Let's play "What's Wrong with This Headline?"

OK, kids–here’s today’s challenge:  “Couple, their 3 kids found dead in Maryland home.”

Who or what might have killed an entire family?  Was it carbon monoxide?  Botulism?  World War II ordinance discovered in the sandbox too late?  (I’m humming the Jeopardy theme while you click and read.)

Time’s up!

If I were the grandparent who discovered my daughter and grandchildren murdered by my son-in-law, I sure as heck wouldn’t like the news dubbing the murderer and my daughter a “couple,” and the senseless slaughter of my grandchildren as being “found dead” instead of “murdered by their father.”

This is yet another sickening example of the news media doing the work of our culture in erasing or obscuring the deadly combination of modal American masculinity and gun violence!  But shhhhhh!  We can’t talk about that–it’s against the Bill of Rights!  The Second Amendment trumps the First Amendment every time.  We can’t write the headline like this:  “Man Murders Wife, his 3 Children with Firearm.”  Guns don’t kill people–men kill people, especially the people they’re most closely related to, and they just so happen to choose guns because of their extraordinary efficiency when used in murderous rampages. 

Where are the articles about this disturbing epidemic of violent husbands and unnatural fathers?  (Just imagine if one or two women in this country every week gunned down their husbands and children.  Just imagine the headlines, the non-stop media coverage, and the endless analysis if it happened even once!)  Why isn’t this considered a national public health emergency?  Where are the ad campaigns encouraging people not to keep guns in their homes, and urging men to seek counseling if they take their anger out on their family members?  (Hey–it’s worked so far with drunk driving and smoking–maybe not so much with the anti-drug campaigns.)  Where is the leadership by men in our communities to model masculinities based on respect and care for othes rather than the control of other people?  I wonder if we are naturalizing this extreme form of male violence because it’s one of the few achievements that women have shown little interest in as of yet–unlike education, politics, medicine, the law, and so on.

Coverture isn’t dead, and some men are willing to kill to prove it.  Headlines like the one above are complicit in letting murderers off the hook and the further erasure of the women and children victims.  I guess it’s not just the killers who don’t think women and children are worth the trouble–it’s all of us.

21 thoughts on “Let's play "What's Wrong with This Headline?"

  1. Ever since you posted about this, I’ve been finding this sort of language everywhere. It’s pissing me off. Check out this “domestic violence” in my hometown in Minnesota:


    The first sentence:: In a bloody end to a domestic dispute, a young woman’s on-again, off-again boyfriend shot her to death Sunday afternoon outside a Maple Grove McDonald’s restaurant, then committed suicide on a nearby freeway, police said.

    And the headline is, of course, “Woman, man dead after shooting at Maple Grove McDonalds”. Yes, they both pulled out guns in a fifty-paces duel.

    I understand the sociological reasoning behind creating a “domestic violence” category – different acts of violence in the home probably have certain characteristics that make it useful to be studied together. However, “domestic violence” is now code for “men being violent towards women” whether they were living together or not or whether the violence occurred in the home. I think this both diminishes the weight of the murder that occurred as well as shields other sorts of domestic violence from scrutiny, like elder and child abuse, or emotional abuse from any side of any partnership in the home. I mean, come on, the guy shot her with a gun in a public place. How is this domestic? She was probably trying to leave the relationship. She was meeting him in a public place, presumably for her own protection.

    I’m also not sure how I feel about the phrase “murder-suicide” in these contexts, both in the Michigan community college case or in this one.

    Anyhow, wanted to say thanks for bringing this up.


  2. Thanks, Quail–sorry your comment took a while to get posted–it got held in moderation because of the link.

    Great point about the fact that this murder wasn’t exactly a duel. And yes, once again the fact that a woman consented once to have a romantic and sexual relationship with a man is somehow more important than the fact that he MURDERED HER.


  3. Historiann, This is a horrifying story and I agree that domestic violence, primarily by men, represents a genuine health crisis.

    Let me propose an alternative analysis of the headline, however. If you Google this story, you will find many different versions of the story, under the same headline, all attributed to the Associated Press. Stories such as this, apparently, are constantly edited and expanded as new information becomes available. The version that you link to appears to be an *early*, relatively cautious version of the story, before all of the facts came out. Other, more complete, versions were published with the same title, but this may have less to do with the “erasure” of male violence than the vicissitudes of internet news dissemination (as facts become available, the story changed, but the title didn’t). Interestingly, if you click on some the stories with the “Couple, their 3 kids found dead…” title, you will find a new, updated title, i.e.: “Man Kills Wife, 3 Children In Home”:


    I also find your discussion of constitutional rights a little strange. To begin, self-censorship has nothing to do with the 1st Amendment, which deals with *government* restriction of free speech. Indeed self-censorship is presumably *protected* by the Bill of Rights. Nor am I really sure that there really is a pattern of self-censorship by the press regarding gun violence. To convince me, you would have to provide more proof than this example. It is worth pointing out that many gun ownership advocates (I am generally pro-gun-control, by the way) argue that the press in fact *exaggerates* gun violence. Indeed, there has been a recent debate regarding the reporting of the provenance of guns seized in Mexico:



  4. In the online version, at least, the Washington Post gets it right: “Town Baffled After Man Kills Wife, Children and Self.”

