Kirsty Strickland: Tabloid leering at violent crime is leading to a race to bottom

This article was originally printed in the National Newspaper on 2 October 2015.

REEVA Steenkamp was shot and killed by her partner Oscar Pistorius on February 14, 2014. It was Valentine’s Day, and also the day women danced in the streets for the One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women. The day after she was killed, The Sun newspaper ran a now infamous front page. Reeva’s swimsuit clad image, staring out to the reader, juxtaposed with the headline: 3 shots. Screams. Silence. 3 more shots.

Reaction to the cover was as swift as it was furious. Columnist Suzanne Moore said it was “lechery over a corpse” while former deputy prime minister John Prescott called for a boycott of the paper. People were concerned about what some called the “rebranding of domestic violence as entertainment”.Kirsty Tabloid Toxic

This retelling of violence as click-bait or tabloid-fodder isn’t only a feature of high-profile cases like Reeva’s, however.

You may have read about Maria Nemeth last week. She was found dead in her apartment in Florida. Her boyfriend Fidel Lopez, 24, phoned the emergency services, stating his girlfriend was having trouble breathing. When they arrived they found Maria, 31, on the bathroom floor mutilated. Her injuries were extensive and savage. She had been assaulted with various objects and pronounced dead at the scene. Afterwards, Lopez admitted he had ‘flew into a rage’ and ‘became a monster’. He told how he assaulted Nemeth while she was unconscious before disembowelling her. He claimed the catalyst for his violence was Maria said her ex’s name while she and Lopez were having sex.

That detail is what made the headlines. It was picked up on and repeated. The Metro went with “Man ripped out girlfriends’ intestines because she screamed ex’s name during sex” . The Sun meanwhile, got straight to what it thought was the point with “Killed for calling out ex’s name during sex”.

You see the effect emphasising details like that have when reading through the comments. Many express sympathy, but for others headline detail is what needs to be discussed. “She said another guy’s name? That’s enough to set anyone off”, “She won’t be making that mistake again” .

Typical of the internet? Perhaps. But it’s a product of a culture that seeks to excuse certain violence if there is the merest suggestion the victim had stepped out of line. Pick your crime – murder, rape, domestic abuse – and then look for the oft repeated get-out clauses. She was drunk. She was frigid. She didn’t pay him attention. She nagged.

The tabloidisation of violent crime is toxic. It’s what drives editors to put a bikini shot of a dead woman on its front page while her body lies cold in a morgue. It’s the one-upmanship of gore, who prints the most graphic pictures, the bloodiest details.

The implements used to violate Maria Nemeth weren’t just mentioned, they were emboldened. The state of her body was described, her many injuries recounted. In all of this detail, all of the brutality and out-of-context violence, nothing makes sense. It’s put in the box marked ‘mindless acts of violence’ and we all move on.

This means the scale of the problem of violence against women goes unchecked. Good reporting should join up the dots in terms of gender-based violence and its social consequences.

Is gore and unfiltered death really what readers want? Maybe. But if our appetite for ever-more violent descriptions and imagery is what is fuelling this race to the bottom then that’s surely a trend we need to buck. There will be more Marias, more Reevas. In the US the chances of a woman facing violence by an intimate or ex-partner are one in three. Across the UK two women a week are killed by a partner or ex.

In December the Write to End Violence Against Women Awards will be held at the Scottish Parliament. The awards and campaign will celebrate journalists, bloggers and writers who seek to report violence against women in a more responsible way.

Through recognising and rewarding that higher standard of writing the hope is other reporters will be encouraged to do better and take more care.

You can get involved by nominating journalists and bloggers who are getting it right and those who deserve the Wooden Spoon Award. The deadline for nominations is October 31. Go to writetoendvaw.com and tweet using #WriteToEndVAW.

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The 2015 Write to End VAW Awards will be held in the Scottish Parliament on 10 December.

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