society that we don’t sugarcoat or romanticise the way they died.
Particularly, the way journalists and editors choose to write about domestic and family violence is vitally important because the words they use shape how the public thinks and feels about particular events.
Over the last week I’ve noticed a considerable shift in the language being used by journalists to cover this story. At first, it was reported that this was a “suspected murder suicide” (that is still what police have stated is the case – they have no other suspects and have referred the case to the coroner which means their investigations have concluded).
Yet, as the days have rolled on, journalists have begun to phase out the word “murder” and replace it with the word “killed” “died” or “perished”. So why does this matter? Well it matters because there is a world of difference between a person dying and a person being ‘murdered’.
Women die every day (from cancer, in car accidents, through illness and so on). Murder is different. Murder implies that a heinous crime has taken place. Murder implies that someone is responsible. Someone made a decision.
This might sound like mere semantics, but the difference between saying that a woman has been “killed” and saying that a woman has been “murdered” was the difference between Oscar Pistorius being found guilty or not.