    Historiann, have you run across work on the history of this at all? I’ve stumbled upon a few instances in my own research and in things like the incident in A Midwife’s Tale; is this (apparently persistent) form of familial violence a particularly stark example of the patriarchal equilibrium? There do seem to be differences — the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century instances I’ve encountered tend to be related to (or at least attributed to) religious delusion or personal derangement rather than jealousy or marital strife, and to be axe-related rather than gun-related — but the dynamic seems somewhat similar in the man’s presumption/assertion of life-and-death power over women and children.


  5. JJO–I’ve never seen any discussion of it, but it clearly seems like something that should be considered in light of “patriarchal equilibrium.” Randy Roth’s work on murder in Northern New England is probably a great source of data for answering some of your good questions. (And you’re right–mass murder used to involve much more stabbing and chopping than shooting.)

    The two books I know best on domestic violence in early America are Over the Threshhold: Intimate Violence in Early America, edited by Christine Daniels and Michael Kennedy (1999), and Ann Taves’ excellent study, Religion and Domestic Violence in early New England: The Memoirs of Abigal Abbot Bailey (1989). Does anyone else have other recommendations?

    The scene you mention in A Midwife’s Tale always bothered me (and not just for the obvious reasons). Ulrich chooses to treat both the rape and the mass-murder scene as “curious tears in the social fabric” of Hallowell, when I think they should be considered not “curious” but perhaps expressions of gendered power (albeit on the extremes of the continuum.) I guess the historian’s approach to things like this come down to whether you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of person. (Me, I’m definitely in the half-empty camp when it comes to women and power!)


  6. quizmaster–sorry that your comment got held up in moderation. (It was those links again.) You’re right that the story has changed over time as more information became available. The link above is a different one from the one that inspired this post–when I drafted this post yesterday, the story posted under that headline was lengthier and more detailed, and it made it clear that the husband/father was the killer. But when I checked it again this morning shortly after publishing, it linked to a story about how the woman victim had blogged about her husband’s recent job-related frustrations and the headline was something about blogging.

    I see your point about the media sensationalizing violence–but in the cases where the violence is “domestic,” there seems to be no effort to see this as a systemic problem. (Versus the public and media reaction to the 9/11/01 attacks, or to the Oklahoma City bombing.) We as a society apparently condone domestic violence and murder as just one end of the continuum of heterosexual and parental relations. This is disturbing to me.


  7. Sigh. Another awful story focused on my home state of Maryland. Last week, porn. This week, a dad gone mad with a gun tragedy. It’s awful, and you’re right that those initial headlines obscure the heart of the story.

    Note to Historiann readers: Sometimes good things happen in Maryland, just as they do in Historiann’s home state of Colorado, where, ten years ago today two more gun-toting guys went off on a bloody spree. Move along, people. No public health emergencies here. (Actually, though, I’ve found some of the 10th anniversary coverage on Columbine pretty moving — focused on how the survivors, now adults, have re-built their lives.)


  8. Roxie–sure enough, I certainly didn’t mean to pick on Maryland. And everyone knows that Colorado is the home of gun violence now both in high school murders and church murders! (Not to mention, random crazies gunned down in the statehouse every once in a while.) And, while I live in Colorado, it’s not my native state.

    The 10th anniversary of the Columbine murders has been played up, but I must admit that I have very mixed feelings. Last week I went to a lecture by historian of commemoration Ed Linenthal, who has written about historic battlefields, the creation of the American Holocaust museum, and the Oklahoma City bombing and its commemoration. He basically asked us to consider what the point of commemoration is, in the absence of meaningful public policy change. He noted that President and Mrs. Clinton attended the opening of the Holocaust museum while working actively against using the G word (genocide) in describing events in Bosnia and Rwanda. And this was the week in which President Obama visited Turkey and pointedly avoided using the term “genocide” when talking about the Armenian genocide.

    I see the same trend among these acts of “domestic” domestic terrorism in the U.S. since Columbine. No change, no discussion, denial of the problem–but we all can attend a memorial service and hold a candle and cry a little? What’s the point without taking steps to change things?


