Minna Nikunen's Murder-Suicide in the News: Doing the Routine and the Drama

Murder-suicide in the news: 
Doing the routine and the drama
Minna Nikunen
University of Tampere

European Journal of Cultural Studies
14(1) 81–101 © The Author(s) 2011 Reprints and permissions: sagepub. co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1367549410377141 ecs.sagepub.com
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In this article I use Finnish newspaper reports on murder-suicide to explore how the moral orders of gender, heterosexual relationships and family are used in constructing newsworthiness or routine.The two main contexts of murder-suicide, a homicide followed by the perpetrator’s suicide, were the family and the heterosexual relationship. I concentrate on femicide-suicides because it is the largest group of murder-suicides,and it is the group that is characteristically routine or mundane and only occasionally breaks into news visibility.The study is ethnomethodological: I inspect how members of society – as journalists are seen here – make sense of extraordinary events by relying on conventional ideas about gender, the relations between different people and family in their practical daily task of sorting out routine from the newsworthy.The data was gathered from four of the most widely read newspapers and local papers in a five-year period from 1996–2000.

categorizations, crime news, ethnomethodology, gendered violence, moral order, murder-suicide, newsworthiness


In this article I investigate how gendered categorization and explanations are used in Finnish crime news when murder-suicide cases are divided into newsworthy and every- day routine news. I ask what are the commonsense premises of the division used in newspaper articles between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’, and how gender(ed) catego- ries are used as a resource in this process. The orientation is ethnomethodological: the newspapers are seen as a forum to communicate (interact), to make sense of the world in

Corresponding author:
Minna Nikunen, Department of Social Research, University of Tampere, 33014 Tampere, Finland. Email: minna.nikunen@uta.fi
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ways that are shared by the members of that particular society. The newspaper as context is taken into consideration, but journalism is not my main interest here.

I focus on femicide-suicide, especially within intimate heterosexual relationships.1 Filicide-suicides (child killings by a parent who then kills themselves) and other murder- suicides are used as a background resource. My aim is to inspect the social and moral orders of intimate heterosexual relationships and violence against women. I ask: what is required of the violence for it to be seen as worthy of public attention, and when is it seen as mundane or private? Furthermore, when can public attention be translated as a con- struction of an important social problem demanding intrusion, and when is it a case of mere dramatics isolated from society?

Murder-suicide involves a person who has committed a homicide and then immedi- ately or after a very short time period kills themselves. The term does not cover suicide pacts in which people participate willingly (Carcach and Grabosky, 1998).2 Men are per- petrators in 90 percent of cases. In cases of a man killing his female partner and himself, the most common motive is fear of losing the partner by divorce or, as a consequence, his own death (Cohen, 2001; Kivivuori and Lehti, 2003; see also Starzomski and Nussbaum, 2000). Despite the one-sidedness of the decision, motive and action, the cases are some- times called ‘extended suicides’, thus indicating that the act is more like a suicide than a homicide (in the Finnish language there is an equivalent to ‘extended suicide’ but not to ‘murder-suicide’). In Finland, only about 6–8 percent of all homicides are murder- suicides (Kivivuori, 1999; Kivivuori and Lehti, 2003; Lehti, 2002; Virkkunen, 1974).3 However, they are common when homicide occurs in intimate relationships: in Finland, one-fifth of femicides and one-fifth of filicides are murder-suicides (Lehti, 2002).

Since I am interested in mundane reasoning, especially in connection to gendered violence in the news context, the theoretical perspective is twofold. On the one hand, I rely on the ethnomethodological ideas of categorization as a resource for making under- standable the complexity of a mundane life (Sacks, 1972a, 1972b). Gender is an impor- tant category in these processes (e.g. Järviluoma and Roivainen, 2003). I will elaborate on this in more detail in the section on cultural categorizations. On the other hand, there is a growing body of research on gendered violence, especially the studies on news value, which are used in this article. Violence is gendered both by the statistics and the meanings attached to it: the explanations differ according to the gender of the partici- pants (e.g. Ronkainen, 2001). In accounts of violence, people give meanings and expla- nations that often reduce or increase the responsibility of the perpetrator, and therefore could be consequential. Accounts in courts of law are materially consequential while newspaper accounts are culturally consequential, although they too can have some mate- rial consequences, such as their influence on political decisions.

Previous feminist and critical research has paid attention to the ways in which news value highlights particular crime: for example, mugging done by the so-called good ene- mies, ‘hooligans’ or ‘Hell’s Angels’ (Hall et al., 1978; Lee, 1984). While some victims such as white middle-class women are seen as newsworthy, other victims are forgotten, namely women of colour, prostitutes or other women not seen as deserving victim status (Benedict, 1992; see also Clark, 1992). Some perpetrators and victims also seem to enjoy more privacy in the media, as is the case with middle-aged, middle-class men in com- parison to their ‘mentally unstable’ daughters who have accused their fathers of child

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abuse (Kitzinger, 1998). Carter (1998), among others, argues that some crime phenom- ena are normalized, such as domestic violence. Other researchers have pointed out that the media prefer stories of ‘the beast’ over the story of misogyny (Bland, 1992; Eglin and Hester, 2003). Some crimes such as rape are argued to be reported as entertainment or in order to promote ‘stranger danger’, and thus frames that feminist research offers are ignored (Soothill and Walby, 1991). Tendencies to blame the victim, especially when the perpetrator is ‘respectable’, have been found (Clark, 1992). Additionally, there are numerous studies on moral panic which often relate to the above-mentioned ‘good ene- mies’ or ‘worthy victims’ such as children (Spector and Kitsuse, 1987). In this article I want to contribute to the previous body of knowledge by a detailed membership catego- rization analysis of the ways in which news value stays or is increased when the crime is always murder-suicide, and the relationship between perpetrator and victim is a former or present heterosexual relationship.

