Covering Domestic Violence

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Words are powerful symbols. They construct the way that we evaluate situations, and labels can drastically effect how we treat other people. They assist constructions of prejudice, and prejudice is directly linked to discrimination.

For journalists, words are the key tool on the job. When writing an article about a sensitive subject, like violence against women, words as symbols play an even more important role.

Words as symbols construct many of our relationships, and can encourage cycles of bad behavior. If issues of domestic violence are referred to frequently as "lover's quarrels," it can impact the way that readers view such issues in their own lives.

Victims reading these articles may come to understand the violence they experience as part of everyday life.

Even subtle descriptions of acts of violence can have a huge impact on the way that readers understand crime, and specifically acts of domestic violence. Unforunately, only 2 percent of the scholarship on journalism pretains to proper coverage of issues of violence.

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence offers a downloadable PDF file for journalists who are covering issues of domestic violence. Though the file contains some information that is specific to Washington State, most of the tips are applicable to all journalists covering these issues.

The mission statement of the group is as follows: "Our hope is that the information in this guide will also help link journalists to domestic violence advocates in their community, who can be utilized as sources to improve coverage. By accurately covering domestic violence homicides and avoiding sources, questions and language that perpetuate myths, journalists can make a significant difference in helping the community understand how domestic violence can go
unchecked to the point of murder."

The file also offers helpful definitions of key terms, like domestic violence, victim, and abuser.

It is also careful to address key questions that infuse the conversation about domestic violence, such as why victims often stay in unhealthy relationships- the report states that "victims’ choices...are not the issue. The responsibility for domestic violence (as it is for other crimes) belongs solely to the abuser."

Unfortunately, the report points out, deaths that are the result of domestic violence are rarely covered as such. Additionally, sources for articles about domestic violence are rarely experts, as they undoubtedly should be.

The myths and misconceptions about domestic violence need to be addressed in full by our journalists. Since many people are much more likely to obtain information about domestic violence from their newspapers than from scholarly sources, journalists have a responsibility to accurately cover this problem.

If you find yourself in a position where you will be covering issues of domestic violence, please portray it accurately and as part of a larger body of issues- not an isolated occurence, or as something that many married couples experience and get over. Our journalists can make a huge impact on this social problem.

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Morgan Abel April 13, 2011 at 11:53 AM  

This is a really important issue to pay attention to. The words that journalists choose to describe a story can have a huge impact on the public opinion of that story, or even the people involved in it. As journalists, we have to pay attention to how we handle all sensitive issues - whether it's domestic violence or anything else.

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