Domestic Murder and Murder-Suicide: It's Not About the Relationship

03/22/2015 09:49 am ET | Updated May 22, 2015
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The headline from WIVBTV News in Buffalo read, "Troubled Relationship Ends Tragically".

Meanwhile, there was this headline in the Savannah Morning News, "Troubled Port Wentworth Marriage Ends in Murder".

These are two examples of how news media regularly misrepresent cases of domestic violence murders and murder-suicides; not just in their headlines but also in their reporting beneath the headlines. The end result of this skewed coverage is that the murder is presented as an outcome of a "troubled relationship" rather than as the end result of a violent abuser who is seeking to possessively control his partner, and in most cases, to prevent her from leaving him.

In the WIVBTV News story about a murder-suicide involving an unidentified husband and wife, the reporter says, "Neighbors say there was a long history of domestic violence in the Black Rock home, and a recent restraining order was supposed to protect the victim who lived inside the home." The reporter added that the husband had also been suspected of having previously killed his ex-wife.

Despite these clear indicators of prior domestic violence, the on-air reporters proceed to muddy the picture by saying, "Neighbors say the woman was finally going to leave." One particular neighbor was quoted as saying, "She was bruised from head to toe but then she'd go running back to him". With the absence of any expert commentary, this irresponsibly suggests that the wife was somehow culpable by going back to an abusive partner. Here, an expert commentator would likely have pointed out that returning to an abusive partner is common since abused women are at highest risk of being killed when they are leaving their partner.

In the Savannah Morning News story about the murder of Nancy Sanders by her husband Kenneth, who stabbed her 27 times in front of their children, it was noted that he'd been arrested four months earlier for biting Nancy. Nancy's sister talked of how possessively controlling Kenneth was toward Nancy, relating how he would call her multiple times per day and show up at the house if she did not answer. "My sister couldn't breathe", the sister said. Kenneth Sanders had previously been arrested for stabbing his first wife. Despite this clear evidence of his past violence and smothering control, however, the report goes on to cite several of Nancy's problems.

Rather than recognizing that her apparent depression might be related to being abused, the report says, "The behavior noticed by her friends possibly related to fibromyalgia. Nancy was diagnosed with the disease, a chronic pain disorder closely related to depression, shortly before she was killed." Adding insult to injury, the reporter mentioned that several years earlier Nancy "had been involved in forgeries, according to court reports". Meanwhile, the reporter includes a quote by Kenneth's brother who related that Kenneth had recently told him, "I couldn't take it anymore".

These two cases are not isolated examples of how the media paints false pictures of intimate partner homicides. According to several studies of domestic homicide news coverage that were conducted by domestic violence experts, skewed or incomplete analysis are more the rule than the exception. According to the Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence, only 22 percent of the 230 newspaper articles about domestic homicide that they analyzed specifically cited these as domestic violence-related incidents. A higher proportion of these stories, (48 percent), cited the killer's stated motivation, such as "rejection", "rage" or having been "provoked", as if this were a reason for killing rather than an excuse.

One particularly egregious example was a front page headline in the Boston Herald that blared, "Scratch Ticket Rub Out" with a follow up headline, "Cops: Lottery Habit Fueled Fatal Attack." The story quoted the killer as saying that he killed his ex-wife because of her "addiction" to instant lottery scratch tickets (hence the "rub out" in the headline). This is a case where the killer's excuse was taken at face value even though it was subsequently revealed during his murder trial that his wife's lottery ticket purchases had nothing to do with his decision to kill her.

A Rhode Island study of domestic violence-related murder-suicides found that newspapers were more likely to cast these as "unpredictable private tragedies" rather than as manifestations of domestic violence. A Massachusetts study of domestic homicides between the years 2003-2008 found that the media identified only 11 percent as having a history of domestic violence even though all of them had such histories. A more recent study in Iowa reported similar findings. One problem identified by all three studies was the lack of domestic violence experts as sources of information about these crimes. A fourth study, this one in Washington state, found that domestic violence experts were cited in only 4 out of the 44 stories about domestic homicides.

Domestic violence experts provide important context to these homicides that help the public to understand that these are not "troubled relationships gone awry" or in the case of murder-suicides "suicide pacts" or "mercy killings". Nor are they "crimes of passion" or the "provoked" actions of "jilted husbands". Experts provide much-needed correctives to the obvious misinformation and biases offered by the killer's friends and relatives. Experts can also provide commentary about the reactions of neighbors who often state that "they seemed like such a nice couple" or (the killer) "didn't seem like the type". Experts can point out that most abusers don't fit the stereo-types of abusers as "macho men" or "rageaholics" and are often well-liked by their co-workers and neighbors. In my own study of attempted homicides, neighbors rarely knew about prior domestic violence, according to the victims. As one victim put it, "(the neighbors) liked him (the abuser) way more than they liked me".

By relying solely on non-experts as sources of information, the media wittingly or unwittingly reinforces misconceptions about domestic homicides, and sometimes seems more intent to entertain than to inform the public. Domestic homicide is most often the culmination of a history of domestic violence in which victims are being abused right in front of our eyes and in broad daylight. The real tragedy is that we don't see it because we are looking for something else; something that more closely matches our preconceptions. Domestic homicides sometimes provide experts with the opportunity to call attention to the underlying realities -- but only when the media thinks to call us.

One excellent resource about media coverage of domestic violence of domestic violence homicides is "Domestic Violence: A Guide for Media Coverage" published by the Iowa Domestic Abuse Death Review Team. It contains concrete recommendations for accurate and responsible reporting about domestic violence. Good reporting isn't just a matter of better informing the public but also helps surviving victims to understand their experience in a larger context and to recognize that they are not alone, and their loved ones to heal. For daily domestic violence news and information in the United States, follow Domestic Violence Crime Watch on Facebook. Domestic Violence Crime Watch is dedicated to raising awareness about domestic violence with a focus on domestic violence related homicide.