"Just call them women" – when is a woman's job relevant to coverage of her murder?

A few years ago, following a series of murders in Ipswich of women who had been working in the red light district, we saw a flurry of columns in various newspapers and sites along the lines of this one on the BBC. These articles earnestly debated when – and whether – it was acceptable to refer to the victims in such stories as “murdered prostitutes” or “murdered sex workers” rather than simply “murdered women”:

When someone’s been murdered, does it matter what they did for a living?

Many people have contacted BBC News to complain that we have made a point of describing the women who’ve been killed in the Ipswich area as “prostitutes”. The problem must be the description, and not the language. At least once on Five Live we referred to the women as “sex workers”. This euphemism hardly rebuts the basic complaint, expressed succinctly in one text message we received – “just call them women”.

The complaint took two forms – we wouldn’t bother to report that a murder victim was, say, a plumber, and when we report that the victim was a prostitute we are being judgemental and implying that her life was less worthy than another’s.

There were similar articles following the murders of several women working in similar circumstances, but this time in Bradford, last spring.

This has been in the back of my mind over the last few weeks for two reasons – or rather, one situation and a number of semi-related references. The situation is the murder before Christmas of Jo Yeates in Bristol.

The first reference is this tongue in cheek article from satirical news site NewsThump which carries the headline “The death of one middle class woman is equal to that of six prostitutes”:

The UK media has finally revealed the calculations used when categorising the importance of a human life, or the scale of natural disasters.

The calculations, which are the industry standard, reveal that a mudslide in Brazil that kills between 10 and 20 people would receive the same level as coverage as a covering of snow in Oxfordshire that caused a retired ex-army officer to slip and nearly fall.
The calculations are also used for stories involving murder, and highlight the importance put on the victim not being a prostitute, drug addict or a foreigner when it comes to receiving round the clock coverage.

Our insider continued, “If the victim is respectable, white, middle class, and with a loving family then it’s going to receive blanket coverage.”

“If, on the other hand, the victims are a group, or to use the collective noun, a ‘shame’ of prostitutes then it will take quite a lot of violence to generate the same sort of interest.”

Yes, it’s satire, but there’s a more than a grain of truth there.

At the same time, I’ve been quietly noticing how many news outlets are referring to the murder of landscape architect Joanna Yeates (see also: murder of the landscape architect, murdered landscape architect, murdered architect, murder of architect etc), including the BBC, which just this morning published a story with the first paragraph:

A 32-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of landscape architect Jo Yeates.

So they “wouldn’t bother to report that a murder victim was, say, a plumber” but they would if she was, say, a landscape architect?

In the 2006 Ipswich murders coverage, the BBC dismissed the complaint I quoted at the top of this post, and defended its use of the women’s jobs as a descriptor, like this:

In this case, the fact that the women were prostitutes was crucially relevant. It suggests, if nothing else, that prostitution is a dangerous way to earn a living and that a prostitute is more likely than most people to meet a murderer. That has to be the starting point of the police inquiry.

If that’s the case, then how crucially relevant to the Jo Yeates murder inquiry is her job as a landscape architect? Is it inherently more dangerous way to earn a living? Are landscape architects more likely to meet a murderer? Or is it fair to say that in this case, as in so many others, the victim’s profession adds colour and human interest to the coverage rather than just calling her a woman?


Brilliant stand up Stewart Lee takes obnoxious columnist Richard Littlejohn to task over his odious and callous piece on murdered prostitutes, and his need to dehumanise (from 5 minute mark).

12 thoughts on “"Just call them women" – when is a woman's job relevant to coverage of her murder?

  1. Although I’ve never noticed before, it seems that this *is* specific to women. Looking through BBC News search results for “murder”, murdered men’s occupations don’t seem to get a mention.

    Interesting observation. And odd journalism.

    (Love your comment box, btw. Lovely font, and lovely, big text.)

  2. @Dan – no, but they do seem to mention how many kids a murdered man had fathered, as though that’s relevant. By the BBC’s logic, maybe being a dad is inherently dangerous?

  3. I find the thrust of your argument utterly bizarre.
    Of course the profession and other details of a victim should be included – it’s part of how we relate to these people as human beings. It is part of the story that informs us about the crime and allows us to empathise.
    The examples you give hardly point to a sexist conspiracy. Philip Lawrence was a murdered headteacher and Keith Blakelock was a murdered policeman.
    Put “murdered” into google news and you’ll see how wrong your assumptions are.
    There is a “murdered dad-of-three” “murdered plumber” and factory worker charged with murder.

  4. I agree completely with you on this! It seems that they’ll also only print the jobs of women if it’s a high flying “important” job such as Lanscape Architect or if it’s a “seedy” job such as prostitution. It’s almost as if they want to let you know in the the first sentence- the level of concern you should give to the story. So if it’s a landscape architect this is saying respectable girl, good education, etc. If it’s prostitutes then there’s been a murder but don’t worry too much- it’s only sex workers and it’s there own fault really.

