When the language we use to report on domestic violence hurts the cause
The major problems with journalistic coverage of intimate partner violence are dramatization, sensationalization, victim-blaming, and the inaccurate representation of perpetrators from marginalized identities. These ideas, easily internalized by readers, can contribute to a culture’s beliefs about gender-based violence — and gender overall.
When journalist and second-wave feminist activist Gloria Steinem founded Ms. magazine in 1972, she was responding to a lack of news coverage on issues affecting women and AFAB (assigned female at birth) folks. Think reproductive rights, equal access to education, support for those in abusive relationships, and most importantly, allowing femmes to tell their own stories.
“It’s hard to think of anything except air, food, and water, that is more important than the media,” Steinem said. “It creates for us the idea of normal, whether or not the normal is accurate.”
Recent data suggests that Steinem’s analysis of how news coverage normalizes ideas was correct, then and now. It’s especially pronounced in coverage of gender and gender-based crime, such as domestic and intimate partner violence (IPV). Because the media has played such a significant role in shaping cultural ideas about gender, “if news media professionals were better educated about domestic violence and how to appropriately report on instances of domestic violence, and legislation encouraged the media to report on domestic violence in a particular way, public opinion and attitudes would be influenced.” That’s according to Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence, an undertaking by Canadian researchers who believe that changing the way we report on IPV is essential to eliminating it. They released a document to reporters and media professionals in 2012 to help demonstrate how and why we need to change our methods.
Their document revealed that the major problems with journalistic coverage of IPV are dramatization, sensationalization, victim-blaming, and the inaccurate representation of perpetrators from marginalized identities. These ideas, easily internalized by readers, can contribute to a culture’s beliefs about IPV and gender overall.
Shift says that for those who have not experienced domestic violence, media representation is the only window they have into that experience. However, their research on media portrayals of IPV revealed that the experiences conveyed are not always realistic or parallel to the realities of this crime. One of the most pervasive problems within this coverage is sensationalization. Because journalists are encouraged to report on the most interesting stories to compete for readership, it is often only the most exceptional or severe of cases that will be published. In addition, they disproportionately cover instances in which a woman is violent towards a male partner as well as IPV in same-sex relationships, because these are far less common and therefore seen as more interesting to reporters. Altogether, this limits abuse coverage to specific situations, which shapes public views of abuse in a stereotypical way.
“Coverage is typically only seen relating to fatal incidents, as opposed to situations involving emotional/psychological, financial, or verbal abuse, leading to the belief that the latter forms are not abuse at all,” according to Rebecca Laufer, social media coordinator for Herizon House, an Ontario-based shelter for battered women and their children.
She wrote that particularly common are reports on domestic violence-based murder-suicides, which Shift reported are overrepresented in news media and have been shown to discourage victims from seeking help because they fear that their partner will kill them in retribution. And they’re not wrong; the first few weeks after a survivor escapes an abusive relationship are the most likely time for batterers to find and murder them.
Because the modern news cycle asks journalists to report the most interesting stories in the most concise way they can, they do not always have the space to expand their articles past the specific incident and cannot always provide context when covering a specific act of violence. Rather, they frame it as a single event. According to Shift, this “one-off coverage” — meaning reports that treat IPV as a one-time event — “has a significant impact on how readership perceives domestic violence, as a private, individual matter as opposed to a larger issue that requires a community-wide effort.”
The news frequently reports on topics related to gender-based violence in ways that syntactically and implicitly place blame on the victim or discount their suffering. From the under-reporting of gender violence to the euphemistic coverage itself, victim-blaming and perpetrator support are the two most significant ways in which the news media contributes to community attitudes regarding the severity or importance of gender-based violence.
Another example of how the news media trivialize domestic violence is the case of “the good guy” who made a mistake, detailed by Australian organization Uncovered, which formed to help streamline reporting on violence against women. In one report, Uncovered reveals that writers tend to quote friends and families of perpetrators of domestic violence who believed the abuser to be a kind and caring person. Take the instance of Greg Floyd, who shot and killed his partner, Ora Holt, after she and her children originally escaped to a neighbor’s house. Media coverage included interviews with outsiders whose perspective on the couple’s situation was clearly incomplete; for example, one local newspaper reported Floyd’s sister as saying, “Everyone will tell you he was an excellent person, there wasn’t a bad bone in his body.” When a journalist includes the uninformed or emotionally biased perspective of an outsider or the abuser’s loved one, they sway the situation into that abuser’s favor. The perception readers come away with is that the abuser was really a “nice guy” who acted violently one time.
So, how do we know that these attitudes influence public perceptions? Coverage such as the example mentioned above supports a social system which allows for gender-based violence. A study of comments left on news articles about gender-based violence posted on social media showed that victim-blaming and other themes such as perpetrator support carry over to readers of media and further perpetuate cultural ideals. For example, one response that indicated victim-blaming said, “Can someone please explain to me how a boy is raped??? If he’s not willing, there’s nothing going on downstairs.” Clearly, this statement suggests that all males, regardless of age or ability to consent, have the same insatiable, urgent, and completely uncontrollable sex drive alongside no regard for who they have sex with, as long as they have it with someone
Similar practices of assuming that someone should want or enjoy unwelcome sex based on their gender, orientation, behavior, or outfit supports the idea that rape and violence are acceptable under certain conditions. Another example is trivializing or trying to decipher a hidden agenda behind a woman’s decision to report rape or domestic violence, as evidenced by a comment saying about an adult child actress who came forward with allegations against a powerful male celebrity: “40 years later, she’s a middle-age washed-up never-was actress and she needs money. What can she do for quick cash?” In a similar vein, a comment on a story about younger victims reporting the actions of their older, more powerful rapists — such as doctors, coaches, and bosses — read, “15 and 16 year old girls have been having sex WITH CELEBRITIES and then claiming rape to get money for decades. This is blackmail pure and simple.” Both examples demonstrate rape culture supported by victim-blaming and absolving the perpetrators of responsibility. Although these comments were not included in media reports themselves, they are responses to them that were accepted in that space due to the role the news plays in tolerating and perpetuating these attitudes.
On a more positive note, a 2014 study found that when news media used gender-inclusive terms, readers were more likely to adopt gender-neutral language in their daily lives without intending to, because consuming media that did this changed their “mental representations of the roles described.” In that study, reporters intentionally used the phrase “heroes and heroines” versus “heroes” alone when describing groups who were helping the community. Reading that made participants more likely to think of women or a gender-diverse group when they heard the word “heroes” going forward. This further indicates that if journalists accurately, fairly, and fully explained gender-based violence in their reporting, audiences would be more understanding and sensitive to the issue in their daily lives.
Because evidence suggests that media can negatively impact our understanding of social and public health problems, there is no reason why journalists cannot turn the situation around and instead promote gender equity in their work. The industry can help dissolve the social structures that permit and excuse violence against women, intimate partner violence, and other forms of gender-based violence if we make the effort. When we are conscious of the impact of our storytelling, that impact can be revolutionary.