Media Professionals

Tips for Media Professionals Reporting on Relationship Abuse


Tip 1: Name It

  • Situating an incident in the context of domestic violence or intimate partner violence (IPV) is crucial in illustrating such violence as a social problem and not a private problem.
  • Refer to a domestic violence-related homicide as an act of domestic violence instead of calling it a homicide or murder.
  • Ex. “In an act of domestic violence, John Smith killed his wife” instead of “John Smith killed his wife.”

See What Is Relationship Abuse? and our Definitions page for more information.

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Tip 2: Include Contextual Details

  • Provide information such as statistics on the incidence of intimate partner violence (on a local, state, or national level) to situate a single incident in a broader social context of gender-based violence.
  • Ex. Local: “the incident marks the fifth domestic violence call Palo Alto police have responded to this month.”
  • Ex. State: “In 2008, there were 113 domestic violence homicides in California, according to the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center.”
  • Ex. National: “According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four women will experience domestic violence or rape perpetrated by an intimate partner.”

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Tip 3: Include Resources

  • Promote awareness of the issue as well as options for those needing assistance
  • Provide the number of a local relationship abuse and sexual assault hotline or domestic violence shelter for those who need assistance or who want to help a friend
  • Provide a link to a relationship abuse and sexual assault prevention agency for those who want to learn more
  • Create and maintain a list of resources that can be accessed in the newsroom or on newsroom servers with phone numbers and media contacts at local relationship abuse and sexual assault prevention agencies

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Tip 4: Avoid Victim Blaming Statements and Frames

  • Avoid using passive voice to describe relationship/sexual violence
  • Ex. Instead of “the victim was attacked by her husband,” write “the victim’s husband attacked her”
  • Exercise discretion in using terms such as “allegedly”
  • Law enforcement and legal representatives rely on “allegedly” as a means of preserving impartiality; however, the term is overused in the media and often unnecessarily obfuscates the reality of an incidence of relationship/sexual violence.
  • Ex. Instead of “the victim was allegedly attacked by her husband,” write “the victim told police her husband attacked her”
  • Leave superfluous descriptions of the victim(s) and their behaviors out of the story
  • Descriptions of a victim’s appearance or sexual history are often included in sexual assault stories inappropriately. Commenting that a victim was “wearing a short skirt” or “seen dancing provocatively with the accused” blames the victim for the perpetrator’s actions.
  • Discussing why the survivor stays with or goes back to the abuser is also irrelevant information that distracts from the perpetrator and implies that the victim is somehow complicit in the abuse.

See Avoiding Victim Blaming and Exercise to Illustrate Victim Blaming in Rape Cases for more information.

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Tip 5: Acknowledge Gender

  • Relationship abuse and sexual assault are gendered issues.
  • Acknowledge that the majority of relationship abuse and sexual assault is committed by men against women. It is impossible to get to the root cause of the problem without maintaining a gendered analysis.
  • Media coverage often includes information/statistics on how many women were raped or abused, without noting how many men raped or abused them. Include information on perpetrators as well.
  • Violence perpetrated by boys is often referred to by the media as “youth violence” while violence perpetrated by girls is referred to as “girls’ violence.” Avoid these biases, name men’s violence against women.
  • Acknowledging the gendered nature of these crimes does not minimize abuse experienced in LGBT relationships. Relationship abuse and sexual violence remain gendered issues within the LGBT community; gender is implicated in the construction of heterosexism and homophobia, which both contribute to abuse and act as barriers to survivors seeking help.
  • Ex. If we say “Mary was beaten,” it makes us focus on Mary and her actions, when we should be thinking about John and his decision to abuse. “John beat Mary” is more effective because it draws attention to John, who has perpetrated the act, and forces us to think about the root of the problem.
  • Ex.When we say “violence against women” we continue to try to figure out what is wrong with the women. When we say “men’s violence against women or violence committed by someone in same gender relationships” we start to look at specifically what has the perpetrator done to the woman/person.
  • This sort of reframing is important when it comes to statistics about relationship abuse and sexual assault.
    • Avoid writing this: “Worldwide, including in the United States, at least 1 in 3 women will experience relationship abuse or sexual assault in her lifetime.” (World Health Organization, 2013)
    • Start writing this: “Worldwide, including in the United States, a man will commit relationship abuse or sexual assault against at least 1 in 3 women.” (World Health Organization, 2013)

See Why Framing Language Matters for more stat examples and see Jackson Katz’ Language Matters: Violence Against Women for more information and a good exercise.

