On 31 March, 29-year-old mother of four Sandra Peniamina was stabbed to death in the driveway of her suburban Queensland home. Her children, all under the age of ten, allegedly witnessed the attack. Their father, her husband, Arona Peniamina, has been charged with her murder.
Paramedics who attended described the attack as one of the worst they had ever seen. But in the days after Ms Penaimina’s death, several media outlets - the Brisbane Times, the Daily Mail, the Courier Mail and SBS included a family member’s spirited defense of the alleged killer in the reports they published.
"Peniamina was described as "a really good man" by the wife of his uncle." – SBS
"Mr Viko's wife, who didn't want to be named, said the accused was a "really good man" who just wanted to work hard for his family." – Brisbane Times
Of course this case has yet to go to court, and the allegations are not proven. Still, the irony of publishing the sentiment that Mr Peniamina wanted to work hard for his family, as he stood accused of murdering his wife, seems to have been lost on the media outlets that included that detail. And it’s not the first time a man accused of a domestic violence homicide has been called a ‘good guy’ in a news report.
In September 2014, grain farmer Geoff Hunt killed his wife Kim and their three children at their home in Lockhart, in the NSW Riverina region, before shooting himself. At the time the Sydney Morning Herald reported the sentiments of Hunt’s friend, Paul Routley:
“You couldn't get a better bloke. The most gentle, considerate bloke ... a pillar of society."
"He has done a horrific thing, yet Lockhart remembers Geoff Hunt as a good man.
John Stevenson was a close friend; a fellow grain farmer and the president of the Lockhart district agriculture bureau, Stevenson described Hunt as like a second father to his own children.
“Geoff is one of the kindest, most caring fathers you would ever find,’’ he tells The Weekend Australian."
As Nina Funnell pointed out in in Mamamia shortly after the Hunt murder-suicide coverage:
“If a man walked into a classroom, pulled out a gun and shot three children and a teacher, before turning the gun on himself, we’d call it a massacre, and we’d call him a vicious murderer.
Yet when a man walks into his own home and shoots his three children and his wife before turning the gun on himself, he’s remembered in the press as a loving famly man who was under some strain.”
Media characterisations of domestic violence perpetrators as ‘good guys’ are not at all uncommon. The 2012 study, Victorian print media coverage of violence against women – A longitudinal study by Jenny Morgan and Violeta Politoff, looked at almost twenty years of Victorian media reporting of violence against women. 65 of the articles evaluated, or five per cent, contained references to perpetrators as “‘nice’/’kind’ etc”.
So what is it about domestic violence incidents – as opposed to massacres or random killings - that makes us think it’s suitable to include positive reflections about the alleged perpetrator?
Professor David Weisbrot is the Chair of the Australian Press Council. He has recently held consultations with journalists, domestic violence workers and survivors to develop a new advisory guideline for reporting on family violence. He said reporters often found it enormously difficult to cover domestic violence incidents, particularly in the immediate aftermath.
“There’s a legal thicket surrounding these situations. They can’t and shouldn’t talk to kids, there are probably family court orders preventing journalists from talking to or identifying certain parties, and a whole range of other restrictions,” he said.
“Reporters would go down to the crime scene, they couldn’t interview any of the parties, police would be appropriately tight lipped. And so, they’re casting about for something, from a neighbour, from a family member, from somebody who belongs to the same sporting club - just trying to get something in there. Hence the reliance on clichés, of the troubled marriage, or the man who’s a lovely man but was under tremendous stress, that kind of thing.”
While it might provide some content to fill out a story, presenting the opinions of a perpetrator’s family or friends can cause enormous problems, according to Mandy McKenzie from the Domestic Violence Resource Centre in Victoria. She worked on the recently published discussion paper ‘Out of Character? Legal responses to intimate partner homicides by men in Victoria 2005-2014’.
“It presents the violent behaviour as out of character, an isolated incident, a mental health problem. But the reality is the way an abuser behaves in private is quite different to the way they behave in public,” she said.
“A perpetrator of family violence quite often presents himself, quite deliberately, as a good guy to everyone else.”
“So it’s difficult for family and friends to really know – particularly his family. Of course, someone’s mother, father, siblings and friends are going to say, ‘Oh, he’s a lovely guy.’ So it really doesn’t add anything to an understanding of family violence,” Ms McKenzie said.
David Weisbrot agrees.
“It’s pretty irrelevant to the story, and you would never include information like that in a story about an alleged armed robber, or an alleged terrorist. Yet there is that tradition in a lot of family violence coverage,” he said.
Including descriptions of a perpetrator’s good qualities is ethically unsound journalistic practice, according to Professor Denis Muller from the Centre for Advancing Journalism.
“The ethical duty of a journalist is to consider the impact of what they write on all parties,” he said.
“To allow a perpetrator of a crime like this to be portrayed as someone who had good qualities is getting into the territory of irresponsibility. They may have had good qualities - most people do. But the context is of a gross crime. And so it doesn’t seem to me to be the responsible thing to do, to in some way build up the perpetrator in a positive light.”
The issue, according to Mandy McKenzie, is part of a bigger problem with the way the media - and society at large - looks at violence against women, which is to focus on isolated incidents rather than wider trends.
“If you’re looking at family violence, if you’re looking at intimate partner homicide, each case that a journalist is focusing on is one of a pattern,” she said.
There’s a kind of gender blind approach and a case-by-case approach.”
Rather than going to neighbours or friends to find out what a perpetrator was like, Ms McKenzie believes journalists could start asking different questions when reporting on domestic violence crimes.
“You could be asking, ‘Why are most of these cases that I’m reporting on committed by men? Why are they killing this particular person [their partner]? Why aren’t they shooting someone in the street? What is it about?’ And when you look at these homicides in a pattern, then you see the predominant factor in intimate partner homicide is gender. And so there’s got to be more examination and more understanding of the role of gender and the role of attitudes.”