I have gathered murder-suicide data from four Finnish newspapers which are the most widely read in the country (according to national media research by Gallup, cited in Helsingin Sanomat, 25 February 2004), and in each crime case there is a local, leading newspaper4 story attached to the data. My objective was to gather material that is a part of the daily life of Finnish people, and this justifies the combination of dailies, tabloids and local papers. Two of the newspapers mentioned above are daily broadsheets: Helsin­ gin Sanomat (HS) and Aamulehti (AL), while other two, Ilta­Sanomat (IS) and Iltalehti (IL), are tabloids. Helsingin Sanomat is the leading daily with a national circulation (446,972 in 2000), Aamulehti is the second biggest daily (circulation 133,779 in 2000), and Ilta­Sanomat (circulation 214 610) and Iltalehti (circulation 126,368) are the only tabloids published in Finland (source: Finnish Audit Bureau of Circulations). Although widely read, the two dailies are especially directed towards local audiences: the first focuses on the metropolitan area of Helsinki, and the second on Tampere and its sur- roundings (the third biggest city in Finland).5 At first, more local and rural newspapers with small circulations were included because the assumption was that there would be more detailed stories of these crimes in them. This did not prove to be the case, as local news stories do not usually differ from the national news. Nevertheless, in cases of high news value there are some features that the local papers highlight, and therefore provide interesting material. (I will explore this later in more detail.)

The data comprises all 33 murder-suicide cases reported in the papers in this period, which means almost all of the cases that took place during 1996–2000, and 156 news reports (sometimes consisting of more than one story) (see Appendix, Table 1). Nineteen of the cases – 86 of the reports – are male–female murder-suicides either in or after an intimate relationship, with one exception. It is these reports that I concentrate on in this article. There are fewer mother-perpetrated filicides in the press than the statistics imply; otherwise, the gathered data are consistent with the existing statistics (e.g. Kivivuori, 1999; Vanamo et al., 2001).

The moral orders of gender and family, which are the main concern of this research, do not change rapidly. I argue that the expectations and norms concerning heterosexual relations or family ties have not changed much since the data gathering. Newspapers continue to use the same type of headlines and to describe people through gender and family categorizations. There are of course some changes: for example, murder-suicides
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as well as other types of violent crime become popular from time to time. This can hap- pen when a crimewave or an increase in the statistical figures is assumed by the press to be taking place. However, this mainly changes the volume and number of newsworthy stories, rather than the categorizations and moral orders utilized. Also, some angles can be more popular than others. The data used here include periods of both high and low press interest.

I have divided the cases into different categories, mainly according to the relationship of the perpetrator and the victim as well as the perpetrator’s gender. This was not a straightforward task, since some cases were not easy to place: for example, in one case a man shot his former partner’s mother. This case I place into femicide, a group that other- wise consisted of female (ex-)partners as victims. Multiple victims also presented a prob- lem that I solved by creating a group of ‘filicides and family killings’, since there were always the perpetrator’s children among the victims.
In this article, first I present a few features of murder-suicides and their publicity that are relevant to the question of newsworthiness, especially the question of intimacy and the division of suicide and crime, namely the context in which the news appears. Second, I will elaborate on the analysis method, membership categorization and its theoretical roots in ethnomethodology. The analysis will begin with a routine case and then I will present the exceptions, the features that increase the visibility of femicide news. In con- structing a newsworthy angle, even feminist framings can be used. Sometimes violence against women is problematized under certain conditions, but usually other fears, dan- gers and worries are more likely to be utilized. Finally, I will consider the consequences of constructing some events as newsworthy and some problems as important, while oth- ers are routine and unimportant.

The context of doing the routine and the drama

Dividing crimes into newsworthy and routine cases is a way to present order in everyday life. Some crimes are seen important or interesting, while others are not. Since newspa- per space is limited, it is impossible to give the same amount of attention to every news story. The rules and premises of this division work are interesting from a cultural analysis point of view. As Marian Meyers has written:

[A]ll crime news is guided by a common understanding of news values and imperatives. Crime news is culturally defined and reflects the society’s predominant values and assumptions as well as organizational considerations and constrains of the news organization ... news values constitute a framework that supports the dominant ideology while marginalizing, trivializing, and constructing as deviant or dangerous any challenge to it. (1997: 21–22)

The connection between hegemonic moral orders and news value is obvious, although I would like to argue that there is also room for divergent angles.

At first glance, murder-suicides seem like crimes that would be likely to receive wide media coverage. These are serious violent crimes that do not take place every day and the number of homicide victims is higher compared to run-of-the-mill homicides (Kivivuori

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and Lehti, 2003). If the backgrounds of both the perpetrator and victim are considered, they resemble average citizens more than people involved in mundane homicide cases: they are often working class or even middle class (Kivivuori and Lehti, 2003). There is also a resemblance to certain Greek tragedies or Shakespeare’s plays, in which women such as Medea kill their children and themselves and the men, such as Othello, kill their wives and themselves. The public debate on violence against women was extensive dur- ing the time the data was collected. As a consequence, there was both a narrative form readily available which could be drawn upon, and a current debate to be used in forming the angles for the news stories (on angles see Byerly, 1999).

However, besides the above-mentioned factors, coverage depends on how ethical rules on journalism and suicides are interpreted. If the event is conceived of as suicide, it might not be published. Also, if the incident is seen as private, the details are not recounted. A self-regulating committee for publishers and journalists, the Council of Mass Media in Finland,6 has guidelines used by newspapers regarding ethical matters. All the newspa- pers in the present data are members of this committee. The guidelines state that:

highly delicate matters in one’s personal life may only be published with the consent of the person in question, or if such matters are of considerable public interest. Protection of privacy must also be considered when using photographic materials.

