CAMP 2016: How not to write about domestic violence

sullivan_violence_1Story and photo by Katherine Sullivan, 2016 JAWS Fellow

Statistics show that one-quarter to one-third of women in the United States experience intimate partner violence. With a “pandemic” of violence abuse across the country, why aren’t we seeing this addressed in much of media?

Heather Stark, an author, journalist, teacher and host of the podcast Three Women Three Ways, talked about the problems in coverage of gendered violence and domestic abuse at JAWS CAMP on Oct. 30 and offered ways to cover to it effectively. Working on her Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology with a focus on gendered violence, Heather speaks as both a journalist and an expert.

When domestic violence is covered at all in the media, most of it woefully fails to convey these staggering numbers. When domestic violence is covered, it is often done so poorly.

It’s important for all of us to challenge our assumptions of domestic violence. “We don’t collect news in a vacuum,” Heather said, explaining the biases of class, race and lifestyle we hold that add to attitudes of domestic violence. “We tend to have the assumption that it’s those ladies that go on ‘Jerry Springer’ that deal with domestic violence,” Heather said. It happens to all kinds of women, across all demographic lines.

Domestic violence is largely reported as an isolated event. Only the most horrific of incidents make it into the news: murders. Beatings, black eyes, threats and intimidation don’t make it into the news. Rarely do news reports put these incidents into the context of larger national trends.

Instead, these reports follow a typical formula that goes something like this:
1. Something happens (Woman does something)
2. Man snaps (Because of what woman does)
3. Man’s friends talk about how great he is

Nothing will change if domestic violence continues to be reported in this manner, Heather said. To change the narrative, we can incorporate several things into our reporting.

Integrating context, including past history of domestic violence is critical to show that this is a pattern of behavior and not just an anger management issue. We also have to write in concrete, factual words. “Let’s use words that mean something,” said Heather. She cites word choice like “family found dead” and “contentious divorce” used in articles about domestic violence. Stories often shift the action off the perpetrator ― write that “he killed his family,” not that they “were found dead.”

To avoid blaming the victim, we need to understand the psychology of abuse. Women stay with abusive men for many reasons, not the least of which is fear. “If she leaves, it could be fatal for her,” Heather said, citing that 45 to 50 percent of women who are killed are killed when they try to leave. By including a “reason” the perpetrator “snapped” we lay blame on the victim. “I don’t care if she was having a fling with a 19-year-old: Does that give him the right to kill his five kids?” Heather said.

Finally, get quotes from professionals who can offer statistics, explain context and give examples of resources. By changing the framing of domestic violence, we can begin to change the national conversation.