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Domestic Violence in the News: How Media is Failing Victims of Domestic Violence

Woman looking out the windowThis article was originally posted on the Herizon House Blog and is re-published with the authors permission.

In today’s heavily mediated society, all forms of media have the ability to reach increasingly more people than ever before. Online news has climbed the ranks as one of the more valued sources of information, right up there with television news and actually surpassing radio and newspapers. Despite the rankings of the importance of each news source in Canada, one thing remains the same among all forms of media: people listen and people believe.  The media’s ability to influence can be seen as a useful tool in many ways, but a deeper look into specific coverage can shed a whole different light on the matter. As it is now, the news coverage of domestic violence, especially against women, may be less help and more hindrance.

Statistics Canada reports a notable decline in the number of women who report spousal violence and that a significant number of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Why are so many victims afraid to speak out? Although it is often found that abusers rely on threats of death – or worse – to keep their violent actions a secret between them and their victims, it is not wrong to believe that other major influences are also involved. Is it a coincidence that as our society becomes increasingly more in tune to news coverage with the emergence of online news, the number of women that report cases of domestic abuse declines? I think not. Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence also has a similar point of view, providing relevant information about the relationship with public opinion and attitudes towards domestic violence.

Shift is an initiative to prevent family violence that originated in Alberta at the University of Calgary. It aims to provide accessible and accurate information to the public and to community leaders on how to ultimately prevent family violence before it occurs. In April 2012 they published a report titled “Engaging the News Media to Influence Attitudes, Norms and Behaviours and Reduce the Rates of Domestic Violence” which sheds light on some of the ways that the media could more appropriately portray cases of domestic violence.

With so many eyes on the media, news coverage has the ability to play a strongly influential role in our society. In other words, what people hear from news sources, whether it be on TV, online, over the radio, or in the paper, they believe. The April 2012 Shift document hypothesized that “the Canadian news media inappropriately reports on instances of domestic violence, thereby skewing the opinion and influencing attitudes of the general public and policy makers.”

News media, when related to domestic violence, often takes the easy way out. It can be observed that the media tends to portray domestic violence cases as individualized or isolated, rather than a thematic and contextually societal issue. Often victims are blamed, or excuses are made for the violence. Coverage is typically only seen relating to fatal incidents, as opposed to situations involving emotional/psychological, financial, or verbal abuse, leading to the belief that the latter forms are not abuse at all.

This is not to say that, by any means, the media is purposely undermining victims of this violent societal epidemic. Domestic violence is difficult to talk about and a stigma exists that it is an issue that should be dealt with privately within the home. It is ironic though, that those involved in the business of news media who are often bashed for making things too public and not respecting privacy are subsequently encouraging this unhealthy stigma.

Shift makes many noteworthy points in their research: “The heavy emphasis on domestic violence involving murder or murder-suicide does discourage some victims from seeking help because newspaper coverage reinforces the belief that leaving an abusive relationship will lead to them being killed.” If victims are only privy to other victims that end up murdered at the hands of their abusive partner, this will deter them even more from leaving.

Another issue is that blame on victims of domestic violence is seen day in and day out in different forms, although not usually explicitly. Take the following article, “Domestic abuse victims often recant stories,” for example. The CBC News article discusses, in a hard-to-miss accusing tone, how victims of domestic violence often recant their testimonies against their abusers. Although good intentions can be found in pieces throughout the short article, other parts seem shockingly critical of the victims. A quote by RCMP Sgt. Wes Heron claims the following about victims who recant: “It gets frustrating for us when that person may well not want to continue with that effort to take that first step, and step away from their involvement in the cycle of violence” (CBC News). This statement reads as though making the first step to safety is easy enough to do and lacks any understanding at all of the victims’ reasoning. The article ends by citing Statistics Canada, quoting that only half of victims actually contact the police. With fear of “frustrating” others with their problems, it’s a wonder why not.

Shift’s “Engaging the News Media to Influence Attitudes, Norms and Behaviours and Reduce the Rates of Domestic Violence” provides dozens of examples as to how news media is failing victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence is not better left alone, kept secret in the home in the way that victims attempt to hide their scars. A change in the media’s treatment of domestic violence cases will most definitely not happen overnight, but becoming aware of its failings and how we the public can strive towards a better understanding of the issue as a whole is a step in the right direction.

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