The guidelines are taken seriously by Finnish publishers and journalists (see Heinonen, 1995).7 Because suicides are viewed as private incidents, the rules are applied so that they are left unpublished. However, when a suicide is conjoined with a crime, it is treated as a matter of public interest and published. Suicide in itself is not a crime in Finland. Another factor that influences coverage is that in their public relations work, the police divide murder-suicides into those that are reported in detail and those that are only reported on cautiously at a general level. Police reluctance to inform the press about details of murder-suicides is sometimes mentioned in the news reports (e.g. IS and AL, 12 March 1996; Kouvolan Sanomat, 16 July 1998; HS, 17 July 1998).8

Cultural categorizations

Both police and journalists, then, divide murder-suicide cases into at least two different types: intimate suicides and public homicides. Beyond that, the cases are grouped into those discussed in detail and those represented in a less detailed and more mundane way. In this article I want to explore how the social orders of gender are used in crime articles, especially when this division is made. I have used membership categorization as a tool in the analysis. Membership categories are classifications or social types that may be used to describe people. Furthermore, the membership categories are grouped into col- lections, and the categories are seen as connected: for example, a collective such as ‘a family’ is often seen consisting of ‘mother’, ‘father’ and ‘children’. Categories (in col- lections) are attached with different (suitable) actions and features (Nikander, 2002; Sacks, 1972a, 1972b). The members – in this case, the journalists – make sense of differ- ent events by categorizing other people and at the same time the context in question. In
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other words, journalists present the people involved in the crime case in relation to the context, and their motivations, actions and characteristics in culturally understandable ways (Jayyusi, 1984; Nikander, 2002; Sacks, 1972a, 1972b). Defining the relevant mem- bership categorizations equals defining the social context, and vice versa (Hester and Eglin, 1997a, 1997b).

Categorizations are culture-in-action. That means that the use of some categories mobilizes certain existing social and moral orders. For example, when the categories of ‘a victim’ and ‘a perpetrator’ are used in relation to the action of ‘killing’, the event is perceived as belonging to the realm of crime and has crime as its context. If the catego- ries of ‘a man’ and ‘his wife’ are used, the event is also related to the realm of family, with family as context. The social order is that which is seen as mundane or rational: the ‘natural’ way things are, visible only when it has been disrupted and its rules broken. The moral order (Sacks, 1972a, 1972b) is a more detailed way of looking at social order: it considers the rights, responsibilities and competences that are attached to the different categories. For example, the representation of a murder-suicide case is different if a jour- nalist orients to the rights and obligations of a citizen defined by the law than if they orient to mundane knowledge of the gendered rights and responsibilities of a married couple. Pirjo Nikander (2002) called the use of ‘stage of life categories’ and its social order ‘age in action’, and focused on how middle-aged women and men used age catego- ries and oriented to the rights and responsibilities of their age (sometimes intertwined with their gender) in their talk. Following Nikander’s example, I am concerned with ‘gender in action’ and focus on how the journalistic use of gender and gender-related categories, and orient to the rights and responsibilities of different people, are presented in newspaper texts.

It is noteworthy that the categorizations and moral orders of gender and family do not change rapidly but are commonly shared, and often represent the conservative layers of our culture: the modern woman may be well educated, but if a mother, this is the catego- rization used in crime news. The angles may be new, but they are constructed using deeply-rooted ideas of different types of people. The demand that ‘everyman’ should understand the news sometimes leads to stereotypical ways of describing people. Accord- ingly, an ethnomethodological analysis of the 1989 Montreal Massacre does not so much reveal something about the time this event occurred, but rather something about the ways that people can perceive ‘feminists’, ‘relatives’, ‘men’, ‘women’ and ‘engineers’ in west- ern culture. The press presented feminists as political actors using the murdered women’s personal tragedies in their propaganda, and relatives as those entitled to grief, not to be disturbed by feminist interpretations. The perpetrator himself announced his perception of engineering as a male profession, and female students as intruders and feminists, before killing them. (Eglin and Hester, 2003.)
I argue that the moral orders that are used, mobilized and consequently reinforced in the news relate, on one hand, to the typecasting of the perpetrators and victims, and on the other, to the importance and public interest attached to the case which depends on how the case is categorized. A routine seems to imply that these things happen, that it is a natural course of events in certain circumstances, and therefore unchangeable (see e.g. Carter, 1998). Drama – by which I refer to the style of news reports that are newsworthy – is often a sensational dwelling on emotions, but sometimes newsworthiness is created by

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treating the case as an example of a specific social problem that should be tackled (see Nikunen, 2006). Therefore, the consequences of treating violent crime as routine news or in a dramatic way are also considered here.

Routine in murder-suicide news

Murder-suicides are positioned in the newspaper among the most newsworthy and the most routine news. Others (42 out of 144) appear on the front pages, and are even reported for days, while others are very short. The shortest reports were about 35–40 words and the longest about 1500 words. In this article I divide the news stories into ‘routine’ and ‘newsworthy’, following Peter Dahlgren’s (1987, 1988) finding that the bare bones narrative or routine news is the norm, and news that tells more than minimal information is the exception. I call exceptional news those accounts which have some flesh over the bones. In practice, I have divided the data into two groups:
  1. those written in fewer than 100 words, which have no specific features or excep- tional details; and
  2. the longer reports that contain more information (see Appendix, Table 2).
The majority of murder-suicide news items about women who were killed by their husbands who then killed themselves were routine news (69%), and the minority were newsworthy stories (31%). The front page stories are usually about cases that feature young children among the victims; these are also cases that the newspapers followed up. Still, 13 out of of 42 reports that also appear on the front page were about femicide- suicide (see Appendix, Table 2). However, none of these stories appeared on the front page of every paper studied, unlike some cases of fathers killing their child(ren) and then themselves. Thus, femicide-suicide forms the majority of the cases, but only a minority of front page news items. The lack of information is sometimes due to police reluctance to give out information, but when the case is regarded as interesting enough, the newspa- pers – at least the tabloids – interview the neighbours instead of the police.9

