Information in this section is based on the excellent work of Lori Dorfman and the Berkeley Media Studies Group. Please see the references section to track down these resources!
Advocates rarely review media accounts of domestic or sexual violence with satisfaction. Most prominent amongst the frustrations is the seeming media fascination with the circumstances and behavior of the victim prior to the crime. Advocates argue, fairly, that such coverage displaces attention from the perpetrator to the victim. Additionally, after an interview with the media, advocates frequently fee like their comments have been unusually represented in print.
Domestic violence is a social problem where the violence is both normalized and marginalized. Domestic violence is so routine that it isn’t newsworthy unless it, tragically, rises to the level of homicide, or if the script is flipped and the violence is perpetrated by a woman against a male partner, or by either partner in a same sex relationship. The issue is marginalized inasmuch as the majority of victims survive in isolated silence served by anonymous crisis lines and confidential shelters.
Lori Dorfman with the Berkeley Media Group argues that media coverage can reinforce these problems in a couple of ways. First, members of the media typically frame domestic violence stories from a portrait view. Coverage narrowly focuses on the immediate circumstances of the victim and perpetrator ignoring external influences and reinforcing the idea that this violence was just about them, occurring behind closed doors in a way that relieves the rest of the community and culture from responsibility.
Second, domestic violence reports that focus only on the most extreme or violent cases reinforce the notion that this violence is rare and is committed and experienced only by those on the margins. Such an approach to domestic violence coverage limits the scope of the general public’s perception of the problem, dispossessing the experience of countless victims who experience lower levels of physical violence as well as other forms of emotional, economic, psychological and sexual abuse.
The Berkeley Media Studies Group makes the case that advocates are also implicated in the problematic coverage because we have largely failed to make a strategic case when talking with the media about domestic violence. Because our opinions are infrequently requested, when we receive an interview request, we tell the reporter everything that we know, believe and even feel about domestic violence. Necessarily, this results in some strenuous editing where the reporter, rather than the advocate, determines which parts were really important.
Effective Media Strategy
Domestic violence advocates can better inform the public perception of this violence and promote proactive solutions by planning to work strategically with the media. If your agency has struggled in working with the media to create proactive coverage opportunities, be prepared to speak to the media strategically when called on to give comment in reaction to a current event. If we self edit to provide comments that are succinct and purposeful, we can promote our own objectives while reducing the likelihood that our comments will be edited in ways that seem bewildering. Here are key components of an effective media strategy:
- Work with the media to shift coverage from the portrait to the landscape view. Rather than just focusing on the individuals involved in a particular case, help the reporters to back up the lens to see the context of the violence. Encourage the media to show areas where the perpetrator and the victim intersected with the broader community–those individuals and systems that enabled the violence, systems that might have provided support as well as barriers that the victim likely faced in getting out of the violent situation.
- Work with the media to appropriately define the problem. Though advocates use the power and control wheel as a tool to define the spectrum of behaviors that abusers use to establish control, most of our social systems (legal, media, and intervention programs) are narrowly focused on responding to acts of physical violence. Advocates know that domestic and sexual violence incidents that result in severe injury, and even those that result in legal action, are comparatively rare. Cases of severe physical violence represent the tip of the iceberg of abusive and controlling behavior that come to public attention while the rest of the spectrum of controlling behaviors remain shrouded in private life. Advocates should work with the media to characterize the full spectrum of controlling behaviors and to provide estimates of the number of lives impacted by these behaviors.
- Connect the conversation about the problem to the action that you seek. When asked for an opinion about a domestic violence situation, be prepared to connect that response to your advocacy objectives. Explain to the media how your advocacy strategy, be it introducing school-based prevention education, convening a coordinated community response team, instituting longer mandatory holds for batterers, creating new economic opportunities for survivors, etc, can help to reduce the incidence of violence and to involve the broader community as essential stakeholders in the solution.