Domestic violence coverage

Coverage of domestic violence in the news

The media has not traditionally been a good source of information on family violence.

Crimes were not covered, and victims were often blamed. This reflected societal attitudes to domestic violence and its treatment in the courts.

In a recent study, news articles on men who killed their wives and then commit suicide were examined. The general conclusion is that coverage has improved, but still tends to mystify the problem.

The study used articles from the Calgary Herald from 2008 using the term ‘murder-suicide.’ Alberta has the highest rate of spousal homicide-suicide in Canada. This was compared to a second period a decade earlier to see if coverage had changed.

Research on domestic homicide often points out how news articles are framed to blame the victim or excuse the offender.

Direct tactics involve using negative language to describe the victim, criticizing her actions such as her not reporting past incidences, or mentioning ‘consorting’ with other men as contributing to her murder.

Indirect tactics include using sympathetic language to describe the perpetrator, and emphasizing mental, physical, emotional and financial problems which might excuse his actions.

In 2008 there were two main cases covered extensively.

One described the perpetrator as a loving family man who doted on his wife and young daughters but heard voices in his head and believed he was possessed by the devil.

The second involved a woman who had restraining orders due to a troubled relationship. She had tried to break it off but the period after the woman leaves is usually the most dangerous.

She was said to be a caring, loving woman who never gave an indication of problems at home. However the man lost jobs, drank frequently, made threats and was physically violent.

Authorities said it was a domestic dispute that went terribly wrong.

In these stories the explanation is inexplicable: the man was loving and the couple seemed happy. Sometimes there were warning signs: the man had difficulties, or the couple had a history of conflict. And there was always an attempt to find an excuse: mental disorder, alcoholism or unemployment.

In both cases cognitive biases were used. Criticizing the victim, for example, by not calling the police is a ‘just-world bias,’ that good people do the right thing, and bad things happen to bad (incompetent) people.

On the other hand, to focus on the (now) obvious warning signs, is ‘hindsight bias.’ Both are ways of blaming in order to make ourselves feel safe.

The decade-old articles were short, either briefs or about 200 words. Police are the usual source, and the explanations include: domestic problems, depressed state, no concrete motive and nobody knows.

In comparison, the lack of coverage, the paucity of detail, the reliance on official sources and the absence of a context for explanation is striking. This was normal news coverage of domestic violence in the 1980s, a virtual silence compared to coverage 20 years later where there is an increased use of advocates as sources and a larger discussion of context.

The incidence of domestic violence has decreased over time in society, at the same time as newspaper articles about intimate partner violence have increased. The public is receiving more information about fewer cases, although there is still a tendency to mystify the nature of domestic violence.

In response, some researchers have worked to improve journalistic coverage. For example, the Rhode Island Coalition against Domestic Violence worked with reporters to develop a best practices handbook on news coverage of domestic violence murders.

In comparing print coverage of domestic violence murders before and after, they found an increased tendency to label the murder of intimates as domestic violence, and more use of advocates as sources.

As a result, murders which had previously been framed as unpredictable, private tragedies by police, were more likely to be framed as social problems which required public intervention.

This example of action research shows the importance of naming interpretations and the possibility of changing them.

Chris McCormick teaches criminology and media studies at St. Thomas University and his column appears every second Thursday.

Also, see this letter to the editor noting how the sheriff quoted in an article blames the victim –

Daily Breeze

Blame for male violence misdirected

We work in prevention of gender-based violence and sexual assault. We are authors, professors, public speakers, advocates and community activists. We are appalled and concerned by the statements made by Sheriff’s Lt. Dan Rosenberg and reported by Larry Altman and Andrea Woodhouse in the Daily Breeze (“Couple found dead in MB are identified,” Jan. 12).

The conjecture is that a murder-suicide took place, possibly fueled by interpersonal issues between a girlfriend and boyfriend. About this tragic case, the story says:

“Rosenberg said (California State University, Long Beach student Danielle) Hagbery’s death should serve as a warning to other young women that they need to look out for themselves – such as not going to the boyfriend’s home – when a relationship goes sour. `This is one more tragic end of a dating relationship where these young women should be aware of it,’ Rosenberg said. `Ladies need to be vigilant when things go sideways with boyfriends.”‘

Badly informed comments such as this perpetuate a serious problem: Blaming the victim for her own death. Presuming it’s true that boyfriend Michael Nolin killed Hagbery before turning a gun on himself, the warning must not be directed toward victims. Ladies don’t need to be vigilant. Murderers need to not kill. If this was “one more tragic end of a dating relationship,” men need to be aware of their own potential for violence. Prevention is the real solution.

