Words || Shivani Srivastava
Their names were Michaela, Kayla, Preethi, Jennifer, Sabrina, Aiia and Eurydice. On the 13th of August, during the day in Sydney and in the evening in Western Australia, two women, Michaela Dunn and Kayla Rose Halnan, were found violently murdered. As of the 13th of August, 33 women have been violently killed this year. On average, one woman per week is murdered by a former or a current partner in Australia. Too many times we hear stories of women who are violently killed too soon, and yet rarely do we hear their names.
In 2017, 53 women were killed by violence, in 2018, it was 63. This year, we are expected to surpass these numbers. Counting Dead Women, an organisation that keeps a ‘national toll’ of women who have been killed, calls for these violent acts against women to be classified as an epidemic. When the events of August the 13th unfolded in Sydney, we all celebrated the heroic bystanders that fearlessly restrained the attacker with a milkcrate in hand. We thanked the gods (and I guess, John Howard) for our sensible gun laws preventing what could have been a massacre in the streets of Sydney. We thanked the police and we called our loved ones to reassure us of their safety.
Unfortunately, one such person was not so fortunate that day and her name was Michaela Dunn.
If you were to Google ‘Michaela Dunn,’ you would discover that she was killed by her attacker moments before he embarked on a rampage on the streets of Sydney. You would learn that she was a bright young 24-year-old, a daughter, a friend, a loved one and ‘beautiful from the inside and out.’ What you would also discover is that Michaela was working as a sex worker and met her attacker through her work. You would learn of a “secret life hidden from her parents” and how “violence and murder is part of the job.”
Michaela’s life went from a tragic loss of a young intelligent being with so much potential, to a tabloid-esque parody almost akin to a reality tv series. Michaela’s story went from a ‘loss of life’ to a ‘loss of innocence’ story, as people parade their morals in lieu of support for her friends and family at this time.
Similarly, after her murder on the 3rd of March this year, Preethi Reddy’s story was focused on her allegedly scandalous relationship with her attacker rather than the life that was taken away from her. Uncovering scandal does little than re-distribute the blame from the attacker to the victim and detract from what little privacy her mourning friends and family have already.
Had Michaela or Preethi not been killed, publishing the ins and outs of their private life would never have been an appropriate news story. However, apparently, once the victim is deceased, their private life becomes a playground for wannabe sleuths and tabloid magazines.
Sadly, a similar story occurred on the other side of Australia, only a few hours after Michaela’s loss of life. Kayla Rose Halnan was shot and killed in Welshpool, Western Australia on the 13th of August. In writing this article it took me approximately twenty minutes to locate her actual name, or any information about her other than the phrase “26-year-old woman.”
In one article, you would discover that a “former boxing professional” was suspected as her attacker, who during his career was celebrated and called the “Working Class Man,” and who had a “long career in construction and mining.” You would only read that Kayla Rose Halnan was dead.
Aside from the emotional damage that this type of reporting does to the family and friends who know them, we also have to ask, what other effects does this kind of reporting have? As much as we need to encourage freedom of the press, especially in this current global climate, does news reporting need to hold itself to a higher standard?
Sherry Towers, a physicist at Arizona State University, released an article in 2018 detailing the ‘contagion effect’ on mass shooting coverage in the United States. Towers found that mass shootings which received national and international news coverage of the attacker, such as emphasis on their identity and the specifics of their crime — increased the likelihood of a copycat attack. Sherry explored how these increased killings appeared to be unnaturally clustered together in ‘groups,’ almost like a contagion, with many occurrences within a short period of time.
While we lack substantial research in a specific Australian context, solely reporting on the troubled childhood and good character of the attacker shifts the onus from them, and the attention off the victim. This is not to say that there is no place for a valid discourse about the background and the experiences of the offender but rather, it should not take the place of the victim’s story — she also once had; a childhood, struggles and success. Surely, the moral implications of dissecting someone’s life after the fact, is deterrent enough, however, as the number of victims increase by the day and by the year, it is appalling that in 2019, the focus of heinous crimes is still on the attacker, their story and their ‘loss of life.’
This phenomenon is not something new, and long-time advocate Tarang Chawla has continuously been speaking out against the reporting standards regarding women in the media. Founder of the Not One More Niki foundation, Tarang Chawla, has unfortunately had his own personal story in this matter. In 2015, his younger sister, 23-year-old Nikita Chawla was murdered by her partner. Tarang noticed the discrepancy in reporting and how the attention focused much more on the ‘spurned lover’ narrative, rather than the life and memory of Nikita. Tarang has since heavily criticised the reporting standards for these women, who were victims of these horrific crimes, and has launched his own social media platforms bringing much attention to these women himself. In fact, it has been through Tarang Chawla’s social media, that I have been able to locate most of the names of these women myself.
As we are slowly nearing the end of 2019, and we are sadly expecting more news of lives cut tragically short, it is important that the news is reflective of what this actually is — a tragedy. Identifying the attacker and the circumstances of the event may all be necessary precursors to factual news reporting, however sensationalist headlines that pry into the personal lives of the victims do little but reopen the scars that grieving family and friends are already experiencing. These women are not defined by their attackers, they were not invisible, and the media needs to be reflecting this reality.