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Commentary

I Studied 18 Years Worth of Domestic Violence Articles. Here’s What Journalists Can Do Better.

"Some couples fight and push or hit each other, but we need to differentiate between those situations and chronic, controlling violence."

After studying news stories published over 18 years in Michigan about intimate partner homicide, Emily Meyer reached two conclusions. The first: The collateral damage was greater than she expected. At least 111 friends, children, relatives, and new romantic partners were slain over that period. The second conclusion: Most of the stories she read included language that unintentionally blames the victim — almost always a woman — and underplays the man’s role. Meyer, an assistant professor in the School of Justice Studies and Sociology at Norwich University, spoke to Kerry Shaw of The Trace about her dissertation, which includes her findings; about how intimate homicides are reported; and about why the trends she identified matter for public health.

Was there an aha moment when you realized that media coverage of this issue was problematic?

A case out of Detroit really stuck with me. His name was Luther Jenkins: He fatally shot his girlfriend and her aunt, and he killed her two young children with a knife. The explanation given in the coverage was something to the effect of, “Luther was angry because he was having a hard time in his job.”

I was like, wait a minute! There was so much death and such violence. Why are we talking about Luther’s stress?

After seeing a few other cases like that, I realized that the coverage was not reflective of what we know about the dynamics that can lead to these crimes.

My research is intended to take a hard look at the media we consume on a daily basis … Is it reflective, epidemiologically speaking, of what we know about these crimes? Is it reflective of reality? And if not, what could be the consequences of that?

What were some of the troubling themes you saw in the coverage?

What I found was that if the journalist had access to any history of squabbling, or breakup, or fights or marital discord, that seemed to make its way into a story. There was a trend of blaming the murders on problems in the relationship: He thought she was cheating on him, or was going to leave him, or they were fighting over money.

It’s human nature to try to make sense of a horrible situation. And many reporters don’t want to inject their opinions, so they rely on information they can access. Maybe the journalist gets a quote from a neighbor who says, “They’re going through this divorce and it’s been really hard.”

If the crime was portrayed as the perpetrator’s fault, the reason provided was often that he was mentally ill or had drug or alcohol problems. Less than one percent maybe one percent  of the articles (at least from this dataset) had any sort of discussion of the fact that this person may have had a documented history of violence and abuse, or that this crime was based in power and control and trying to hurt the victim.

Why does it matter if articles mention a couple’s fight?

One of the biggest myths about domestic violence is that it’s just a fight that got out of hand both partners contribute, and to a certain extent it’s mutual combat. Focusing on the fact that there was a domestic dispute sends the message that both people played a part in the homicide, which is typically not the case.

Sure, some couples fight and push or hit each other, but we need to differentiate between those situations and chronic, controlling violence. Intimate partner homicide is a quest to dominate and hurt another human being. It’s not “we had a fight over the checkbook.”

Did these articles mention guns or their presence in victim’s or perpetrator’s homes?

No. I did not see much about that at all. I think it goes back to the idea that most articles didn’t delve into what was going on in the home. But most did at least mention what kind of weapon was used; overwhelmingly, it was firearms.

The occasional story mentioned an existing restraining order, or that the perpetrator had been arrested before. But by the time a domestic violence case makes its way to the courts, all kinds of deals are struck. Something that initially may have been a felony-level crime gets pleaded down, which could mean that an abuser can still keep his guns. What’s the risk to the family when he’s back at home? Do journalists have access to this kind of information? Should they?

Ideally, how would you like to see domestic violence covered?

I’d like to see extreme caution used when assembling the story, even if it seems like there’s a simple explanation for what happened. Because it’s never as simple as it seems.

I’d like to see journalists be able to spend the time to gather all of the information that might be present. Like: Was there a restraining order against this person? How many times were the police called prior to the deadly incident? Was there a personal protection order out against him?

My research found that 31 percent of news stories portrayed these killings as shocking, even while some acknowledged that the police had been called to the house on prior occasions. Humanizing details about the perpetrator, like he was a “church man,” often popped up in these stories. I suspect this happens because the journalist is interviewing neighbors and people who can really only comment on superficial interactions.

What’s the downside of humanizing the perpetrator?

Doing so satisfies our quest to understand humans want to know about the person who was capable of doing this — but when we’re talking about a man who killed his ex-wife and three of her children, discussing the fact that he brought in his neighbor’s mail when they were away gives that human trait back to someone who did something horrible.

And we don’t always see the flip side of that, either. Often, when the victim is mentioned, you’ll see accusatory explanations like “she was cheating on him” or “she wouldn’t let him see the children.”

In no way would I want this to come across as implying that journalists aren’t doing their jobs, or that they’re doing a terrible job. What I’m really trying to understand is, what’s going on? The small pilot study I’m doing now is looking at the journalistic process. I’ve spent hours talking to reporters about what kind of access they have. What information is within their grasp, and do they have time to grasp it? It’s the final piece in this line of research.

With this new research, what are you learning so far?

We’re still in the middle of analysis, but I’m starting to see that overwhelmingly, intimate partner violence is not seen as a newsworthy crime. Not because it isn’t important or because it isn’t happening, but because there’s so much of it happening. There’s no way to cover it all.

It doesn’t typically fall into the newsworthy category unless someone dies, or it involves someone well known. Collateral homicides make it to press because they are mass killings, which are considered newsworthy. The sense I got was that reporters and editors would like to cover it more — they realize it’s a chronic social, criminal justice, and public health problem — but there are space limitations and deadlines, and they just can’t cover all incidents.

The hardest piece of information to get in terms of reporting on domestic violence and what adds the most depth to the coverage is the history of violence. If you do some digging, often you can find an existing restraining order, or you discover that he’s been in jail for domestic abuse. Unfortunately, these systems of information are not always connected. And journalists have told me that’s why they often resort to talking about a scuffle, even though in most cases of domestic violence, it’s not an isolated incident.

All the journalists expressed interest in getting more, but there’s just no time. The reality is your editor calls and says your deadline is 6 p.m. You have to run with what you have. But if readers knew that it was this guy’s third time perpetrating violence against that woman, and there were other escalating events leading up to it, then we as a society would probably see domestic violence very differently.

Another challenge to telling the whole story is that reporters often use extra caution to try and protect the victim’s identity as best as possible. So it’s a Catch-22: They want to tell a complete story but are hesitant to include too many details. When journalists don’t talk to the victim because they don’t want to pry, they aren’t necessarily getting the backstory.

From a public health standpoint, why does it matter how domestic violence homicides are covered?

It matters because how we frame this information affects our understanding of what intimate partner homicide is, how serious it is, and the horrible, real reasons it occurs. Myths and assumptions get perpetuated with some of these explanations.

Responsible media coverage can positively impact those affected by the crime. Maybe you realize that domestic violence is happening to you, and that resources are available.

I hope, collectively, we can better support the survivor or the victim. In talking about crimes where the victims are overwhelmingly female, there’s a tendency to put the burden of proof on the victim: Well, you could have left, how many times did you say you were going to go? All that stuff is victim-blaming behavior.

In our quest to make sense of the horrible things that go on around us, maybe over-simplification isn’t always the best way to go. If we’re ultimately looking to eliminate intimate partner violence, people need to understand how complicated and how deep the crime itself is. If they don’t, we’ll never get to the point where we can do anything about it.

[Illustration: Francesca Mirable for The Trace]