Apr 082009

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.

 April 8, 2009  Posted by on April 8, 2009

  3 Responses to “Tips For Reporting About Domestic Violence And Sexual Assault”

  1. This is great. The only part that I am concerned with is the piece about offering prevention tips for sexual assault. Offering tips takes the responsibility off of the offender and onto the person who was victimized. It also contributes to increased feelings of self-blame.

    I have included a piece I wrote for this year’s Take Back the Night:

    Sexual Assault Prevention Tips…

    When you tell me that I shouldn’t drink too much alcohol because that increases my risk of being sexually assaulted, I hear that I was responsible for being raped because I was drunk.

    When you tell me to walk with a friend or lock my doors, I hear that I should fear strangers jumping out from the bushes or breaking into my house and not my friend and lover who raped me.

    When you tell me to take self-defense classes, or to yell and fight back if I am being attacked, I hear that my natural defense reaction to freeze was wrong.

    When you tell me to get to know people before I invite them into my home or go out with them, I hear that I should have known that the person I befriended for several years he was a rapist.

    When you tell me to walk confidently, I hear that my body posture made my offender want to sexually assault me.

    When you tell me to carry pepper spray, I hear that I am responsible for being sexually assaulted because I didn’t.

    When you tell me that I should report the assault to the police, I hear that if I don’t because I am afraid, or don’t want to talk about it, I shouldn’t feel this way, and that my need to exert some sort of control after having my power taken away, is wrong.

    When you offer me “tips” for my own safety, I hear that it was my behaviour in question, and not my offender’s.

    And when you tell me that there are things I could do differently, in order to prevent being sexually assaulted, I hear that I am responsible for what someone else does.

  2. Monika, point well taken, thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts, very useful!

  3. […] Words Matter: Feminist Peace Network has posted useful tips for reporting about domestic violence and sexual assault. It’s a good resource for bloggers, journalists and anyone writing about these issues. […]

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