There are plenty of community-based resources and educational materials on the subject of preventing male violence against women. Please do not hesitate to be in touch if you would like to avail yourself to our services and resources.

– Shira Tarrant, Professor, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, CSU Long Beach

Editor’s note: This letter was also signed by CSU Long Beach professors, lecturers and staff including Courtney Ahrens, Laura Bellamy, Jeane Relleve Caveness, Lynne Coenen, Cindy Donham, Claire Garrido-Ortega, Marc D. Rich, Cpl. Ami Rzasa, Dr. Gina Golden Tangalakis and Mary Kay Will. Also signing were Veronica I. Arreola of the University of Illinois, Chicago; author and speaker Ben Atherton-Zeman; Audrey Bilger of Claremont McKenna College; community members Abby Bradecich, Lana Haddad, Diana Hayashino, Linda Pena, Justine Schneeweis and Barbara Sinclair; community volunteer Craig Coenen; writer, educator and advocate Joan Dawson; Caroline Heldman of Occidental College; Long Beach community advocates Ashleigh Klein and Marea Perez; Dr. Kathie Mathis of Mathis & Associates; Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of Women In Media & News; Chad Sniffen of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault; Jessica Stites of Ms. Magazine; and domestic violence advocate Sharon Wie.

5 comments on “Domestic violence coverage

  1. Robert Friedman says:

    My wife and I are in our mid 70’s and moved to Oregon about a decade ago because Oregon was supposed to be senior oriented and caring of its citizens more than anywhere else. However, this is not the case and has forever changed our life after my wife was arrested and charged with domestic violence.

    Domestic violence is unquestionably a massive social problem in American society. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has described domestic violence as the most common but least reported crime in America but not in Oregon. It has been politicalized and they have developed a whole new industry around it.

    Oregon and its related justice system have adopted a no tolerance structure – arrest, charge and sort it out in court. This conspiracy has destroyed our lives.

    We have been married for over 55 years and had a simple argument which annoyed a neighbor who called 911 with the following message: “I hear bodies slammed against the walls, glass being broken and screams.” The police came with an army but found everything in tack, dinner cooking and complete and utter peace. They were asked to leave but refused to do so under the pretext of the law. That was illegal, they knew it, and they violated our rights with impunity.

    Police intervention can be viewed as an emergency measure intended to stop violence, restore peace, and if necessary arrest the person who has violated the law.

    In police culture, domestic situations are not viewed as ‘real’ police work; it was neither glamorous nor rewarding. For the police officer a domestic violence incident is at best a nuisance and at worst a very dangerous situation to be avoided. However, domestic violence and enforcement, during the past decade, has seen significant changes in the criminal justice system’s response.

    My wife repeatably insisted they leave and said she did not want to talk with them. They separated the two of us immediately after and began an interrogation without explaining any rights. I explained that we had an argument and mentioned she was a mental patient.
    That was it – they arrested her and she was charged with Assault and Harassment.

    The Beaverton police department intervention policy is to arrest. The legal requirements of their actions, and the policies and procedures lack of proper direction from the hierarchy. Every officer of the department, therefore, must be held to the same standard and expectation of behavior regardless of rank or place in the agency.

    The Washington County criminal courts treat domestic violence as a serious social problem but they deal with it brutally. Politics also come into play.

    While courts must intervene for the protection of the victim and to hold the abuser accountable for his or her actions, the court cannot yield its role as the arbiter of justice or become an advocate for either side. The Washington County Court does not work that way – the court is supposed to balance the protection of victim against the rights of the accused. All they care about is a conviction – not justice!

    In addition to meting out punishment for those convicted or coerced into a plea of wrongdoing circumventing the truth, the court cannot abdicate its function as a fact-finding body. It is in this capacity that the court must adhere to Constitutional principles, including the Sixth Amendment’s right of the accused to confront witnesses.

