MEDIA

Men Offer Abhorrent Excuses For Killing Women. Don't Repeat Them.

When media outlets report killers' claims as fact, they do victims a profound disservice.

24/09/2015 6:11 AM AEST | Updated 19/01/2016 3:35 AM AEDT
NBC6.com
Accused killer Fidel Lopez and his girlfriend Maria Nemeth, now deceased. 

On Sunday, Fidel Lopez, a 24-year-old South Florida man, was charged with murder after he confessed to penetrating his girlfriend Maria Nemeth with various objects without her consent and then disemboweling her with his bare hands.

He told police that his murderous attack was triggered when Nemeth called out her former husband's name while they were having sex.

Many media outlets ran with his claim as fact, using headlines like "Man Disembowels Girlfriend For Screaming Out Another Man's Name During Sex." The story had all the sensational elements: graphic violence, an alleged betrayal and everyone's favorite topic, sex. 

But the truth is, we have no idea if the victim did actually scream her former partner's name during sex. All we know is that her alleged killer claims she did. Even if it is true, it's a ludicrous excuse for violence.

"Partner-killers often fabricate stories to justify the murders," said David Adams, a domestic violence expert who has written critically about media coverage of intimate partner violence. "[Media reports] take the killer's comments at face value, as if there is a logical connection there, as opposed to recognizing that it's actually irrelevant. It's irresponsible reporting."

It's not unusual for men who kill women to come up with bizarre "reasons" to explain their actions. A quick Google search will bring up a slew of similar stories:

Man Kills Wife Over Hamburger
Police: Woman Killed For Taking Call During Sex
Man Brutally Kills Wife Over Facebook Obsession
Police: Man Kills Wife After Dog Poops In Home
Man Strangled Girlfriend Over Obit, Cops Say
Man Shoots Girlfriend For Not Taking The Possibility Of A Zombie Apocalypse Seriously

These headlines were likely written with the intention of highlighting the absurdity of the killers' claims, but ultimately they reinforce the notion that the women played a role in their own deaths. 

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, said that media outlets should attribute the source of any such information in headlines. For example, headlines around Nemeth's murder should make crystal clear that the claim that the victim said her ex's name was made solely by the alleged killer and not backed up by any other evidence.

Moreover, Gitlin said he didn't think it was ethical to give Lopez's claim validity in the headline, as the alleged killer changed his story during his interview with the police. Lopez initially claimed that he and his girlfriend had rough but consensual sex, before he eventually confessed to the murder.

"I don't think he is a good source. He's not trustworthy," Gitlin said. If media outlets are set on including the salacious detail about the ex's name in the headline, he suggests something such as "Man, Changing Story, Says He Disemboweled Girlfriend After She Said Ex's Name During Sex."

Adams recommended another solution. In cases such as Nemeth's murder, he argued that media outlets should omit the perpetrator's justification for the killing from the headline, as it suggests causality. If the killer's claims are included in the body of the story, they should be clearly reported as something alleged by the killer and they should be accompanied by expert analysis about domestic homicides.

About three women a day are killed by their intimate partners in the U.S., according to Bureau of Justice statistics. Adams said it's a serious misunderstanding of the nature of domestic violence to say that one single event -- like serving an undercooked hamburger or accidentally saying your ex's name -- caused a homicide. "It removes the whole element of choice," he said. 

Instead of simply repeating what the killer claims, Adams said, journalists should be asking if the perpetrator has a history of abuse and looking for patterns of behavior. Domestic homicides don't usually come out of nowhere. There are often red flags before women are murdered. Most killers don't just "snap," despite media coverage to the contrary. 

There's also a calculated reason a killer might claim that he "snapped" because of something the victim did, according to Adams. If the perpetrator can argue that he flew into a spontaneous rage because of the victim's actions, he has a better chance of getting his charges reduced from first-degree, premeditated murder to second-degree murder.

We do women a great disservice when we uncritically repeat men's justifications for murdering them. The reason that killers are able to offer excuses for their lethal actions is because they are still alive. It stands to reason that the murdered women would tell very different stories about the lead-up to their homicides, if only they could.

Nemeth, 31, was a native of Peru and worked as a leasing agent at her apartment complex. Her grieving family, who called her by her middle name, Lizette, described her as a wonderful person who was "full of life."   

She did not die because of something she may or may not have uttered on the last night of her life. She died because someone chose to kill her. 

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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