A clear example of routine is this story in a local newspaper, Ilkka,10 published in the area where the events took place:
Couple found dead in Alajärvi

A middle-aged couple was found killed in their home on Saturday morning. The preliminary investigation by police implies the possibility that the husband had first gunned down his wife and then shot himself. The couple had lived by themselves in their house situated in the sparsely populated area. (26 July 1998)

Violence in familiar surroundings is sometimes viewed as more surprising and thus more frightening than violence taking place elsewhere. In this case, the local paper did not use the locality as a resource for dramatic news construction. In addition, the head- line was not designed to draw attention and does not emphasize the violent nature of the

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event. The fact that the perpetrator was the husband was announced in the third sentence, not in the headline as is usual in homicide news (‘Man killed his wife’). Heritage (1984) has argued that competent members of a culture usually know the whole story by reading the headline, using the cultural resources they have, and journalists rely on this in their work. Alan Bell (1991) argues that journalists and sub-editors aim to heighten news value, sharpen the news, and use the best lead. This headline does not tell the whole story, and more likely downplays the news value than heightens it.

The case presented here was not reported by the tabloids. If the case is seen as routine, the tabloids can leave it aside, but often they represent it in the same way as the dailies. Other daily newspapers treated the case in a manner similar to the local newspaper:

Couple found dead in Lapua11

A middle aged couple was found shot in their home in a sparsely populated area in the Lapua jurisdictional district on Saturday morning. Preliminary investigation by the police suggests that the husband had first shot his wife and then himself. According to the police, the couple had lived by themselves in their detached house. (HS, 26 July 1998)

However, one of the papers used a more active headline: ‘Man killed his wife and himself in Alajärvi’ (AL, 27 July 1998). These are typical ways of constructing the head- line in murder-suicide news relating to the former or ongoing intimate heterosexual rela- tionship. The ‘man killed his wife and himself’ style is more common (N = 34), but ‘a couple found dead’ (N = 16) was also widely used (there are other kinds of passive head- lines, N = 10; and active ones with some angle to the story, N = 17). The reason for choos- ing the passive tense in the headline is not that the perpetrator is only a suspect at that stage, since both types of headlines can be used in this situation. More likely, these head- line types are seen as alternatives to each other. Nevertheless, selecting the passive tense gives the impression of less violence.12

The other parts of these extracts are quite typical of femicide-suicide news stories: the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim is announced, they are referred to as ‘a couple’, their age group is defined, the event is placed on the map by naming the locality in question, something is said about the people’s living conditions, and the place is referred to as ‘a home’. The readers are also informed that the couple lived by themselves. It is common to mention if the dead people have children and how old these children are – in this case, it is made clear that there are no young children living with their parents. However, the oft-mentioned use or non-use of alcohol is absent. These articles are constructed by giving minimal information, thus creating the impres- sion of a routine crime (see Hall et al., 1978) which is connected to the passivity of the actions and to a headline that would also suit accidental deaths or a deed done by a complete outsider.

In these routine news reports, the act of killing does not affect the categorizations of the people involved: they are neither ‘a killer’ and ‘a victim’, nor ‘a killer husband’ and ‘his wife’. In Finnish newspaper reports, combinations of the categorizations such as ‘a killer-mom’ are quite often used and the perpetrator can be referred to as a murderer, as for example when a woman kills her family and herself, or when a man kills his parents

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and himself (see Nikunen, 2006). However, in these routine cases, the people involved are named as a couple and what has happened does not seem to be atypical of ‘middle- aged couples’. The perpetrator is not presented as a criminal, violent type or a bad hus- band. The routine femicide-suicide news prefers categorizations from the collection of family or gender over the category collection of crime and violence.

Routine versus problematization

In the crime news section there are many short, routine stories, such as drunken male groups fighting and someone getting stabbed, or of a husband and wife having an argument and the husband stabbing or shooting his wife. If the spousal murder- suicide is categorized as ‘a couple found dead’ and other murder-suicides are labelled as ‘family killings’, then only the latter ‘stands out from [the] routine background’ (Hall et al., 1978: 67). The ‘naturalness’ of the deed (see Carter, 1998; Stanko, 1990) and ease of finding an explanation places it among the routine. It is as if the suicide does not alter the pattern at all: another instance of a wife-killing or suicide makes it even less interesting, because the violence and the authority of the actor have been faded out and the case has been presented more like an accident that happened to a couple. As mentioned previously, when combined with suicide – as defined in the journalists’ guidelines as a private issue – a homicide can become a more private issue. In addition, there will be no trial.
Even if the case is treated as ‘mundane routine’, with no sentiments attached, its newsworthiness can be elevated by attaching the story to broader issues and social prob- lems. This seldom happened when the case was of an intimate femicide-suicide, but in the present data there was one news story about the importance of an injunction before the Act on Restraining Order was passed in 1998 (HS, 17 July 1998). The police referred to the case as an example of ‘family killings’, as it was a former boyfriend who shot a woman. This time the headline told the story: ‘The killer from Kouvola had already threatened the victim earlier. The woman asked for protection a year ago.’ Despite the fact that the police represented in his account ‘the relatives’, as those who typically do not want these things to be published, the parents of the woman gave an interview. The angle of the story was that women who have been threatened and battered by their former partners should have some legal protection – an injunction against them – that was miss- ing at the time. In contrast, the local paper, Kouvolan Sanomat (16 July 1998) used the routine form in its reportage.