    Investigators must collect physical evidence including photographs of injuries and damaged property, bloody clothing, furniture or other tangible physical evidence that they discovered. In this regard, the investigators must treat domestic violence cases in a fashion very similar to the manner in which a homicide is investigated. Nothing like that is evident in this case.

    If the victim does not wish to cooperate (me) with the district attorney, the prosecution has developed techniques for filling in the evidentiary holes created by the uncooperative victim and/or lack of evidence.

    Among the most important elements of a victimless prosecution are statements made to police officers by victims and offenders at the scene of the incident (the police report). Introduction of statements by the victim or the accused into evidence for consideration by the court has not been without question.

    The 6th Amendment gives persons accused of criminal conduct the right to confront witnesses against them. In addition, the rules governing the admission of evidence in state and federal courts include a prohibition against the introduction of hearsay evidence.

    Rule 801 of the Federal Rules of Evidence defines hearsay evidence as a statement made by a declarant outside of court, and the statement is offered for the purpose of proving the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. Thus, the statement to a police officer by the victim of a domestic assault describing the attack would arguably constitute inadmissible hearsay evidence.

    Prosecutors have developed techniques whereby domestic violence cases could proceed without the in-court testimony of the victim. However, victimless prosecutions must include the use of physical evidence (none) and a liberal application of the exceptions to the hearsay rule supported by the court.

    The framers of the Constitution recognized the potential injustice that can result from the use of unquestioned evidence in criminal trials. While the law can and should be an agent for social change, the principal of the rule of law dictates that the law must be limited by the boundaries of the Constitution. One of these Constitutional boundaries is the right of the accused to confront witnesses against him or her. The Constitution is not suspended because the crime involves a victim and offender who are in a domestic relationship.

    In court my wife was coerced into a guilty plea by her attorney who abdicated his duty to defend her. This is a separate issue.

    We have endured months of separation mandated by the court plus a fine that we cannot afford to pay as our income is below the poverty level. The Probation Department has monitored the completion of all technical requirements but the trial court is only interested in the money and denied any modification to the monetary penalty.
    If she ignores this payment, the trial court we are informed, will issue an arrest warrant and place her in custody.

    She has no choice but to capitulate or become a fugitive or pray people like yourselves will read this very real situation with a sense of urgency to cause it to become public. No one is immune to this type of justice or lawful abuse.

    The message in Washington County is not justice – its money and politics. They must be taken to task.


    R. Friedman

    • miss j says:

      Hi Mr. Friedman,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about your predicament.

      The zero tolerance policy has its controversies. Some women, for instance, want to stay with their partner – they just want him to stop being violent – so all they want is for the police to stop him, not to arrest him. Some women, also, rely on their partner’s income – so arresting him can take away the family’s income. So – the policy is not perfect – certainly, as you have found out.

      And on the flip side, if some of these violent men were arrested, it could keep the women and children safe from further injury or death. I have an article on my blog about guys calling women from prison begging them or coercing them to drop the charges – if you take women out of the equation, they may stay in jail & serve their time for the crime.

      In regard to physical evidence – some assaults don’t have evidence. For example, strangling somebody may not produce evidence or it may show up at a later time or cause medical issues at a later time. Sometimes proving domestic violence or child abuse can be very difficult (indeed, many think if they can’t be proven they are false -which may not be the case).

      In regard to having a court system without the victim testifying – I find that curious. The biggest problem with abused women testifying is that they don’t often sound credible – they may be anxious, nervous, or afraid (of the abuser). If children are involved, the court may believe the myth that they are making up charges out of vengeance.

      There’s been talk of taping victims so they don’t have to appear in court in front of their abuser – which can be incredibly traumatizing. However, the concern is still there – battered women don’t appear credible – they’d be less credible taped.

      I do wish you the best with your case and thanks again for stopping by.


  2. […] MISSES ( is a blog that discusses misleading information on women social issues with the wealth of diverse […]

  3. Kisakye Noreen says:

    Am inspired by the trend in media coverage of domestic violence cases. In Uganda here where I stay domestic violence is also prevalent and was wondering whether media has played its part. This is basically to enable me know, the reactions of the concerned authorities like the police and may activists.

    thanks so much

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