Does The Media Get Domestic Abuse Wrong?
Activists say more news attention is needed on the tell-tell signs of violence
Domestic violence stories involving public figures tend to stick to the same formula: "Man snaps and hits his woman." Or, "Drug-addicted man with history of abuse assaults his woman." And the classic, "Man having an affair attacks his woman."
The problem with such media coverage, say domestic abuse activists, is that too much of the focus is on what drove the abuser, rather than the challenges facing the abused. With domestic violence being a pervasive problem in the U.S., news media has a responsibility to provide Americans with information about the signs that domestic violence is taking place and the difficulties people being abused can have escaping their abusers, activists say. Without this, policy and laws can be misshapen by the misunderstanding brought about by misplaced media attention, activists say. Domestic violence, they say, deserves a media spotlight, not a snapshot.
A missed opportunity for better spotlighting the issue of domestic violence in the United States occurred last week during news coverage of Kansas City Chiefs' Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, which resulted in the death of his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and orphaned their 3-month-old daughter, Zoe, said Jane Aoyama-Martin, executive director of the Women’s Justice Center at Pace University.
“Whenever you have a case where there is domestic violence, somehow the victim gets lost [in the news coverage,]” Aoyama-Martin told Loop 21. “We tend to hear, ‘Oh, he’s under stress’ or ‘he cracked.’ Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior that doesn’t lend itself to the six o’clock news treatment.”
That’s precisely what some media columnists noted about coverage of the Belcher case. Police in Kansas City say the 25-year-old linebacker returned home the morning of Dec. 1, after spending the night with another woman. Belcher and Perkins are said to have argued before the footballer shot Perkins, kissed their daughter goodbye, drove to Arrowhead Stadium, and fatally shot himself in front of his coaches.
By Dec. 4, many news reports were playing up Belcher's stress and use of alcohol as factors in the murder-suicide. Two days prior, veteran sports broadcaster Bob Costas drew the ire of gun-rights advocates for his halftime commentary in which he linked Belcher’s actions to the need for stricter gun control. By week’s end, coverage seemed to focus on what may be the most tragic aspect of the case – 3-month-old orphan Zoe -- and the decision by the NFL to financially support her through her 23rd birthday, if she decides to go to college.
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But where was Kasandra Perkins in all of this?
The major sports broadcasts – namely NBC, CBS, ESPN and the NFL Networks – were uneven in their coverage and missed opportunities to go deeper, Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute wrote in his media column, Journal-isms, last week. Most columnists agreed that ESPN had the most successful coverage, opting to cancel lighthearted elements of its usual Sunday football broadcast to offer a more traditional news report of the Belcher incident. Others were panned for their weakness in covering breaking news or for passively mentioning the tragedy.
Robert Weintraub of the Columbia Journalism Review praised Costas for weighing in with the controversial gun control commentary.
“…For [Costas] not to weigh in when a story with so many pressing angles overlaps with football would have been far worse,” Weintraub wrote in his Full Court Press column on Thursday.
Wrong, said Aoyama-Martin, a lawyer with 30 years of experience representing abuse victims in court. While it is important to note the presence of guns in households as being a factor in whether domestic violence turns deadly, linking the gun control debate and domestic violence clouds the real issues, she said.
“That’s a whole separate issue,” she said. “But the presence of the weapon is one of the big factors that could lead to a fatality [in abuse cases.] It’s what we call a lethality index. We ask victims, ‘Is there a gun in the home?’ We know that’s one of the indicators where domestic physical abuse can escalate to homicide.”
Aoyama-Martin believes information about abuse indicators is so rarely shared in news reports because it’s not as easy to weave them in as are the sensational and graphic details of violence.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says domestic violence is shockingly widespread in the U.S. One in four women, and one in seven men, have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to a 2010 national survey.
It’s not clear if incidents like Belcher’s, or the much-debated relationship between pop singers Chris Brown and Rihanna, which receive a lot of attention because of the subjects’ notoriety, have swayed public perception of the national domestic violence epidemic. There isn’t much recent study. A 1999 survey by the Florida Department of Correction found that an overwhelming majority of Floridians believed domestic violence was a widespread problem in society. More than half said they knew at least one person who was a victim and said that the media did not direct enough attention to the issue. Almost 9 in 10 Floridians agreed with a state law that made it illegal for convicted abusers and those under restraining orders to possess a gun.
If those strong opinions still existed in 2012, they didn’t seem to have sway over Republican lawmakers in Congress, who failed to renew a version of the Violence Against Women Act that would likely pass in the House and the Senate. The sticking point for GOP members of the House was the inclusion of protections for LGBT victims of domestic abuse. In May, the House passed a version that rolled back protections, excluded lesbians and lacked protections for Native American women on reservations. VAWA provides federal protections and funding for programs that help women who are victims of abuse and rape.
Last Friday, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women sent a letter to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, expressing concern that the measure would not be taken up in the current Congress, as negotiations over the fiscal cliff droned on.
“We remain committed to a final bill that includes effective provision that will empower tribal courts to provide justice for the Native American women who are victims of domestic violence on reservation lands,” the letter read.
In covering Belcher and other abuse stories responsibly, the media could encourage the public to put pressure on Congress, Aoyama-Martin said of the stalled VAMA reauthorization.
“There’s been a lot more attention and change over the years,” Aoyama-Martin said. “I’d hate for it to lose momentum [if VAWA isn’t renewed]. Could anti-domestic violence organizations benefit from increased funding? Yes. There’s still a lot of work to do. We only scratch the surface in terms of what we can do.”