As a whole, raising issues on gendered or domestic violence was rare in the data on femicide-suicides, although the issue was widely discussed in the period when the data was gathered. However, other kinds of moral orders of heterosexual relationships and family could be discerned. Violence in a heterosexual relationship is conceived of as normal and private, and when both parties are dead, the story is about their death. The question of who has been violent to whom is not important in these stories. A passive tone seems to imply that these things happen to couples. The private experience, then, is not ‘connected to the sphere of citizenship and its “moralities”’ (Morley, 1999: 203) – the legal and political issues are not focused upon.

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Evoking feelings and sentiments: titillation and worry

In one case in the present data, the first impression was that the woman was attacked and raped by a stranger because she was found in a ditch and her clothes were torn (IL, AL, HS and Pohjalainen, 30 October 2000).13 However, later ‘the case was discovered to be a family tragedy’ (IS, 31 October 2000).14 This is the only case in which titillation, the use of the combination of sex and violence to capture the readers’ interest (see Berrington and Honkatukia, 2002), had something to do with the news value of the newspaper report.

In this case, the most detailed reporting was in a local newspaper, even though the other papers gave the case more space than usual: it was even front page news in Iltalehti (30 October). The body found was that of a middle-aged woman, but when sexual assaults and dangerous environments were discussed, one of the papers expressed worry about young girls (Pohjalainen, 30 October). The journalist also had selected for publi- cation an interview with a teenage girl. When the victim’s neighbours are interviewed in the data, middle-aged men are the most commonly chosen, then adult women. Teenagers or children are almost never chosen.15 It is as if the proper, expected victim of a sex crime should have been young, not a middle-aged woman. The reporting does not stick to the features of this particular victim; instead, it evokes the category group of those who the reader should be worried about, or who should themselves be wary.

Naked female body found in ditch

A morning jogger discovered the signs of a homicide at the side of a cycle path on Kulorinne road in Vaasa.16
Police tried to calculate the time of homicide by the marks left in the snow. Information about the homicide of a woman spread fast in the neighbourhood and shocked the people in Kulorinne.

Laura walked by the place [last] night

When the police ended the cordoning off of the street, 14-year-old Laura Ruotsalainen walked the road from one end to the other. She had come home [last] night after 1am and walked by the place where the killing had taken place. Her home is one of the nearest houses. ‘I did not see anything special then. Now it seems horrible to even think about it.’
Laura Ruotsalainen told us that she heard about this ‘horrible event’ by phone. ‘One friend called me in a state of horror and just wanted to know that I had gotten home all right. Laura says that friends, fathers and mothers were phoning each other in the early morning hours to make sure that the children and friends were all right. There was open concern about the girls because the first rumours were that ‘“a 14-year-old girl” was found in a ditch.’
The information spread fast including the fact that the victim was still unidentified.
The local paper also reports that there were scooter tracks in the snow on the crime scene which were suspected to have been made by the attacker. The information about

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the location seemed important now – which it was not, in the first example, of the couple found dead: ‘The killing happened in the well-lit Kulorinne Road a few hundred metres from the nearest buildings.’ In this case, the locality both makes the case more interesting for the paper and is a source of fear and excitement.

Struggle took place in the street

Police think that the place where the body was found is also where the killing took place. The traces made police suspect right away that it was a homicide. Chief Constable Pekka Vastamäki says that there are clear signs of a struggle on the bicycle path, on the lawn area next to the road to the ditch.

The woman had been moved from side to side on the bicycle path. The woman’s clothes were partly stripped and torn at the scene.
The police could not yet on Sunday define the nature of the homicide even though some facts made them suspect that it was a sexual crime.

There were no lacerations on the woman’s body but there were traces of other kinds of blows. (Pohjalainen, 30 October 2000)
The case is categorized as ‘a homicide’ and the text hints at the possibility of ‘a sexual crime’. The violent nature of the act is apparent. The second day headlines still stick with homicide, but information on the killer has changed the tone of the reporting:

Homicide in Kulorinne caused by family quarrel

The victim’s partner was found dead by his car. Police had been searching for the car in the Laihia area. (Pohjalainen, 31 October 2000)
Also Iltasanomat (a tabloid) noticed that a recategorization of the event was now necessary:
Woman’s homicide was discovered to be family tragedy (Ilta­Sanomat, 31 October 2000)
On the second day of reporting, speculation about the sexual nature of the crime ceased when it was found that the perpetrator was the victim’s partner. The victims of sexual assaults are supposed to be young and not the perpetrators’ partners. After this there was no indication of local fears of violence, or for public safety in the district. A family affair was private and the case was not treated as a part of a social problem. I would suggest that if the identity of the perpetrator had been known from the start, the description of the assault would not have been published. The data suggest that if a woman is killed by her husband, the traces of violence are usually faded out from news reporting; the cruelty of the killing is not emphasized and the horrid details are silenced. Accordingly, rape in marriage was an oxymoron in Finland until it was made illegal in

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1994. It was neither sanctioned nor discussed. It seems to be the case still nowadays that the act of a sexual assault does not connect to the category of ‘a couple’, but a quarrel that is a mutual action does, and so does the passive action relating to ‘a tragedy’ that a couple faces together (see also Meyers, 1997).
However, the unusual start to this domestic crime story made it more newsworthy than ordinary femicide-suicides, even after the perpetrator was found. There are some efforts to construct a motive:
There is information, not yet confirmed, that the events were preceded by an evening spent together in the restaurant in Ristinummi and continued in Kuloniemi. The victim had at some point left the couple’s home to go to visit a nearby relative. (Pohjalainen, 31 October 2000)

The family quarrel, then, translates into the fact that the couple had been at a restaurant earlier and afterwards the woman left their apartment to visit her relatives. In Finnish newspaper language, a quarrel not only means that two people are having an argument, but also it can mean that one person is trying to avoid the argument. Additionally, in Finland, the first connotation that comes to mind about restaurants is that they are places to drink. A restaurant as a place to eat is only the secondary meaning.