  9. I wish I could get a bronzed plaque of this:

    Where are the articles about this disturbing epidemic of violent husbands and unnatural fathers? (Just imagine if one or two women in this country every week gunned down their husbands and children…) Why isn’t this considered a national public health emergency?

    Right fucking On.

    What does it say about us/society that this doesn’t make us all scream and pull out our hair? It’s incomprehensible to me.


  10. Quizmaster points to an important temporal dimensions of writing breaking news. When you are working for AP on deadline, you have to go with the information on had before deadline. And in a a newspaper you have to come up with a headline that fits the space (very old school, but some of us still read news in print). But rather than see this as the “vicissitudes of news dissemination,” I would read it as the ideological effects of working within the temporal limits of news writing. In other words, reporters do not always have time to consider the ideologial effects of language. And thus their world view is more likely to seep into the headlines and/or the prose. Or to put that another way, “I need to get a version of that story in as soon as possible, even if I am overlooking male violence.”


  11. And it’s not just the press. About 12 years ago, a former student of mine and her two children were murdered by their husband/father. At the funeral — filled with families — one of the sermons, directed to the children, was all about how your parents love you and will take care of you. HELLO? We are here why? It blew my mind.

    My own take is that much commemoration in contemporary US is feel-good: we have a memorial, now we don’t have to think about policy. People are far too quick, in my opinion, to design memorials. So the memorial becomes a way of saying we’re sorry something bad happened, and not figuring out what is is we are memorializing.

    WHen I was working on domestic violence, it was clear that in early modern England, men killed their wives far more often than women killed husbands, but the pamphlet literature focuses on the women. But the ways in which society responded to violence actually strengthened patriarchy. . .


  12. Rad, thanks for your elaboration on quizmaster’s point. And of course in the on-line age, these pressures are even more acute. This is why I’m reflexively skeptical that the digital world is all about liberation for everyone, all the time–how can it be, when so much on line is just the same old myths and representations, only more of them published even faster. (I keep thinking back to Greenblatt’s point about “mimesis” in Marvelous Possessions–how much easier it is to make endless representations of ideological constructs!)

    Susan–I forgot that you knew someone who was murdered with her children. I’m sorry–what a weird experience at the funeral. You might appreciate this column from the Denver Post about a local pastor who agreed to perform a funeral for one of the Columbine killers, and who was pushed out of his pastorate as a result:

    Then followed a year of strife in a church divided about Marxhausen’s outspokenness and notoriety. Though he gave only a handful of sermons on the topic, some parishioners bristled at his incessant urging that they talk about what had happened.

    . . . . .

    “If the members could have dragged the boys’ bodies through town and thrown rocks at them, they would have felt better,” he says. “But we live in a civilized society. . . . People want to be fixed and made whole fast. If a leader is associated with the source of their anxiety, then the leader must go.”


  13. Susan’s example also touches on another aspect of this. In some ways, I think the “domestic” piece makes it sound worse, not less bad, precisely because we want to believe that our homes and families are safe. It’s the boogeyman/stranger/Other on the street that we need to fear, not our father, husband, boyfriend, etc. So, when something happens that challenges that, it seems that much more horrifying.

    Then again, my own reasoning partially falls apart when thinking about rape — there, stranger rapes confirm our fears of boogeymen, and there must be something exceptional to explain rapes committed by someone known to the victim, and these still don’t seem to be taken very seriously or seen as a very big deal by a lot of people. The two (murder, rape) examples are similar in that they’re both framed in ways to highlight our boogeymen fears, not the greater likelihood of a known offender, but murders are presented as horrifying while rapes are downplayed or not mentioned at all in most cases.

    Your pastor example is horrifying, and I think does point to one of the big dimensions of a lot of issues — if we don’t talk about it, we can pretend it doesn’t exist.


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  16. The outrage about domestic violence expressed here is valid, and you don’t need me to validate it for you. What’s misguided and unjustified, however, is to point to a news headline as complicit in what may well be a national mental health crisis. It’s simply this: You cannot convict a person in a headline or in a news story until a court has done so. You cannot (at least, not without subjecting yourself to potential legal consequences, such as a libel complaint) identify someone as a murderer or even killer before the judicial system has had a chance to determine that as truth. Even in John Ashcroft’s America, a person was entitled to due process. So, correct though the labels you’d like to see applied from the get-go may well turn out to be, publishing stories about violent crime, domestic or otherwise, call for reason and prudence. Refocus and redirect your anger toward other institutions (the law, the schools, the churches, etc.) that coddle male killers and even create the environment in which they kill at, virtually, will.


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