When people are murdered, everyone who’s left wants to know what drove a person to kill.
So reporters go looking for people they can ask, “Did you know him?” “What was he like?” “What stood out to you?”
As was the case with the man allegedly behind the quadruple murder at a Fredericton apartment complex last week, they wind up piecing together an early portrait of a man based on the observations of his landlord, his neighbours, and the owner of the coffee shop he used to frequent.
So far, the alleged gunman — 48-year-old Matthew Vincent Raymond — has been described as lonely; liable to talk your ear off if you let him; ignorant; Islamophobic; interested in guns in the context of video games; and “like a reasonably normal person” who knew how to make small talk.
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It’s that last descriptor that infuriates advocates across the country, especially when it’s right there at the top of the story: an unavoidable headline.
“The conclusion they’ve drawn is, ‘I was his friend, I thought he was good people, he never did anything to me,’” said Julie Lalonde, a women’s rights advocate and public educator.
“That’s not actually helpful to moving the conversation forward because many people who are abusive are very strategic with who they are abusive with and how they act in public versus how they act privately.”
That type of language implies there were no red flags, Lalonde said, when in reality: “There often times were many, many red flags.”
Those indications are something we as a society need to get better at picking up on, said Pamela Cross, legal director at Luke’s Place Support and Resource Centre.
“I understand how shocking it must be when someone who is part of your general daily life, like a neighbour or colleague, does something that’s so shocking and so terrible,” Cross said. “It’s a natural reaction for us to dig back and say, ‘that’s impossible, he helped me shovel my driveway last winter,’ but I think that’s really problematic.”
It perpetuates the idea that men who abuse and men who kill “are somehow different,” she said, “that they have a big sign on their forehead.”
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At least a few headlines blared how “normal” some people found the alleged Fredericton shooter to be. That prompted many women to reach out for help, said Martha Paynter, a nurse advocate in Halifax.
“We do fail as a society to talk honestly about male aggression and we do fail as a society to listen to what women, in particular, experience,” Paynter said. “These kinds of headlines are an amplification of that.”
Both Lalonde and Cross agree that if those recollections are to be used, they should be lower in a story — if at all — and interlayered with context, such as violence statistics and expert commentary.
People who have had fewer “normal” interactions with perpetrators of violence, alleged or proven, are unlikely to come forward, Paynter said — even less so if they are “immediately silenced” by high-profile declarations that their abuser is normal.
“Reporters need to lead with the assumption that they are only accessing a tiny portion of the reality of this person’s behaviours when they ask the person who collects the rent for the past couple of months to assess the person.”