Media Are Key to Battling Myths About Domestic Violence, Panel Told

In an era of falling crime rates, spousal abuse often disappears from the radar screen of public attention. But journalists can play a critical role in providing context—and help prevent future tragedies, speakers at a John Jay College panel said Tuesday.

The media can play a critical role in battling stereotypes about domestic violence—most importantly in puncturing myths that blame the victim rather than the perpetrator, speakers at a New York panel discussion on media coverage said Tuesday.

“We’re happy to see that this issue is covered a lot,” said Sandhya Kajeepeta, director of Research and Evaluation at the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence (MOCDV).

Sandhya Kajepeeta

Sandhya Kajepeeta. Photo by Megan Hadley

But she noted that recent research of media coverage by her office showed that reporting often fails to mention relevant research or to utilize the expertise of practitioners who can put incidents in context.

Just as importantly, journalists can help alert potential victims to warning signals and lead them to organizations in local communities that can help, she said at the panel, co-hosted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice.

The event, which was live streamed to an audience across the country, noted that domestic violence continues to be a growing concern to police and social service providers, even while overall crime rates have dropped in many U.S. cities.

According to the MOCDV study, the number of family-related homicides in New York City, which has otherwise seen one of the nation’s longest sustained declines in crime, increased by 28.6 percent between 2015 and 2016. Over 60 percent of those homicides were directly related to intimate partner violence.

But covering the story sometimes puts reporters and survivors at loggerheads.

Destiny Mabry

Destiny Mabry. Photo by Megan Hadley

Destiny Mabry, a Bronx, NY activist who was a victim of intimate partner violence, recalled feeling uncomfortable when reporters pushed her to talk about her abusive relationship.

“It’s important to share experiences, but if someone is not willing to share more than ‘I’m a survivor,’ they should not have to go into gruesome detail,” said Mabry. who now serves as a “peer leader’ in a New York City program that hosts workshops with young people to discuss domestic violence.

“In the age of social media, everyone wants every detail,” she added.

Melissa Jeltsen, a senior reporter at The Huffington Post, agreed that the interests of survivors and reporters are sometimes completely opposite.

For instance, she said, reporters need specific dates to create a timeline, while survivors may not remember (or want to remember) the order of events.

“You want your readers to connect with a real story,” she said, noting that a lot of the specifics are red flags that can help prevent the next tragedy.

Jeltsen, whose beat includes gender-based violence issues, said educating readers about how to prevent domestic violence should be an important part of media coverage—even though talking about prevention is not as “sexy.”

According to Kajepeeta, media coverage should start with the recognition of its power to reach victims of abuse.

Every story, she suggested, should contain when possible a hotline number or contact information about a service center.

The MOCDV media guide, she said, could help journalists and editors access resources that deepen their coverage.

The research study examined domestic violence coverage by print news outlets in the New York metropolitan region between 2013-2016.

Among its findings:

  • Only ten of the 442 articles (2.3 percent) covering NYC intimate partner homicides from 2013-16 included an intimate partner violence advocate or expert as a source.’
  • Only 15 percent of articles used terms such as “domestic violence,” “intimate partner violence,” or “domestic abuse,” and less than eight percent of the articles described the homicide as being intimate partner violence-related.
  • Less than six percent of the articles studied framed the homicide within the broader social problem of intimate partner violence.
  • Only seven articles (1.6 percent) listed intimate partner violence resources for readers.

But Jeltsen pointed out that journalists often themselves encounter stereotypes promoted by police and other officials when they try to report on domestic violence incidents.

She recalled interviewing police who claim that “women never want to press charges and they’ll go back to their abuser anyway.”

That helps to reinforce the approach of many officials who say ‘there’s nothing we can do,’ ” Jeltsen said.

Melissa Jeltsen

Melissa Jeltsen. Photo by Megan Hadley

But the media has also been a key force in bringing the issue to the forefront. Following the mass killing in Sutherland Springs, Tx last month, journalists uncovered the history of domestic abuse perpetrated by the shooter.

After the tragedy occurred, the media was responsible for uncovering Kelley’s previous abuse history.

“A lot of the data (on domestic abuse) is not collected in a systematic way,” said Kajeepeta, noting that the media are key to uncovering information that is otherwise concealed by bureaucracy.

New York is among the jurisdictions that have launched a special effort to educate citizens about abusive behavior and assist survivors. Following the launch of a city Task Force a year ago, more than $11 million has been earmarked to improve and expand local services.

Editor’s Note: Additional resources for coverage of Intimate Partner Violence are available through the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

A full report of the live stream panel discussion will be available online.

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcomed.