Monday, May 9, 2011

Domestic Hate Murder Coverage Style Guide

(GREAT BIG WARNING: This post deals exclusively with parents who murder their disabled children, and the ableism in media coverage of these murders.)

I woke up this morning to news of yet another autistic child murdered by their parent. In this case, the child is Glen Freaney, whose mother is currently on trial for strangling him last May. As usual, the grief I felt for Glen was aggravated by rage at the deeply ableist way his murder was covered in many of the articles I read. I have written before about journalists' tendency to express sympathy for parents who murder their disabled children. This time, I decided to take a new approach.

Since it is apparently very difficult for journalists to write respectfully about disabled children whose parents have murdered them, I took it upon myself to create this style guide. If you are a journalist about to begin covering one of these cases, please take these simple tips to heart:

DO NOT write that the victim “suffered from” their disability. Not only is this incorrect terminology, but it is very inconsiderate when in this case what the person really suffered from was being the child of a murderer.

DO talk about who the victim was as a person. What did they like? What were their hobbies? What were they struggling with? Did they like ice cream? What was their favorite color? If you don’t have enough space in the article to talk about the person whose murder you are covering, I recommend that you make room by cutting the obligatory paragraph where you write in horror about how they still wore diapers when they were killed, or how they would have needed 24-hour care for the rest of their life, as if these things were mitigating factors in the crime. It’s not wrong to write bluntly about the victim’s disability, but it absolutely is wrong to use the facts of the victim’s life to garner sympathy for the murderer.

DO NOT ask the readers to put themselves in the shoes of the murderer. DO NOT prominently feature the same old interviews by double-talking fellow-parents-of-disabled-children, who say that while they cannot excuse the murderer’s action, they can understand it. DO NOT seek opinions from experts on the suffering of murderous parents. DO NOT end your piece on a “thoughtful,” “balanced,” note in which you ask a provocatively open-ended question about whether society should really hold the murderer to blame for killing their own child.

DO interview the same people that you would usually interview in a murder case – the victim’s friends, teachers, faith leaders, whatever. Oh, you can also interview those of the victim’s family members who didn’t think that killing them was an awesome idea.

DO NOT lay this corpse at the feet of the special education system, or Medicare, or SSI. There are plenty of problems with each of these systems for you to investigate in detail. Please, do an exposé or five on how this country doesn’t adequately care for its disabled citizens. But DO NOT state or imply that the natural, logical consequence of these failed systems is child murder. If you want to link this specific tragic event to a larger societal ill, DO critique the ableism in a society where child murderers can find sympathy if their victims meet the right requirements.

DO use the phrase “hate crime” where appropriate. DO NOT FUCKING DARE refer to the murder as the desperate act of a loving parent. DO NOT try to tug the reader’s heartstrings with paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing the murderer’s worries for their child’s future. DO remember that if the murderer was concerned about their child’s future, they would not have prevented their child from having one.

DO remember as you write this article that when a parent murders their child, this is a bad thing.


  1. I need to do the same thing about the way murders of trans people are covered. But wow, just wow.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Zoe. Love it.

  3. I can appreciate that some readers may need your content warning, but only because to some people the truth hurts.

    Sometimes the truth needs to hurt.
    Thank you for writing. I'm a big fan.

  4. Hi Zoe-
    I was truly moved by your article, really. I believe love has many faces and not only the unrealistic romantic dimension we all want to believe in. The question you are raising is that many parents do not have the help they should have because of lack of family support or else. You are proposing interviewing the victims friends, their teachers, ...sometimes there are simply none...especially in situation of heavy disabilities.

  5. SamLou -- I think the question raised is nothing close to what you thought. It was more along the lines of "Don't murder your kids?"

    Her point you seem to have missed. It is that he parents are evil &*$#s and they deserve to be painted in exactly that light.

    On a lighter note, maybe someone should make a public service announcement.

  6. Hello, new reading people! Thanks so much for reading and leaving lovely comments.

  7. Also, yay Jess! Happy to see you here.

  8. Zoe: Thank you for a much-needed and long overdue guide for journalists. I speak (or more aptly type) as the father of a remarkable 14YO son with Asperger's who is constantly horrified by the reportage on these tragedies and work to educate my colleagues as best I can. This post is a tremendous help.

  9. As a parent of a disabled child I heartily agree!

  10. Dear Illusion,
    Here is a way to remind the ableists to mind themselves:
    And here
    is a rather offensive and careless article by a guy who seems to be the founder of science journalism at MIT. I can forgive Louis Kunkel, who is yet another doctor who thinks people need to be cured of things he doesn't understand, but a journalist who consults the Nuremberg Manual of Style is downright dangerous.

  11. Gus - I couldn't help but chuckle at "Nuremberg Manual of Style." Thanks for the links!

  12. Hi Zoe,
    Here's another. I've sort of run out of steam on this one. I guess Canadians get tired of hearing that they're just another third world country in respect of accessibility....

  13. Zoe, I'm new to your work, but I sense I will become a regular reader. Thank you for speaking the truth.

  14. Brilliant and timely. Thank you for posting this. It's a poor reflection of society when killers are glorified and justified in the media.

    I especially like this phrase:
    "DO remember that if the murderer was concerned about their child’s future, they would not have prevented their child from having one."

    Thank for daring to be honest. Let's hope people start listening!