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Tip 6: Challenge Stereotypes

  • Become familiar with and avoid stereotypes.
  • Do not portray the victim as “asking for it” or deserving of abuse. Abuse is a choice made the perpetrator; no one can provoke someone into being abusive.
  • Do not portray the perpetrator as a typical, “nice guy” who snapped. Relationship abuse is a choice made by the perpetrator. It is not the result of someone “snapping,” nor is it a “crime of passion.” These stereotypes remove accountability from the perpetrator and remove the incident of IPV from the greater context of a pattern of abuse.
  • Do not portray the perpetrator as a “monster” or mentally ill. Research indicates that domestic violence is not caused by mental illness.
  • Do not perpetuate the myth that alcohol or abuse causes someone to be abusive. Research indicates that when you fix the alcohol or drug problem, the perpetrator continues to be abusive. Many people drink alcohol and do drugs; most people do not choose to be abusive.
  • Do not use quotes that perpetuate stereotypes.
  • Ex. If quoting a neighbor or friend as saying “he seemed like a normal guy” is unavoidable, balance it with a quote from another source (Anti-domestic violence advocate) such as, “In reality, many men who perpetrate domestic violence are ‘normal guys’. Many men convicted of domestic violence are highly regarded in their communities, at work or in other areas of life, but choose to be abusive toward their intimate partners.”

See Frequently Asked Questions for more information.

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Tip 7: Anticipate and Respond to Questions in Coverage
– Such as “Why didn’t she leave?”

  • Recognize and explain that asking, “Why didn’t she leave?” places responsibility on the victim when the perpetrator should be held accountable for abuse instead. Explain that leaving is often the most dangerous time.
  • Become familiar with barriers to leaving abusive relationships. These include:
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Lack of housing, child care, employment opportunities, support from
    friends/family, or legal resources
  • Immigration status
  • Pressure from family or the community (Ex. Pressure “to keep the family together”)

See Frequently Asked Questions for more information.

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Tip 8: Ask Different Questions

  • Approach relationship abuse as you would any other crime when consulting law enforcement sources. Consider the following:
  • Did the perpetrator have a history of abusive behavior?
  • What is the cost to the community of abuse? (Analogous to asking about damages)
  • How frequently does relationship abuse occur in the community?

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Tip 9: Include a Range of Sources

  • Seek sources beyond law enforcement and neighbors
  • Anti-domestic violence advocates are legitimate sources that can supplement and balance comments from law enforcement and criminal justice sources
  • If a quote or statement is confusing or unclear, ask an anti-domestic violence expert to clarify

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Tip 10: Report Consequences of Relationship/Sexual Violence

  • Follow up on the consequences for the perpetrator
  • If the perpetrator is arrested, what charges or sentence do they face?
  • If a case does not move to trial, explain why. For example, explain that just because something is “unfounded” does not mean it is a “false accusation” or that it didn’t happen. Unfounded means that there wasn’t the right type of evidence, or that there were legal loopholes that prevented a case from moving forward.

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Tip 11: Collaborate with Other Editors/Reporters

  • Exchange comments on coverage—-how could a story be rewritten to exclude a stereotype, for example?
  • Create a listserv for crime reporters and share resources, statistics, suggestions, etc.

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Tip 12: Become Educated on the Nature and Incidence of Relationship Abuse

Developed by Kristen Barta as a project of the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness.

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Resources for Media Professionals

Media Literacy

A Note on Terminology

Domestic violence/relationship abuse refers to intimate relationships, not child abuse. Because the vast majority of relationship abuse is committed by men against women in heterosexual relationships, this website sometimes contains the female gender pronoun when referring to the abused person. Domestic violence/relationship abuse happens at the same rate in LGBTQQ relationships and all of the information on this site is relevant for male victims and for individuals in same-gender relationships. In addition, please see our resources on same-gender relationships. Our goal is to encourage helping professionals to be gender inclusive. This includes using gender-neutral language when working with individuals, while continuing to analyze gender as a construct that has implications on gender-based violence in both heterosexual and same-gender relationships.