As has been pointed out on this blog many, many times, when it comes to reporting about violence against women, there is often much to be desired in terms of how facts are presented, with rape being referred to as sex, victims being blamed and sensationalized/de-contextualized framing of the story. Nowhere is this more clear than the recent coverage of the murder of Angela Harrison’s 5 children where report after report has said that their father murdered them because his wife was leaving him. As Erica C. Barnett writes at Shakesville,
It doesn’t matter whether Angela Harrison, the woman whose abusive estranged husband brutally murdered their five children and killed himself, was “leaving her husband for another man.”
It doesn’t matter because cheating, or leaving, or asking for a divorce, or saying “I think we need some time apart,” doesn’t cause someone to murder. It doesn’t “ignite” anything, any more than what a woman is wearing “causes” a rapist to rape.
The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) has put together an excellent report that highlights the problems that seem to plague the media coverage of intimate violence. Covering Domestic Violence found that:
Reports of domestic violence fatalities did not accurately cover these incidents because of failures to:
• Identify the act as a domestic violence crime and place the murder in the larger context of domestic violence murders locally and nationally;
• Provide accurate information about the nature of domestic violence; and
• Utilize experts as sources for stories.
Moreover, news stories regarding domestic violence murders often reinforced myths and inaccuracies about domestic violence by implying victim-blaming or abuser-excusing attitudes, blaming the act on cultural or class differences, and reinforcing the idea that the fatal violence came out of the blue as opposed to being the culmination of a history of violence and controlling behaviors.
WSCADV also provides a guideline for reporters:
- Place the crime in the context of domestic violence.
- Acknowledge that domestic violence is not a private matter.
- Look into prior history of domestic violence and let the story evolve.
- Convey that domestic violence is a pattern of behavior that often escalates when a victim is trying to leave, or has left, the relationship.
- Illustrate the warning signs of an abusive relationship.
- When interviewing a domestic violence survivor, consider the safety and
- confidentiality needs of the interviewee.
And these suggestions for what to avoid when covering these crimes:
- Avoid calling domestic violence a “relationship problem.”
- Do not focus on the victim’s behavior or use victim-blaming language.
- Do not assume some cultures or classes are violent, and others are not.
- Avoid using sources emotionally connected to the abuser or sources that do not have
significant information about the crime or those involved.
- Avoid treating domestic violence crimes as an inexplicable tragedy, beyond the
reach of community action.
In addition, WSCADV suggests incorporating the following information into media coverage of domestic violence:
- Warning signs
- How to help
- Safety planning
- Crisis hotlines
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has also put together an excellent guide to reporting about intimate violence which includes the following suggestions:
• Use accurate language: Rape or assault is not “sex” — even when the attacker is the victim’s spouse.
• Avoid language that suggests the victim is somehow to blame for the crime.
• Avoid undue focus on the socio-economic status or ethnicity of the victim or perpetrator: domestic violence is a public health problem that crosses all lines of race, class, and culture.
• Domestic violence is, in general, poorly understood by the public and under-reported by mainstream media. Take the opportunity to inform your readers with statistics and context.
• It may take time to build trust with victims and family members. Explain the type of story you’re planning to write. Show old clips of stories you’re proud of.
• Consider letting victims read portions of your story before publication. After reading — and seeing evidence of your intentions — they may decide to share more of their story with you.
• When describing the assault, try to strike a balance when deciding how much graphic detail to include. Too much can be gratuitous; too little can weaken the victim’s case.
• Include information that can help others avoid assault.
• Provide contact information for agencies that assist survivors and families.
Please take a minute and pass along these tips to your local media. Let’s insist that these crimes be accurately reported. I am indebted to Molly Dragiewicz, Ph.D for pointing me towards these resources.