The script of a Finnish femicide can be read in the newspapers: alcohol causes argu- ments between couples and this can lead to killings. That is why these events are routine and everyone knows what happens. Nevertheless, research on intimate partner murder- suicide suggests that alcohol-induced arguments seldom lead to murder-suicides (e.g. Carcach and Grabosky, 1998). Often the woman’s intention is to get a divorce, or other, more complicated differences between men and women are reduced to ‘quarrels’. More- over, ‘quarrel’ can be a euphemism for violence. Jeff Hearn (1998) points out that men who have been violent towards women use the term as a way to normalize their actions.
In this case, I argue, the newsworthiness mainly depended on the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. Both the titillation value and the idea of a safe environ- ment as an angle were dependent on the relationship. As a stranger attack it would have been an example of the issue of (young) women’s safety in the urban environment, a public concern. However, if the case is intimate violence, it is a private issue and a pos- sible case of media violation of the rules that protect intimacy. There was some informa- tion that the first day reporting revealed that did not fit the story of a femicide by an intimate male partner. This was most evident in the local paper which first adopted the angle of safe environments, after which they obviously felt that they did not have the grounds for going on with that angle.
Even titillation is a more complicated thing than just the sex and violence related to the case. The combination evidently sells, as happened for example in the Rosemary and Fred West case in the UK: the papers were thrilled to write about incest, other forms of sexual violence and murders (Berrington and Honkatukia, 2002). Still, this is by no means straightforward, as there are mixtures of sex and violence that are not used to sell newspapers, as for example sexual violence that is also the domestic abuse of an adult woman. A sexually experienced woman who has consented to having sex at some point in her life with the man who later rapes her is not constructed as an innocent victim (Lamb, 1999). In this case it was the local paper and the tabloids which paid attention

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most clearly to the sexual potential of the case. These media can be more prone than the highbrow dailies to use neighbours’ interviews for creating an angle.

Morals that elevate news value

An attack by a stranger elevates the public value of femicide and adds to the story’s titillation value (Carter, 1998; Stanko, 1994; Wise and Stanley, 1987).17 Most murder- suicides as intimate violence do not belong to this group. In the case I presented ear- lier, the newsworthiness was in a way ‘a mistake’, but there are certain things that can elevate the news value of femicide-suicide which do not depend on misinterpreta- tions. I will consider those most central in the present data in the following short passage.

When spousal femicide-suicide has occurred, the theme of children as witnesses of intimate violence in their homes interests the newspapers. This can be the angle used in headlines: ‘10-year-old son downstairs did not notice double homicide’ (IL, 9 February 1998); ‘14-year-old daughter found the corpses. Entrepreneur shot his wife and himself’ (IS, 26 April 2000). Both their age and their relation to the deceased can be a source of empathy and newsworthiness. Violent events can traumatize young children, as that stage of life is seen as more vulnerable than later stages. The children are also left with- out their parents and actions associated with parents, such as care.

Additionally, other children than those related to the deceased are presented in order to elevate the news value. For example, Iltalehti’s (1 March 2000) front page headline reports that ‘The killing of a teacher couple shocks small town’, and the mid-section headline focuses on the school context: ‘Killing of teacher couple halted school life in Huittinen. “This has been a shock to pupils and teachers”’. People wondered how these things affected the children and the moral assessments are based on the stage-of-life categorization. Young children are in the midst of their psychological growth, not yet complete individuals, and their development can be interrupted by these events. More concretely, these kinds of events can affect the performance of the pupils who will be doing their A-levels, as it was alleged in one of the texts about ‘the teacher couple’ (IL, 1 March 2000).

Both the children in the family and children outside are presented as worthy of attention. Jeff Hearn has pointed out that in modern society, or as coined by him, ‘a public patriarchy’, we worry about the maltreatment of children as proto-citizens. Their direct or indirect abuse is constructed as a social problem, in contrast with the traditional society, a private patriarchy, in which abuse was private and silenced. How- ever, the recognition of child abuse may involve both the creation and denial of the children’s own voice (Hearn, 1988). Coherently, in the data it is usually the teachers who voice the children’s feelings.

Alongside children, other outsiders are in danger of physical or psychological trauma. In the case of the ‘teacher couple killed’, their colleagues were also shocked. Additionally, the shock in the case may be communal, because their profession and thus its position in the community is respected and has middle-class status. There can be sieges before the killings, the perpetrator can have a gun, and there can be outsiders

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within shooting distance. Witnessing violence is seen as potentially traumatizing for adults too, and thus a fact often mentioned in the headlines: ‘ERC operator ended up witnessing double homicide. A man shot his wife and himself during a call to an emer- gency response centre’ (IS, 9 February 1998). The concern is that ‘outsiders’ or people who are just doing their jobs can get injured or traumatized in the course of a fight. Like comparing stranger attacks to those perpetrated by known men, the people who are not related to, or have an intimate relation with, the killer are conceived of as ‘innocent victims’ if they become victimized. Debriefing activities and crisis groups can be pre- sented as an important aid in these cases (Åland, 5 May 1997).18 This is more often the case when children are among the victims, because then collective traumatization is supposedly more likely to happen.

