true crime

This dad was arrested for murdering his family. So why aren't we seeing his mugshot more?

Colorado woman Shanann Watts was 15 weeks pregnant when she and her young daughters were reported missing on August 13 by husband and father, Chris Watts.

A week later, despite Chris’ pleas of innocence and desperate public appeals to find his ‘beloved’ family, he has been accused and charged of murdering his wife and daughters Bella, four, and Celeste, three. He has allegedly confessed to murdering his wife, and disposing of all three bodies – after claiming to have acted in response to his wife, whom he says strangled the girls.

But until that arrest, the American media flooded their stories with images of a picture-perfect family; something most of us aspire to create in our own lives.

The media did that to build the story, to show us who this family was. That’s their job, right?

shanann watts
Shanann Watts constantly shared photos of what looked like a happy family. Image: Instagram.

And, did it help that the Watts, a conventionally good-looking white family, was presented to the public as such, with all the positive racial and social connotations possible?

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This is the conundrum the media faces: it's their job to sell stories as much as it is to tell them - so these cases are presented to appeal to the largest demographic - white people - to make them relatable in a "that could be me/my sister/my neighbour" way.

Is that why we were shown those images to paint the picture - to make us click? To make us care?

And is that why, despite Chris Watts' arrest, we're still seeing stories leading with the 'happy family' image?

These are questions which Australian psychologist Dr. Helen McGrath has been asking for years. In her book, Mind Behind the Crime, McGrath looks at the case of New South Wales farmer Geoff Hunt, who in 2014 shot dead his wife and three children on the family property in the state’s Riverina district.

“No matter the background, or the events that led to the murder, a 'good guy' does not murder his family," McGrath tells Mamamia.

"The media always leads with the happy family image, but if a man is a loving and caring father, why has he killed his family?"

The photo of Christopher Watts taken by police at his arrest. Source: Refinery 29

McGrath firmly believes that it's not simply a matter of depression that explains family murders.

"There's a dire lack of resilience in these murderers," she says. Her concern for, and interest in, the absence of coping skills in many men is one of the reasons why McGrath runs the resilience program, Bounce Back.

"Dads need to teach their sons how to be good men. Otherwise, we see family violence increasing as it currently is."

Part of curbing the epidemic is being more direct in the media.

"At law, these men are murderers - and we can't shy away from that - because they aren't the 'good' man anymore," she explains.

"No matter how good a parent you've been, or how much you've loved your child, it's all wiped out if you kill them."

Which is why, despite being taken into custody, it's curious many news sites especially are still running Watts family photos as a lead image, rather than Chris Watts' mugshot. We are seeing heartwarming photos of a murdered family - with the person who has been charged with brutally ending their lives.

So why does that still matter? Why is that a problem, as long as it's telling a newsworthy story?

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It matters because it's a portrayal the accused murderer doesn't deserve - and, more importantly, that his victims don't deserve.

Take, for another example, the case of the Little family from Port Lincoln. In 2016, Melissa's husband Damien - a good-looking 24-year-old 'Aussie bloke' - shot their sons, four-year-old Koda and nine-month-old Hunter, and then drove off a pier and into the ocean.

Melissa stood by her husband, explaining later that he struggled with mental health issues. That's her prerogative to do.

But even before that was revealed, the media recycled one image - a professional shot of the happy family of four - to represent the case. Over and over again.

Why weren't we just shown photos of the victims? Why was their murderer's face depicted in this positive way?

Christopher Watts in court for his arraignment hearing at the Weld County Courthouse on August 21, 2018. Source: RJ Sangosti - Pool/Getty Images

And this is why we should now be seeing Chris Watts' mugshot everywhere. The media will still sell stories if it tells the truth, reminding us this person was responsible for a family's last horror-filled moments.

It's a truth that the public isn't always comfortable with: that this man, despite all appearances, and meeting society's definition of 'good', was, in fact, not good at all.

According to the arrest documents, Watts has confessed to being the last person to see his family, and his information led to Shanann, Bella, and Celeste's bodies being found at the site of a petroleum plant where Watts once worked. The two girls had been disposed of in an "oil well filled with crude oil for several days."

Chris Watts knew exactly what he was doing when he hid his daughters' bodies down an oil well. We now know, according to the arrest documents, that he was having an affair with a co-worker. And, this recently unearthed YouTube video of a talk Watts gave years ago is very telling of his narcissistic attitude toward commitment:

Chris Watts has confessed to the murder of his wife, and disposing of his daughters in an oil well. He didn't call an ambulance for them; he just set about lying to the police, and the public.

Chris Watts' narrative should not be a former family man and good-guy gone rogue. That is still enough for the media to 'sell' the story.

It's vital in our fight against family violence, that as the media, we do.

Apart from anything else, it's the very least the victims deserve.

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