  5. I concur with Dan, something I’ve not noticed before either, quite probably a product of generational conditioning (certainly in my case).
    An excellent post with a great video by Stewart Lee to bring the point home.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Nick.

    I wasn’t trying to make a point about sexism, so much as highlighting the difference between the use of job descriptors at all.

    In the pieces linked to above, “murdered prostitute” was deemed pejorative because it dehumanises the victims, while “murdered landscape architect” is more acceptable because it humanises them.

    I’m very interested to hear from those trained in journalism about when they might use a job descriptor in front of a murder victim’s name – is it as straightforward as that BBC article from 2006 i.e. “when it’s relevant to the circumstances of their death” which is arguably true of both Philip Lawrence (murdered outside his school) and Keith Blakelock (killed while policing a riot)?

    Or is it more nuanced than that? Are there “good” jobs and “bad” jobs?

    So I’m not sure who brought up the sexist conspiracy, but it wasn’t me…

  7. Good point, though when I studied journalism, I was always taught to include as much identifying detail as possible as to not confuse the person who is being written about. As a courts and crime reporter, I always had to include details, such as name, age, suburb, number of children (if any), and occupation, for both the victim and accused.
    That way murdered architect John Smith, 34, of Clapham, south London, doesn’t get confused with still-living business analyst John Smith, 34, of Earl’s Court, west London. Also, living people who have been wrongly confused with a dead person can sue.

  8. I broadly agree with Nick, inasmuch as these facts, irrelevant as they generally are, feel somehow useful to help us relate to the victims or get some kind of a sense of who they were, even if it’s not in any way accurate. Furthermore, we are largely defined by what we do, for example it’s usually one of the first things you ask when you meet someone new. Nevertheless, I don’t see why it has to be mentioned *every single time*. Yes, it is totally relevant that 6 women murdered in a particular geographical area and period of time were all working as prostitutes, but that doesn’t mean they need to be referred to as “murdered prostitutes” every time; people are capable or retaining that information without needing constant reminders of it. I suspect in Jo Yeates’ case we keep hearing “murdered landscape architect” as a result of lazy journalism, because it feels like a neat, descriptive sentence, when in fact it’s not really conveying any useful information. After all, surely pretty much everyone in Britain could now get by perfectly well just on Yeates’ name?

    Incidentally since I saw this article I posted the NewsThump link to Facebook, and my cousin has replied to say that she did actually do some work at university to calculate the amount media coverage of fatal events we should expect to see based on the distance of the events from the observer, e.g. 1000 dead in China = 1 dead in Britain in terms of column inches / news minutes.

  9. Crime reporting is an important part of why people buy newspapers, and has been for two hundred years (A long time ago I read an intriguing book on Victorian newspapers called ‘Black Swine In The Sewers of Hampstead’.) Crime reports are also a fascinating resource for historians and anthropologists interested in social norms and attitudes.

    In the cases you mention, I see three themes at work: first, the way a person’s social status (job, money , age, marital arrangements) is used to give readers clues about how to feel about them; second, the notion of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ (in both victims of crime and those accused of them); and third, an interest in sex, which in British life often means that it’s acceptable to discuss what other people get up to in bed, as long as you express shock and disgust when you’ve had enough.

    Men’s occupations and their character get a lot of coverage in crime reporting. Think of Chris Jefferies, the school eacher with an interest in poetry who was briefly a suspect in the Yeates murder. Think of Mark Saunders, the barrister shot by police, and John Monckton, the murdered banker. We have a prominent story in the news this week about undercover police officers having sex with, and in one case marrying, people they had under surveillance. Gareth Williams was in the papers as a spy who liked kinky sex and wore women’s clothes, and the Max Mosley case also featured the revelation that one of Mosley’s favourite S&M partners was the wife of an MI5 officer.

    Men don’t have anything like the same level of scrutiny appliedto their sex lives as women do, but in the world of crime reporting, it’s still important to publish personal details that tell the readers how much, and how, to sympathise with them. The genre demands it.

  10. Pingback: Pigsaw Blog » Blog Archive » Bookmarks for 21 Jan 2011

  11. I agree utterly with the author, yet again the media coverage of this Jo Yeates murder highlights the misrepresentation of tragedy in the media. Would the media have been quite so interested in this case if the victim had been a white working-class male instead of a white, middle-class female with a glamorous profile and a high-flying job title? I doubt it, and this sort of mass coverage has fuelled an investigation story distorted through the lens of bad journalism. What is more I cannot understand why the suspect’s name has been plastered all over every newspaper in the land, when he hasn’t been charged. One cannot help feeling that there is undue media pressure to get someone, anyone arraigned for this, with the associated danger of a miscarriage of justice.

Comments are closed.