That it is the wife who is killed is in itself a sufficient answer to the question of why a man has killed. This is not an angle for newsworthy stories, there is no mys- tery here. There are some exceptions: for example, the women who succeeded in asking for help and seemed to break the barriers of family intimacy. These actions are witnessed and the words are heard. Nevertheless, in one way this reflects the major obstacles with which women as victims of violence are confronted. They have to yell loud and clear to get themselves heard. The status of a victim is an achieve- ment for an abused woman (Lamb, 1999). Otherwise, if silent or silenced, the case is likely to be constructed either as if a peaceful suicide pact resembling the event where ‘a couple was found dead’, or as another form of collective action, a quarrel that is normalized.

This is consistent with the idea that a framework that can elevate news value should not be threatening to the consensus of society and its hegemonic moral order of gender or family (see Hall et al., 1978; Meyers, 1997). The danger created by a man violent towards his wife is placed mainly outside of the family – he threatens those to whom he is a stranger. However, one is worried about the children in the family, but mainly as ‘proto-citizens’, not as children of a violent parent in danger, or as traumatized witnesses of violence directed particularly against their mothers. Thus, a male hegemony – that there are good family men and ‘bad strangers’ – is achieved. Also, ideas about the pri- vacy of the family and connectedness of the actions and motives of the heterosexual couple are commonly held.


The consequences of routine

The connection between femicide-suicide and heterosexual relationships is twofold. Femicide-suicide is normalized so that it seems to be a normal feature of heterosexual relationships, but at the same time further considerations of the issue are avoided. The killing is presented as understandable and ordinary, but there is a reluctance to point out that women are at risk of violence from their partners. Routine representations serve as a solution to this dilemma; the events take place as if by natural forces, and therefore the background information is scarce and/or it concentrates on other things than the motive,

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or murder-femicide as a part of the social problem of violence. Any erosion of the moral order of heterosexual relationships is avoided. The mundane knowledge of wife-killings is affirmed and the moral order of family relations sustained.
This moral ‘insulation’ work (see Nikander, 2002) between a good ‘family’ and bad ‘violence’ is not done on purpose, but is informed by conventions and common sense. Cultural categorizations and moral orders are used to make the events understandable. The journalist aims to produce a text that is understood by members in the culture, it is ‘recipient-designed’ (see Sacks et al., 1974). Ethics also has its own recipient design: one avoids the facts that are conceived of as ‘improper’ in the context. This could be the answer to why sexual violence is not mentioned if the people involved were a married couple and now both deceased. People follow the rules: sexual intercourse is a part of marriage; and we do not speak ill of the dead. However, the latter is not so keenly applied when the killer is a woman or the son of the victims (Nikunen, 2006). It has been pointed out that ethical considerations protect the male-led patriarchal family (Carter, 1998) and middle-class white men (Kitzinger, 1998). The mechanism of common sense and ethical considerations usually leads to the affirmation of power and convention, to the repetition of conventional moral orders.
Categorizing some violent crimes as routine and others as newsworthy has its own effect. Homicides, in this case murder-suicide, are divided into two types: ‘the bulk of crime’ cases which are thought to be natural and which are resistant to change; and the newsworthy ones, which are considered cruel and unusual, sometimes even worth pre- vention work. The implication is that violence in the heterosexual relationship is not a suitable object of prevention work – it seems more important to treat the trauma caused to other people. ‘Stranger danger’ is also confirmed in these news reports, but the danger that you are accidentally victimized, without it being your own ‘fault’ as an innocent bystander, is even more at stake here. In contrast with this concern, the intended victims, those who are actually ‘involved’, get little attention.
Newsworthiness is a complex issue and there is no single criterion for it. The premise that serious, dramatic and rare events are automatically elevated to news visibility has been questioned by many other feminist and critical researchers (e.g. Carter, 1998; Clark, 1992; Hall et al., 1978; Jermyn, 2001; Meyers, 1997). Femicide-suicides are treated like routine wife-killings; they resemble each other and the features that would distinguish them are not highlighted. Events such as divorce and separation are not used because it would confuse this simple categorization: the static picture would become more complex, and there would be hints that wives have their own interests. Masculine interests in controlling women and possessiveness are also bypassed (see also Meyers, 1997). The naturalness of violence in heterosexual relationships is used as an explana- tion. The easiness of this conventional solution, typical of routine crime news, surpasses the other possible explanations and diminishes the aspects that do not fit the picture (see Dahlgren, 1988).
Deborah Jermyn (2001) suggests in her article on Jill Dando’s murder that female tragedy and the newsworthiness of women’s deaths depends on their place in the fam- ily and in lost or thwarted heterosexual romances. In the present data, the dramatics (or newsworthiness) are built not only on family positions, but are constructed mainly on the fact that children lose both their parents; mothers or motherhood is not
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foregrounded. However there is no ingredient of drama at the ending of a heterosexual relationship in murder-suicide unless one is reading passive headlines implicating a romantic suicide pact. Heterosexual relationships are presented as romantic only when one is searching for them; when they are achieved, they become a daily routine. As a routine, heterosexual relationships seem to be ‘naturally’ doomed – or at least this is not a source of wonder. The common past holds the couple together and no news report saw lost romance in the cases of women leaving their husbands in order to live with the ‘other man’.
According to Cynthia Carter (1998), ordinary wife killings and rape cases are both normalized, but the latter are seen as titillating and thus interesting for readers. I would like to add that when the perpetrator is intimate with the victim, the details that otherwise would be used to titillate the audience are silenced. In addition, ethical questions are taken into consideration when the cases are published. Journalistic ethics not only protect the intimacy of individuals, they also protect social institutions and values – for example, the family. There is an unspoken rule that people should not talk about private family matters in public (see Husso, 2003), which often means that the victims do not ‘rat’, and ‘the bad’ in the family is a secret between family members. Men who have been violent in their heterosexual relationship also conceive of violence as private (Hearn, 1996). The media ethics are consistent with the male-preferred rule: the details of violence are inti- mate matters when violence happens in the family, but news when the perpetrator is a stranger. It has been alleged that the private, which is conceived of as worth protecting, is a male-led construction. It is a man’s own business what he does in and to his family (see McLaughlin, 1998 on police attitudes).
As a result, femicide-suicide news reports generally affirm the traditional moral orders of gender, heterosexual relationships and the family. Yet sometimes there are new angles, even feminist ones. A good example of this was the report that connected the Act on the Restraining Order to the murder of a woman who had asked for help from the police (HS, 17 July 1998). The helplessness of the police and judicial sys- tem in the face of stalkers and violence against women was then discussed. Although the angle was used after the parliament passed the law – a powerful source – the story still reflected the aims that feminist researchers have had in their discussions about gendered violence.

