The Silent Terrorism on Our Doorsteps

Why aren't mass killings related to domestic violence given the same media attention as Islamic terrorism?

The Silent Terrorism on Our Doorsteps

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Let’s begin with two questions.

Can you name the location of the two most deadly US mass shootings of 2017? And, can you identify what the two events had in common?

The answers?

The Sept. 10 killing of eight in Plano, Texas, and the May 27 killing of eight in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi. The link? Both were acts of domestic violence.

Were the mass murders covered by portions of the US media? Yes. Were they given the same level and intensity of coverage as instances of national and international ”terrorism” with far fewer, or even no, fatalities? No. Not even close. In fact, many people in the US could be forgiven for not having heard of what happened in Plano or Bogue Chitto, let alone that these were instances of domestic violence.

It is for this reason that I reacted on Twitter to heavy US media coverage of the Sept. 15 Parsons Green tube bomb in London. Within hours, it was the lead story in virtually every major US media outlet. And, once the story hit the homepages, it remained there for a significant amount of time. This intense coverage of Parsons Green begged the question: Why would a nonlethal attack in London garner so much more attention and coverage than not one, but two domestic mass murders in which a total of 16 innocent people were killed?

Nine out of 10 victims knew their offenders. And of the victims who knew their offenders, 64 percent were wives or other intimate acquaintances of their killers.

A study released this week by the Violence Policy Center (using data from the FBI) found that in 2015 there were 1,686 women murdered by men in “single victim/single offender” incidents. Nine out of 10 victims knew their offenders. And of the victims who knew their offenders, 64 percent were wives or other intimate acquaintances of their killers. It is estimated that in the United States three women are murdered every 24 hours by a current or former intimate partner. That adds up to around 1,000 deaths per year.

“Women killed by men are most often killed by someone they know and more than half were killed by an intimate partner,” says the Violence Policy Center’s Legislative Director Kristen Rand. “Much more must be done to identify and implement strategies to prevent these tragedies. More resources are needed at the federal, state and local levels to help keep women safe.”

News editors are always quick to point out that news consumers are more interested in local and national issues than international, primarily because these stories are understood to be more “relevant.” In other words, people want to know about things that impact their daily lives. This “relevance” rationale strains credulity, however, when we think about the massive coverage of terrorism (including incidents outside the US) versus other forms of violence in the United States, such as those committed on a daily basis against women.

The truth is that “closeness” and “relevance” are not the driving force for story selection for a great deal of our news. The London bombing got heavy coverage in the US because it fit into a post-9/11 media narrative about “Islamic terror” and violence that has been promoted for 15 years. It drives clicks. In other words, news organizations have pushed the importance of terrorism in the US (and elsewhere) when, in fact, there are far more pressing and deadly issues about which to be concerned.

Secondly, both Plano and Bogue Chitto raise deep and uncomfortable questions about the entrenched nature of sexism and misogyny in US society, as well as the relationship between constructions of masculinity and deadly violence. Throw easy and widespread access to deadly firearms into the mix, and the problem becomes all the more acute. The relative lack of coverage in the US of the terrorism of domestic violence and sexual assault is both a byproduct of, and contributor to, an environment in which violence against women is downplayed as a serious issue, and even normalized. Consider, for example, how Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem generated a firestorm of criticism, while players with convictions for domestic abuse continued to play without similar media coverage or fan protest.

Finally, a constant focus on the violence of “others” — be they foreigners, ethnic or religious minorities — allows dominant social groups to not only take the moral high ground, but to also engage in collective denial about deep-rooted social problems. Was the bomb attack in London newsworthy? Of course. But when we overemphasize the violence of “others” and de-emphasize the violence of “us” we generate both a skewed sense of superiority and an indifference to, and lack of knowledge of, those suffering on our own doorsteps.

Journalism is all about choices. What to cover. What not to cover. Tone. Emphasis. Angle. Sources. Pictures. These choices can shape the form and direction of public debate. The terrorist mass murder in San Bernardino in 2015 (where 14 were killed) was covered 24/7 for weeks, and rightly so. But if the rationale was “relevance” and public interest, then there is no possible justification for the comparatively miniscule coverage afforded daily, deadly domestic violence. Even when including the deaths on Sept. 11, 2001, the likelihood of a woman being the victim of deadly domestic violence dwarfs the likelihood of being the victim of a terrorist attack. When the media cover certain events and not others, it is crucial to ask why it is covered in this way, and who stands to benefit.

It is an old cliché that journalism simply reflects reality. Cases such as Parsons Green, Plano and Bogue Chitto suggest this reflection is dangerously warped.

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen is an American living in Sweden, where he is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University. He heads the doctoral program in the department of media studies. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen.