Crimes in the home, lessons in the newsroom?

  • This article and image first appeared on the ABC’s The Drum.

Many Victorians were surprised when that state’s latest crime statistics showed a dramatic, 15 per cent increase in domestic violence.

Many journalists were not. And the media must shoulder some of the blame for that disconnect.

One of the first tasks for a journalist working an early morning shift is to “do emergencies”. That means ringing the police, fire and ambulance services and asking “what’s happened overnight?”

The police offer a shopping list of incidents: a car crash here, a petrol station hold-up there and some booze bus results for good measure. The reporter will often ask about some activity they’ve noticed on the police scanner, or heard about elsewhere, and the reply will come: “Oh, that’s just a domestic”.

Somehow, because those magic words have been uttered, we journalists hesitate.

Much like the reporting of suicides, the rough rule is not to report “a domestic” unless it was somehow exceptional – like the case of James Ramage.

Ramage was released from jail last month, after serving time for strangling his wife and then claiming self-defence because she “provoked” him.

The defence was used successfully and Ramage was convicted of manslaughter, not murder. The defence of provocation has since been abolished.

Alternatively, instances of domestic violence must have broader effects (a stand-off forcing the closure of a busy road) or involve somebody prominent enough to make their behaviour a matter of public interest (say, if a prominent anti-violence campaigner was charged for hitting his wife).

But most times incidents don’t meet these criteria and, regardless, the reporter finds it difficult to verify the behind-closed-door details.

The net result is they don’t get reported.

The same applies for reporters sitting in court listening to cases of domestic violence while they wait for a more ‘news-friendly’ matter to be called.

It should be noted the media does write many exceptional stories exposing the scourge of abuse within families and the fight against it. ABC senior reporter Kerri Ritchie’s story on 7:30 this week about the B-Safe program is a case in point.

But it’s almost undeniable that the media’s coverage of domestic violence is biased.

We are much more likely to report a drunken punch in a Melbourne laneway than a drunken punch in a suburban kitchen.

It’s sometimes argued a ‘Mean World Syndrome’ is at play in Australia, because of our nation’s obsession with violent crime.

The theory is that the reporting of these crimes is disproportionate to the reality, and creates the impression the world is more dangerous than it truly is.

“People are seen to overestimate the prevalence of crime in the community… perceiving increases in crime that are not supported by official statistics,” is how a Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry described the phenomenon last year.

Melbourne’s tabloid newspaper the Herald Sun even has a “Streets of Fear” logo for its stories on public assaults.

The media’s reporting of domestic violence seems to be going in the other direction.

Through underreporting we appear to be creating a ‘Safe Home Syndrome’, and inadvertently telling the community that domestic violence isn’t so prevalent.

This would explain why so many Victorians were surprised by the latest crime statistics.

Perhaps we in the media owe it to everybody to turn that around.

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