  1. The term ‘femicide’ was created by Jill Radford and Diana Russell (1992). According to them, ‘femicide’ is a misogyny-motivated murder of a woman committed by a man. I use the term in a broader sense to mean all homicides of women.
  2. A suicide pact is actually the rarer of the two, although the term ‘suicide pact’ is more com- monly used than ‘murder-suicide’. Even among the elderly, when the reason of the suicide is the other partner’s illness, the act is seldom decided upon together, and the man usually kills the wife in her sleep (Cohen, 2001).
  3. Compared to the other 15 EU countries, the Finnish rate was not exceptional, although homi- cide was more common in Finland than the other member states of the EU (Kivivuori and Lehti, 2003; Milroy, 1995).
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  1. Frequency of publication: five days a week or more, which is typical for Finnish dailies (Council of Mass Media in Finland, nd).
  2. Only a few national newspapers in Finland have a clear connection to political parties. Some were formerly organs of certain parties and recently announced their independence. Political connections are clearer in local papers published in rural areas, which in the Finnish political climate means loyalty to the Centre Party.
  3. Similar committees are, for example, the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe, British Press Complaints Commission and the Organization of News Ombudsmen in the USA.
  4. A basic rule statement by the Council for Mass Media in Finland (nd) concerning publication of the names in crime news discourages naming the participants when this is not publicly meaningful. The rules are rarely transgressed and are respected by the journalists them- selves. Nevertheless, journalists tend to emphasize the importance of rules that deal with professional behaviour, whereas rules concerning the rights of the sources are not seen as important (Heinonen, 1995).
  5. Kouvolan Sanomat, publisher: Sanoma Lehtimedia Oy, circulation 27,959 in 2009.
  6. For example, a case where a man killed his wife and their young baby was reported in the dailies (HS and AL, 12 March 1996) using fewer than 50 words because the police did not inform the press and the case documents were declared secret. I learned this because I also gathered data from police records. Still, the two tabloids found something to write about: one used more than
    400 words (IL, 11 March, 1996) and the other about 200 words (IS, 12 March 1996).
  7. Ilkka: circulation 54,055 in 2009.
  8. A mistake in naming the municipality.
  9. Although in the Finnish language the passive tense is often used, it is noteworthy that in
    murder-suicide news it is almost never used when there are children among the victims
    (Nikunen, 2005).
  10. Pohjalainen: circulation 26,670 in 2009.
  11. The word ‘tragedy’ has two meanings: tragedy in a family, which is private and a reason to
    hush things up, and a national or regional tragedy that touches every Finnish person or the local people. In the former case when it is related, albeit rarely, to femicide-suicides, the conclusion is that the relatives need the privacy to heal, and in the latter case that the public needs information on the case in order to heal.
  12. Only one other young girl was presented as having her own voice: ‘a neighbour’s daughter’ had witnessed the house on fire next door (IL, 13 February 2001). Other underage figures were presented with a collective voice that expressed bereavement: ‘The children were weep- ing for their two school-mates; they lit candles and hoisted the flag to half-mast and sang with tears on their cheeks’ (AL, 24 January, 2001).
  13. The places and names are changed, although not the towns.
  14. ‘A stranger’ is a category from the collection of ‘good enemies’. These good enemies are said
    to be outsiders and people who lack power (see Hall et al., 1978). They are members of groups that are conceived of as potentially deviant; their criminality or violence is consistent with their categorization (Lee, 1984). They are, for example, young black men (Hall et al., 1978), Hell’s Angels (Lee, 1984) or strangers attacking women or children (e.g. Carter, 1998).
  15. Åland: circulation 9557 in 2009.
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Biographical note

Minna Nikunen is a researcher at the Department of Social Research, University of Tampere. In her dissertation (2005) she examined the cultural categorizations used in murder-suicide news. Her research was part of the project ‘The Violence of Sex: Meanings, Emotions, Practices and Policies of Sexualised Violence’, led by Professors Suvi Ronkainen and Jeff Hearn.


Table 1. Murder-suicide cases represented in the Finnish newspaper data (1996–2000)
according to the relationships between the perpetrator and the victim(s)
Femicide-suicide only Filicide-suicide or a family Man killed his Man killed another Total killing-suicide parents man (not a relative)
20 8 2 3 33 60 % 15 % 6 % 9 % 100 %
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Table 2. Routine news and newsworthy news, according the type of the relationship between perpetrator and victim(s)
page22image2392 page22image3488
Routine news Newsworthy news Total
Femicide- Filicide-suicide or a Man killed Both male, Total suicide family killing-suicide his parents not relatives
57 143781
69 % 32 %
70 % 17 % 26 30 31 % 68 % 36 % 42 % 83* 44
100 % 100 %
21 % 58 %
4% 9 % 115 79 % 42 % 15 % 7 % 14 12
100 % 100 %
100 %
72 100 %
‘Routine news’ with fewer than 100 words, only routine information with no particular details; newsworthy news’ with more than 100 words containing some information that differentiates the case from the others. * Three news reports were not included as they were short follow-ups and not easy to place.