I've been thinking about weighing in on the recent news that Oscar Pistorius murdered Reeva Steenkamp (the two were dating at the time). After all, my current research focuses on this exact topic. However, the analysis is complex, complicated by the story literally unfolding to the public by the hour. Adding insight into an already complicated story seems almost impossible; I don't have any more information about what transpired that night than the rest of the public does.
And yet, I do. I know that the likelihood that Pistorius killed Steenkamp as part of a relationship containing issues of power and control is highly likely. I know that it is a big red flag of an abusive relationship when I read that the police have been to his house on numerous prior occasions and that it indicates the previous violence was serious and escalating (it's hard to tell from the news reports if the prior police response was related to Pistorius' violence against Steenkamp or a prior girlfriend). I know that men obsessed with guns and with a history of abuse are incredibly dangerous. I know that women often flee to the bathroom for safety (ironically one of the most dangerous rooms in a house to take refuge since there is no alternative exit.) I know that almost exclusively, men who harm their partners will deny they did it or that it was intentional. I know when you interview family members of perpetrators of abuse, they overwhelmingly defend their son. I know that the friends and loved ones of perpetrators often never see warning signs of the abusive behavior, because, after all, the heart of abuse is control, and isolation is a powerful tool in that end game. (In fact, if you talk to survivors of domestic violence, most of them will tell you that to the outside world, their abusive partner appears "charming".) What else are you expecting family members to say other than they are shocked and in disbelief when they are grieving and coming to terms with the reality of the atrocious behavior their son, brother, friend committed?
Some may argue that Pistorius is innocent until proven guilty, that it would be irresponsible journalism to assume he intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp. Yet, the mass media is not assuming an unbiased stance, they're providing him an alibi and worse yet, framing the conversation away from the epidemic of violence against women. This reprehensible "journalism" sends a message to women every where that violence against them, no matter how brutal, will not be taken seriously. Need to maintain he's innocent until proven guilty? Fine. Put "allegedly" in your sentence before describing the heinous acts Pistorius committed rather than endlessly repeating an unsubstantiated self-defense claim.
Regardless of the assumptions one makes about what happened at their house, now is NOT the time to glorify and rehash Pistorius' accomplishments or his hardships in life. If it feels more settling for journalists to wait until Pistorius has had his day in court to talk about domestic violence, at least be silent on the issue of Pistorius' character until then and stop with the alternative explanations. Sympathizing with the perpetrator only makes you complicit with the violence. In the meantime, appropriate grieving for a woman killed too young, with much spirit and energy to offer the world, could fill in your "24-hour news cycle" vacuum. But, don't forget to come back to reporting on violence against women. Because failing to do so means Reeva Steenkamp died in vain.
Contextualizing this tragedy is important. In depth reporting is important. Only providing one explanation (i.e. the outrageous amount of gun violence in South Africa) is misleading. If it's okay to report the context of the location of this murder, I don't see how one could justify not situating this murder within the context of men's violence against women. I have read many news reports which included statistics about the homicide rate in South Africa and so far zero articles with data on the number of domestic violence homicides.
One of the most striking findings thus far in my own research of online coverage of celebrities and sports figures making headlines for involvement in domestic violence is that virtually no one seeks a domestic violence expert as a source for the reporting. Police, the perpetrator, the perpetrator's lawyer and public relations team, and occasionally the victim are cited. At best this is lazy investigative reporting. And so, here are my tips for reporting on domestic violence homicides:
1. Call it what it is. Label it "Domestic Violence", "murder", "homicide."
2. Do not interview the family, friends, or lawyer of the perpetrator for information.
3. Seek appropriate sources. Get in touch with an expert on domestic violence. They aren't hard to find. I'm sure you have Google.
4. Remember someone was killed. If it was you, or your family member, how would you want your life portrayed?
See more tips here.